SUNLAND PARK – At the top of the mountain stands this borderlands’ most iconic monument: The three-story white limestone statue of Christ, arms opened and facing the vast expanse of neatly arrayed subdivisions of the United States, the country fabled in the minds of millions of migrants as the enduring symbol of freedom and the place for a happier life.
Mount Cristo Rey – “Cristo” as it is referred to by migrants and the U.S. Border Patrol agents who patrol its surrounding terrain – is a massive upheaval of ancient volcanic rock sitting at an elevation of 4,500 feet and extending 10,000 feet across a southernmost portion of New Mexico.
The southern side of the mountain is Mexican, beginning as the Juarez desert in the state of Chihuahua, rising sharply in a mass of broken shale and sedimentary rock, and cresting somewhere high above the international boundary. Its northern side is American, a collection of jagged outcrops lined with boulders and crevices, and laced with trails that spill down into the desert surrounding Sunland Park.
Mount Cristo Rey is an epicenter of the migration surge along the El Paso sector. With no border wall on its rocky slopes, and plenty of boulders to obscure migrants from view, the number of illegal entries through this difficult path continues to rise.
A federal court ruling this past May prohibited the Biden administration from ending the controversial Title 42 – the health policy allowing U.S. border officials to quickly eject from this country any migrating person due to the pandemic. It has pushed many migrants to seek more desolate areas to enter the U.S. to avoid detection and removal.
“The majority of people we encounter will be expelled under Title 42,” said Carlos A. Rivera, a U.S. Border Patrol agent with the agency’s strategic communications department. A 13-year veteran of the Border Patrol, he spends his shifts cruising the mountain slopes and trails of the rough terrain where Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua meet.
“That is why the majority of the encounters are people trying to avoid detection,” he said.
Desperate to leave the poverty and crime of their home countries, many migrants endure harrowing journeys and pay thousands of dollars to human smugglers for the chance to slip through the United States border. Once inside, it is often their wits and determination that might bring them a clandestine life with better opportunities, or, if caught, an ejection back to the lives they fled.
Petrona Cruz, a 51-year-old Honduran mother, journeyed more than 1,700 miles across Guatemala, then through Mexico – a country notorious for its criminal enterprise targeting migrants – and made it to the U.S. border on June 9.
A slight woman, about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, she had found a way around the border wall, likely hiking a rock-strewn path over a section of Mount Cristo Rey, and she crossed into the United States. She then headed toward the Rio Grande, which in this area of New Mexico is about a mile inland from the international border, and she hurried through the hilly terrain of thorns, mesquite and sand.
She then made her way through a dark 60-yard tunnel that allowed passage beneath a train, which was idling on the railroad track above. She exited the tunnel, and with a Border Patrol helicopter monitoring her overhead, she ran another 60 yards, ducked into a 2-foot high tunnel, and crawled another 15 yards. When she came out of that tunnel, she ran another 60 yards into the Rio Grande, pushing across 12 yards of flowing, muddy water, and climbed out on the other side.
She hid in a large maze of reeds and thickets, behind a tree, attempting to hide from the helicopter and U.S. Border Patrol agents who had been tracking her. Within an hour of hiding along the muddy bank of the river, Cruz had been found.
Her run from the U.S. border to the river’s edge was the last mile of her 1,700-mile ordeal to reach America. This sliver of her monthlong journey is known only because of the U.S. Border Patrol agents tracking her movement on their territory, who pieced together her desperate run into the country, and because journalists were on hand to record it.
But the efforts and perils of her first 1,699 or so miles may be known only to Cruz.
Dirty and exhausted, she was led to the transport van by U.S. Border Patrol agents. During questioning, she covered her face and wept quietly.
She had to leave Honduras, she said. “It is terrible. There is no work over there. And what little you have is stolen from you. Once you step into the city, you are robbed.”
She needed to get to Maryland to find her son, she said. “I just want to be with him.”
When asked about her family in Honduras, she again broke down.
“My sister, my sister. She stayed very worried because I left. She did not want me to leave. She told me the journey would be very hard.”
Claudio Herrera, one of the U.S. Border Patrol agents who tracked her, stood next to Cruz and put his hand on her shoulder.
“It’s going to be OK,” he told her in Spanish. “Stay dedicated, there are still opportunities for you, but you must do it legally. It’s the better way, you won’t suffer as much. May God be with you.”
She thanked him and nodded, still covering her face with her hands.
Two other migrants, both from Mexico, had also been detained near the Rio Grande at the same time as Cruz. They sat with their backs against the concrete divider at the side of the highway, slumped and dejected, staring out blankly as agents processed their arrests.
They were told to remove their shoelaces, which are considered potential weapons by Border Patrol agents, and they tossed them alongside hundreds of other laces from previous arrests that lay strewn across the asphalt ground along the highway.
No figures are available for this specific mountain terrain of New Mexico, but the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico, has seen a 56% increase in encounters compared to the same time last year. Fiscal year 2021 at this time showed 113,826 encounters and so far fiscal year 2022 is showing 177,789.
For generations, Mount Cristo Rey has been considered a holy place for Catholics along the border, and has evolved into a place where people of all faiths have come for prayer and reflection. Offerings are left along the mountain’s narrow path to the mountain top, small crosses, roses for the Virgin Mary, candles with messages on paper wrapped around them. After the 2019 shooting of Walmart shoppers, 22 white crosses were placed along the trail as a tribute to the victims.
But Cristo Rey’s soaring view of Chihuahua, Texas and New Mexico has also made it a pivotal vantage point for human smugglers to watch for gaps in the U.S. Border Patrol’s various rotations.
“Is there the likelihood that they are watching us right now? Definitely,” said Rivera. Parked a short distance from Mount Cristo Rey, Rivera surveyed the desert landscape while sitting in the familiar green and white F250 SUV driven by La Migra – Spanish shorthand for U.S. immigration officials and agents, a derivative of “la migración.”
“We are out here attempting to secure our nation’s borders and doing the best job we can with the resources that we have,” Rivera said. “But seeing how it is a multi-billion-dollar industry, this human smuggling, I think they have a little bit more resources than we have.”
But while transnational criminals might have access to higher dollar amounts, Rivera said the “big-picture” strategizing of the U.S. Border Patrol keeps agents in the fight, understanding trends and utilizing technology on par with the criminal organizations.
“As smugglers are using cellphones and technology to communicate … we are also using that. We don’t have cans and a string, we are using technology to our advantage. We’re not just sitting here,” he said.
U.S. Border Patrol agents say that Title 42 has been a highly utilized tool in this sector of the border, and the numbers reflect that.
So far this fiscal year, Title 42 has been used to expel 751,795 people from the Southwest border. The same time last year saw 664,266 expulsions under Title 42 authority, according to government data. More than 96% of those Title 42 expulsions have been from the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Title 42, which was started during the Trump administration, has been responsible for expelling more than 2 million migrants attempting to enter both legally and illegally into the United States since the policy began, according to government data.
The Biden administration attempted to repeal Title 42 on May 23, but a federal judge’s order in April halted that effort, which paused asylum applications for most migrants at the border pending resolution of the case.
Recognizing the growing instability caused by the massive increase in attempted immigration to the United States, President Joe Biden and other leaders from the Western Hemisphere announced the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection at the Summit of the Americas on June 10.
“The Declaration seeks to mobilize the entire region around bold actions that will transform our approach to managing migration in the Americas,” according to a White House statement.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi also announced his support for the initiative.
“The Americas region is facing a human mobility crisis that is unprecedented both in its complexity and scale. No country can address this situation on its own,” he said in a statement.
“The Los Angeles Declaration builds upon existing frameworks and brings us closer to a continent-wide coordinated response based on the principles of international cooperation, solidarity and respect for human rights, as set out in the Global Compacts on refugees and on safe and orderly migration.”
The surge of illegal entries and asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border also prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to recently propose transporting border migrants to cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Albuquerque as a way of easing overcrowding at border communities, according to NBC News.
But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on June 14 sent a letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and asked him to delay any plans to transport migrants to Albuquerque and other interior cities.
The Democratic governor, who is seeking reelection, said she was concerned that New Mexico and other states would “bear the brunt” of adverse economic and social impacts if such a plan was initiated. She noted that the wildfires burning this year amid severe drought conditions have taxed New Mexico agencies that provide support services.
So far this fiscal year, which began this past October, more than 1.5 million people – 1,536,899 – have been intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Southwest border. At the same time last year, 930,218 attempted crossings had been recorded, which at that time was the record.
“People don’t know how busy it is,” said Border Patrol Agent Luis Cadena, a special operations agent with horse patrol, who stood alongside his horse after detaining four Brazilians attempting to enter the United States illegally near the desert of Santa Teresa.
“On average we apprehend, here in Santa Teresa, about three or four hundred in a full rotation,” he said, referencing a 24-hour work shift. “At the same time, there is about 400 that get away also. So we’re at about a 50% apprehension rate.”
The 50% “got-aways” rate – the tally of migrants who evade capture – is consistent with his own experience, Rivera said, but he emphasized that it is only personal estimates and is not an official figure from Border Patrol data.
“We are seeing a high number of got-aways. I can’t tell you we are catching them all,” he said. “What about the ones in the area that we did not reach? Or the ones we were not even aware that they were there? So the got-aways are always tricky to talk about.”
While Mount Cristo Rey has been a place of increasing migration from Mexico, at times it is also used as a site for negotiations, a truce of sorts along the border.
When a large group of suspected undocumented migrants were up on the mountain on June 8, they watched as U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested many from the group who had ventured down. The remaining people of the group stayed on the mountain, right at the international boundary line, watching the agents below in a stalemate.
So Cadena made a decision.
“Instead of waiting, I walked up to the top. I said ‘hey, come on – man to man, that’s it for the day. We’re here. The choppers are here. It’s time to take a break, and try again tomorrow,'” he recalled. “And they took off. They went back to Mexico.”