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‘They’re watching us watch them’

Two armed members of the Patriots of the Constitution militia watch the border near Sunland Park. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: Today the Journal presents part two of 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. The series began Sunday and will continue next weekend.

SUNLAND PARK – They call themselves Patriots of the Constitution, New Mexico Ops and come from different corners of New Mexico to guard the border. Mostly, they kill time.

One recent morning, John Horton, national commander for the group, stepped out of his trailer and greeted an approaching Border Patrol agent.

“Last night was really quiet,” Horton tells Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero. “We didn’t even hear a dog bark.”

But Horton warns that several “caravans” are on the way and will cross where he and his men are camped out near the border in the rugged desert terrain near Sunland Park.

In recent months, the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico, has been dealing with a 430 percent increase in family migration. But February was a record-setting month for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which reported more than 76,000 border crossings along the entire U.S.-Mexico border – mostly parents with children and juveniles traveling on their own.

While large groups have been crossing at remote spots like Antelope Wells in New Mexico’s Bootheel since December, many migrants are now choosing to cross in or near El Paso and Sunland Park.

Two Juárez city police vehicles follow a woman from El Salvador and two children as they prepare to cross the border into New Mexico to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Two other officers watch from a third vehicle parked in the foreground. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

As the number of migrants from Central America seeking asylum breaks records, Horton and a handful of volunteer members of the New Mexico branch of this Alabama-based militia also traveled to the border.

“We heard there was a caravan coming in, so we came down to help,” he said.

A Native American man who calls himself “Sergeant Lucky,” because he survived a rattlesnake bite, is among those who came from Farmington.

“We’re always armed. We don’t point our weapons at people. But we’re armed, because we don’t know who is coming across,” Horton said. He declined to say how many volunteers are posted on the border.

On one recent morning, two armed men dressed in camouflage hunkered down in the desert behind scrub brush.

They said their names were Derrick and Bill but would not provide last names. Both had binoculars focused on the borderline.

“We talked to Border Patrol, and they said they needed help. They needed eyes,” Horton said.

The Border Patrol does ask the public to report illegal activity but warns people to call law enforcement and not to take the law into their own hands.

Scouts for smugglers

A man sitting in the opening of a drainage tunnel on the Mexican side of the border flashes a smile as he takes notes about activity on the U.S. side. Border Patrol agents suspect he’s a lookout for smugglers. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

As the Patriots of the Constitution focus their attention on the border, across in Mexico, smugglers are paying close attention to activity on the U.S. side.

“They’re watching us watch them,” Horton said, referring to lookouts for smugglers posted on the Mexican side of the border.

Agent Romero and his colleagues regularly spot the lookouts posted in Mexico near the borderline.

On a recent afternoon, Romero sees a man sitting in a drainage tunnel in Ciudad Juárez writing in a notebook. The man, wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, flashes a toothy grin when he realizes he has been spotted.

Scouts watch the border carefully and note patterns to provide smugglers with the latest information and best places to cross people and drugs, Romero said.

“As they send groups (of migrants), they’re looking for movements for our agents to shift left or right,” he explained.

While agents are busy responding to an influx of migrant families turning themselves in asking for asylum, smuggling organizations have tried to take advantage of the situation.

“They’re using more and more of these groups to try and distract our agents,” Romero said.

So many Border Patrol agents are busy picking up large groups of migrants, then shuttling them back to a processing center where they have to do paperwork, that at times it has disrupted the Operation Hold the Line strategy put in place in 1993.

The border fence cuts through the dark desert landscape near Sunland Park toward the lights of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in the distance. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Operation Hold the Line calls for the posting of agents in vehicles along the length of the border to deter illegal crossings or drug smuggling.

“We have more people doing that secondary mission – transporting, processing – as opposed to being on the line doing the interdiction,” Romero said.

As the sun begins to set casting a golden glow on the borderline, Romero notices two teenage boys walking along the shallow Rio Grande with dogs. One of the boys tries to hide when he sees Romero approach the riverbank.

He calls out to them to ask what they’re doing.

The boys respond that they’re “chasing ducks.”

Romero remains suspicious and calls in the incident. He suspects the boys are lookouts for smugglers, studying agents’ activities.

Even when agents are not present, the U.S. has a network of cameras trained on the border, providing another set of eyes. Romero asks those he contacted to check the cameras in that area for illegal activity.

Asylum seekers

All those eyes on the border have a front row seat to the mass migration now at the center of national debate over border security.

The vast majority of the migrants in this current wave are not trying to sneak into the country, but are looking for agents so they can turn themselves in and eventually file asylum claims.

“We’re fighting to get here for the American dream,” said Celida Milla Mucia, a single mother from Honduras who was traveling with her teenage daughter, Katia. They planned to file an asylum claim and hope to reach Lexington, Ky., where they have relatives.

“We’re exhausted but relieved,” said Milla Mucia.

The mother and daughter were with a group of Central Americans who turned themselves in to agents near the border fence in El Paso.

As new restrictions are set to take effect requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while U.S. officials slowly process their cases, more families are expected to look for ways to cross between official ports of entry, according to the ACLU, which is challenging the “remain in Mexico” plan in court.

Horton and his militia comrades who came to protect the border are encountering some of the forlorn-looking migrant families seeking asylum after they cross the border into New Mexico.

“I actually really feel sorry for them, especially these kids,” he said.

“The people who are bringing them in, telling them to come, they’re lying to them. We had one woman, she said, ‘We were told as soon as we got here we had jobs.’

“I told her, ‘Ma’am, our job is just to do what Border Patrol wants us to do. I don’t know what goes on from here,’ ” Horton said.

Though the militiamen did not encounter bad hombres on that night, Horton said he was glad to have found a group of Central American families to report.

“It did make me feel good,” he said. “It was cold that night, and some of these kids didn’t even have coats.”

8 hours on the border by Albuquerque Journal on Exposure