Roberto the coyote can see a stretch of border fence from his ranch in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, about a mile south of El Paso. Smuggling drugs and people to “el otro lado,” the other side, has been his life’s work.
There’s always a way, he says, no matter how hard U.S. President Donald Trump tries to stop the flow. But this year’s crackdown has made it a tougher proposition. A deadlier one, too — especially for women and children, who are increasingly dying in the attempt.
Not much surprises Roberto, who asks not to be identified by his surname because he engages in illegal activity. Sitting on a creaky metal chair, shaded by quince trees and speaking above the din from a gaggle of fighting roosters, the 65-year-old grabs a twig and scratches lines in the sand to show how he stays a step ahead of U.S. and Mexican security forces.
Here’s a gap in the fence that migrants can dash through — onto land owned by American ranchers in his pay. There’s a spot U.S. patrols often pass, so he’s hiring more people to keep watch and cover any footprints with leaf-blowers.
Roberto says he was taken aback in July this year, when he was approached for the first time by parents with young children. For coyotes, as the people-smugglers are known in Mexico, that wasn’t the typical customer profile. Roberto asked around among his peers. “They were also receiving a lot of families,” he says. “Many, many families are crossing over.”
That helps explain one of the grimmer statistics to emerge from all the turmoil on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Even more than usual, the 2,000-mile frontier has turned into a kind of tectonic fault line this year. Poverty and violence — and the pull of the world’s richest economy — are driving people north. At the border, they’re met by a new regime of tightened security and laws, imposed by Trump in tandem with his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO.
Some give up and go home; some wait and hope — and some try evermore dangerous ways to get through.
Nineteen children died during attempted crossings in the first nine months of 2019, by drowning, dehydration or illness, according to the UN’s “Missing Migrants” research project. That’s up from four reported through September 2018 and by far the most since the project began gathering data in 2014, when two died that entire year. Women are dying in greater numbers, too — 44 in the year through September, versus 14 last year.
Many of those families are fleeing crime epidemics in Central America, as well as economic shocks. Prices of coffee — a key export — in the region plunged this year to the lowest in more than a decade, crushing farmers.
Making matters worse, climate change will produce more frequent crop failures for those growers that will, in turn, drive more migration, said Eleanor Paynter, a fellow at Ohio State University. “Asylum law does not currently recognize climate refugees,” she said, “but in the coming years we will see more and more.”
The demand side is equally fluid. When the Great Recession hit in 2007, a slumping U.S. economy led to a sharp drop in arrivals from Mexico and Central America. Today, the reverse is true: Record-low unemployment in the U.S. is attracting huge numbers from Central America.
But none of those factors fully explains why so many families are now willing to take such great risks. To understand that, it’s necessary to go back to the birth of the “Remain in Mexico” policy in January, when new U.S. rules made it much harder to seek asylum on arrival — and its escalation in June, when Trump threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican goods, and AMLO agreed to deploy 26,000 National Guard troops to the border.
The crackdown was aimed at Central Americans — mostly from such poor, violent countries as El Salvador and Honduras — who’d been entering the U.S. through Mexico in growing numbers. Many would cross the border, turn themselves in and apply for asylum, then wait in the U.S. for a court hearing. That route was especially favored by migrants with young children, who were likely to be released from detention faster.
Under the new policy, they were sent back to Mexico by the tens of thousands and required to wait in dangerous border towns for a court date. They might wait in shelters for months for their number to be called, with only 10 or 20 families being interviewed each day. Word was getting back that applications weren’t being approved, anyway.
That pushed thousands of families into making a tough decision. Juan Fierro, who runs the El Buen Pastor shelter for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, reckons that about 10% of the Central Americans who’ve stayed with him ended up going back home. In Tijuana, a border town hundreds of miles west, Jose Maria Garcia Lara — who also runs a shelter — says some 30% of families instead headed for the mountains outside the city on their way to the U.S. “They’re trying to cross,” he says, “in order to disappear.”
The family that approached Roberto in Ciudad Juarez wanted to take a less physically dangerous route: across the bridge into El Paso.
Roberto has infrastructure in place for both options. He says his people can run a pole across the Rio Grande when the river’s too high, and they have cameras on the bridge to spot when a guard’s back is turned. He has a sliding price scale, charging $7,500 for children and an extra $1,000 for Central Americans — fresh proof of studies that have shown smugglers’ prices rise with tighter border controls. “They pay a bundle to get their kids across,” he says. “Why don’t they just open a small grocery with that money?”
Typically, migrants don’t come from the very poorest communities in their home countries, where people struggle to cover such coyote costs, or from the middle class. Rather, they represent a range from $5,000 to $10,000 per capita in 2009 dollars, according to Michael Clemens, an economist at the Center for Global Development in Washington. This happens to be the level that the economies of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have reached.
For the family going across the bridge into El Paso, Roberto wanted to send the parents and children separately, to attract less attention. Ideally, the kids would be asleep, making the guards less likely to stop the car and ask questions. But that raised another problem. He resolved it by arranging for a woman on his team to visit the family and spend three days playing with the children. That way, they’d be used to her and wouldn’t cry out if they woke up while she was taking them across.
Roberto says the family made it safely into the U.S. with their false IDs, a claim that couldn’t be confirmed. He earned about $35,000 from the family, and soon after had another three children with their parents seek passage. “They want to cross, no matter what,” he says. “I don’t know where the idea comes from that you can stop this.”
But people are being stopped and turned back, and the number of migrants caught crossing the U.S. border has plunged from its peak in May. That has allowed Trump to portray the new policy as a success. (Mexican officials tend to agree, though the Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Yet it’s not that simple. Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said the flow northward initially surged because Trump threatened to close the border, setting off a wave of migrant caravans and smuggling activity. Arrests rose 90% through September from a year earlier, but they’re now at the same levels they were before the surge. Enrique Garcia was one of those arrested. A 36-year-old from Suchitepequez in Guatemala, he was struggling to feed his three children on the $150 a month he earned as a janitor. So he pawned a $17,000 plot of land to a coyote in exchange for passage to the U.S. for him and his son.
They slipped into Mexico in August on a boarded-up cattle truck, with eight other adults and children, and drove the length of the country, to Juarez. The coyotes dropped them by car at the nearby crossing point called Palomas, where they literally ran for it.
After 45 minutes in the summer heat, Garcia was getting worried about his son, who was falling behind and calling out for water. But they made it past the Mexican National Guard and gave themselves up to a U.S. border patrol, pleading to be allowed to stay. Instead, they were sent back to Mexico and given a January court date.
Garcia, who recounted the story from a bunk bed in a Juarez shelter, said he was devastated. He couldn’t figure out what to do for five months in Mexico, with no prospect of work. His coyotes had managed to reestablish contact with the group, and most of them — with children in tow — had decided to try again. This time, they wouldn’t be relying on the asylum process. They’d try to make it past the border patrols and vanish into the U.S.
But Garcia decided he’d already put his son’s life at risk once, and wouldn’t do it again. He scrounged $250 to take the boy home to Guatemala. Then, he said, he’d head back up to the border alone. He wouldn’t need to pay the coyotes again. They’d given him a special offer when he signed away his land rights — two crossing attempts for the price of one.
Researchers say there’s a more effective deterrent to such schemes: opening more lawful channels. Clemens, at the Center for Global Development, noted that illegal immigration from Mexico dropped in recent years after U.S. authorities increased the supply of H-2 visas for temporary work, almost all of them going to Mexicans — a trend that’s continued under Trump.
The current debate in Washington assumes that “hardcore enforcement and security assistance in Central America will be enough, without any kind of expansion of lawful channels,” Clemens said. “That flies in the face of the lessons of history.”
A hard-security-only approach deters some migrants, while channeling others into riskier routes where they’re more likely to die. That’s what happened after Europe’s crackdown on migration from across the Mediterranean, according to Paynter at Ohio State, who’s studied data from the UN’s “Missing Migrants” project. In 2019, “even though the total number of attempted crossings is lower, the rate of death is three times what it was,” she said.
As for Roberto, he expresses sadness at the children who’ve died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. He claims he would’ve tried to help them, even if they couldn’t pay.
Most of all, he sees no end to the ways he can make profits off the border crackdown. He makes a joke out of it.
“I’m hearing Trump wants to throw crocodiles in the river,” he says. “Guess what will happen? We’ll eat them.” And then: “Their skin is expensive. We’ll start a whole new business. It’ll bring in money, because we’ll make boots, belts and wallets. We’ll look real handsome.”