Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: Today the Journal kicks off a four-part series that introduces you to Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero and what he and his colleagues experienced during a normal shift last Monday as they patrolled the border from El Paso to Sunland Park, N.M. Stories will be published today, Monday and next weekend.
SUNLAND PARK – Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero looks across into Anapra, Mexico, his gaze fixed on a woman and two children walking with determination past Monument One, an official border marker for the spot where New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua converge.
“If you don’t mind turning yourself in, this is a great place to do it and easy way to do it,” Romero said of the stretch at Sunland Park that has become a busy crossing point for Central American families.
“God willing we’ll get asylum,” said Imelda Garcia, who traveled from El Salvador with her 11-year-old son, Danny. The girl with them is an unaccompanied minor who connected with Garcia on their trip to the U.S.
As elected officials from Washington, D.C., to Santa Fe grapple with the policy implications of tens of thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied children seeking refuge at our nation’s southwestern border, agents like Romero are on the front lines watching the chaos unfold.
From late afternoon into Monday night, Romero will encounter more than 60 such migrants, with the vast majority asking for asylum. They are all ages, including infants and toddlers in the arms of their parents. They also cover the gamut from well-dressed and rested to exhausted, bedraggled and extremely fearful.
Romero will also run into four heavily armed militia members who have camped out to keep watch. And he will spot a man wearing sunglasses and a cap seated across the border in Mexico taking notes, clearly a lookout for the human smugglers, the agent says. (See Monday’s story.)
The influx of families and children from Central America is just one of the many changes Romero has seen in his 13 years of service.
Back when he started, the people he apprehended were mostly from Mexico and included many undocumented workers coming to fill jobs. In those cases, they were usually quickly deported back to Mexico.
These days, the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico, is coping with a 430 percent increase in family migration. Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released the latest numbers for the entire border, and February set a record with more than 76,000 parents with children and juveniles arriving on their own.
In most cases, they have paid smugglers to drop them off near the border.
Most of the attention has focused on large groups crossing at remote spots like Antelope Wells in southwest New Mexico, but many migrants are now choosing to cross in or near El Paso and Sunland Park.
By week’s end, agents took in more than 1,000 people in El Paso alone. Across the border in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez has become a hub for people seeking asylum, like Imelda Garcia.
“My son is in danger,” she said in an interview. Gang violence is a pervasive threat in El Salvador. But she said the small girl in a winter coat who walked across the border with them is not her daughter.
“She’s alone,” Garcia said. “Poor thing.” The child, Estela Enriquez, said she is 14, and that she is trying to get to Virginia to reunite with her mother.
Minors are handed over to Health and Human Services, which cares for them in shelters until a parent or other relative who can serve as a guardian in the U.S. is located.
An unaccompanied child crossing into the U.S. isn’t uncommon here. But something is unusual about this group that catches Romero’s attention.
“They weren’t dirty at all. Their shoes were clean,” Romero said. Their appearance suggests the trio did not walk far and were probably dropped off right at the border.
In fact, the smaller groups often pay extra to be delivered to a spot right on the border where they can turn themselves in to an agent.
Garcia did not want to reveal details about how they got from El Salvador, but Romero said he’s sure they used a human smuggler.
What was particularly unusual about this group was that two Juárez City Police vehicles followed behind them up to the border while a third unit watched.
“Not one unit, three for three people,” Romero said with concern, wondering whether some police officers were working with smugglers.
Border Patrol agents often talk to Mexican police they see right on the border and work together in some instances, according to Romero. But this time the police vehicles took off quickly when they spotted his uniform.
A Juárez City Police spokesperson said the department “had no knowledge of that situation.”
A long way from Brazil
Along another stretch of border in Sunland Park, Romero peeked around a gap in the border fence.
“This is where we’ve seen a few of the large groups come through. They come to the end of the fence, come right around this edge and make their way and turn themselves in to the agents here,” he said.
Others appear at an opening in the fence a few miles east of the state line, inside El Paso city limits. As he’s driving down the highway, Romero sees four people standing in that spot. Two are carrying red suitcases.
“They look like they’re on their way to Disneyland,” Romero said, referring to the well-dressed woman and young man.
They tell him they are from Brazil and only speak Portuguese. The woman has highlighted hair, wears gold earrings and carries what looks like an expensive purse. In a few words of broken Spanish, she says her traveling companion is her 17-year-old son.
Romero suspects they paid smugglers for a “premium package.”
“Those people told us they flew in. They’re not as tired. They’re not as worn,” Romero said.
The Brazilian woman looks worried when Romero pulls her son aside to check for weapons, a standard procedure.
Soon a Border Patrol vehicle arrives to transport them – as well as another Brazilian woman with a little girl – to the processing center. While most of those crossing the border seeking asylum are Central Americans, a growing number are Brazilians and Cubans as well.
Seeking a better life
Along a stretch of border inside El Paso, the migrants Romero encounters are a larger group of weary and bedraggled Central Americans.
“We’re fleeing unemployment, corruption and a country that is very dangerous,” said Jose Francisco Juárez, a Honduran father traveling with his two girls.
“You want the best for your children,” Juárez said.
Five-year-old Perla Victoria sits on her father’s lap wearing a winter hat with a teddy bear face on it, while her 17-year-old sister, Helen, stands nearby on the verge of tears waiting for the Border Patrol van to take them to the processing center in downtown El Paso.
“I’m tired,” said Helen, Juárez’s older daughter.
It’s getting dark and they had clearly been there a while, waiting for someone to turn themselves in to.
Some agents spend their shifts shuttling migrants to the processing center while other agents are dedicated to filling out paperwork for hundreds of parents and children seeking asylum. Other agents are assigned “hospital watch” and accompany migrants sent for medical care.
The sheer number of migrant families is straining Border Patrol facilities and manpower. Indeed, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan sounded the alarm last week.
“The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point,” he said.
The El Paso sector includes seven legal ports of entry, including three in New Mexico: Santa Teresa, Columbus and Antelope Wells. While asylum seekers are encouraged to file a claim with Customs and Border Protection officers at legal border crossings, CBP has instituted a “metering” system that limits the number of claims accepted each day to as few as 20 in El Paso.
Migrants need only to step foot on U.S. soil to ask for asylum, so hundreds a day are crossing between ports of entry and approaching Border Patrol agents instead of waiting in Mexico. The El Paso sector covers 268 miles of border and “employs 2,400 Border Patrol agents” according to CBP. There are, however, many vacancies among the Border Patrol ranks in the El Paso sector.
“I’d like to give credit to these agents,” said Border Patrol Chief Aaron Hull, who is in charge of the El Paso sector. “Regardless of the conditions they face, they demonstrate time and time again that they’re tough enough to do a job that a lot of people are not willing or able to do. I have nothing but respect for the professionalism and dignity in which they conduct themselves regardless of the circumstances that we’re asking them to face.”
A panicked dash
After dark, Romero encounters another group of parents with kids along the busy Border Highway in El Paso near the Bridge of the Americas. They are waiting on U.S. soil, but on the other side of the border fence. Border fences or walls are not built right on the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, because agents need access to operate, and crews often have to repair the barriers.
Romero escorts this group to a spot where they can exit to the other side of the fence and join another group already waiting with Border Patrol agents for transportation to the processing center.
A woman holding a toddler in that group bolts across a lane of the highway and onto the median. A Border Patrol agent goes after her and brings her safely back to the side of the road. He and the rest of the group don’t know what caused her to panic.
“That scared the living daylights out of me,” Romero said.
Before this night is over, agents in the El Paso sector will take more than 400 people into custody. Most are what they refer to as “give ups.”
Agents will catch fewer than a handful of people trying to sneak into the country. But those cases worry Romero most.
“The people that we’re chasing now, you can almost guarantee that every single person that is not giving themselves up, that is actually running to try to get away from us, they are the felons, they are the criminals, they are the people who cannot afford to get caught,” Romero said.
Now – as the number of undocumented workers from Mexico crossing illegally has plummeted – authorities worry that drug and human smugglers are using the large groups of Central Americans to divert Border Patrol agents’ attention.
When agents were busy Wednesday with hundreds of migrants arriving on the border in El Paso, they also caught two convicted sex offenders as well as a U.S. citizen trying to sneak into the country, according to CBP. The citizen was a “self-proclaimed prison gang member” who had a warrant out for his arrest.
Lost in the cold
On the moonless night near Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, agents see another incoming group, and they suspect they are trying to sneak into the country from Mexico, because of the route they are taking.
“If you don’t want to get caught (a border crosser will) end up using the mountain,” Romero explained.
Agents with the horse patrol wait in silence in the dark as another agent drives to the spot where activity was detected.
Over the radio, the agent identifies the Central American group he found as more “give ups,” among them parents with children.
They had been wandering, obviously cold and not dressed for the weather, desperately looking for the Border Patrol.
A cold wind whips through the darkness as the Horse Patrol arrives on the spot to wait for transportation for the weary group sitting on the ground.
“The smuggler pointed the way, but didn’t give real good directions. They just got lost,” Romero said.
8 hours on the border by Albuquerque Journal on Exposure