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20110525-Border-Patrol-008Agents guide media through terrain

Starting at the Rio Grande, less than a mile away from Chimney Park RV Resort in Mission, they weave through a maze of brush and prickly trees. Jumping a wire fence at the levee, they’re picked up and driven near the Falfurrias checkpoint in Brooks County, where they’re dropped off to begin their journey. Then they start to walk under the unforgiving Texas sun.

It’s a common trail for illegal immigrants, but unfamiliar to many residents in the Rio Grande Valley. While the typical exposure to border crossings are accounts from local news media, the experience of walking through waist-high brush is rarely discussed.

On Wednesday, the RGV Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol in Edinburg took reporters out on a tour of the terrain to show what Border Patrol agents experience on the field and the dangers illegal immigrants are willing to face when they enter the United States unlawfully. They called it the dehydration tour.

Currently, the RGV sector has over 2,400 agents patrolling the area. Spokesperson Agent Rosalinda Huey said that expansion was made over the last four years. This agency has grown since its first original staff in 1921 with four officers in the McAllen area. The sector today monitors 19 counties, over 34,000 square miles, of which 316 are border miles.

As the agency grows, so have its statistics in apprehending people crossing the border. Huey said around 60,000 people were caught crossing illegally in fiscal year 2010. Thus far, in fiscal year 2011, agents have rescued 70 people and encountered 20 people already dead from their difficult trip.

Agents said apprehending those who cross into the country illegally are not only breaking the law, but they’re also putting themselves in serious danger.

“Our terrain here is very harsh,” Huey said, explaining people can easily get dehydrated and get lost for days.

The sector’s border initiative works to help people get the help they need if they’re abandoned or ill. Huey said the sector has employed rescue beacons to allow people to page agents for help and placards to help them identify where they’re at when calling for help, should they have cell phone access.

Mission’s Clear Path

While the thick brush may appear difficult to maneuver at first glance, there’s a clear narrow pathway guiding people to where they’re picked up and taken further north. It’s easy to identify the start of the trail with clothing, hygiene products and deflated water rafts or tubes left by immigrants who successfully crossed the river.

“Sometimes they just abandon it,” Huey said. “It’s a sign someone’s been here.”

After heavy rainfall saturated the area, footprints are visible throughout the trail. The ground is hard with grooves. Once in the brush, it’s hard to identify the original starting point or even imagine what lies ahead. Although the trail is worn making it easy to navigate, there are stretches less welcoming where bending to avoid tree branches is necessary. But at the end of the path, a wire fence is visible through a mess of brush. At this specific portion, the fence had been cut at the bottom, making it easier for those too tired to jump the fence. Agent H. Elizondo said illegals often walk swiftly to get out of this area to avoid being detected.

“They don’t want to be on trails for long in fear of running into us,” Elizondo said.

From here, they meet with another guide who’s in charge of the next part of their trip, a drive to Brooks County.

Brooks County

In fear of approaching the Falfurrias Checkpoint in Brooks County, Border Patrol agents say immigrants are often dropped off before the checkpoint and guided through privately owned ranches for the next portion of their trip.

The trail here is tough. The ground is harsh with loose sand, which makes it difficult to walk through quickly.

“They have their feet completely blistered up sometimes,” Huey said.

While there’s brush here, it’s spread out, so there’s no chance for a rest or hide in the shade.

The property, though in this tour only two miles long, seems never-ending without a sight of a highway or any landmark that could signify the end of the trip.

This walk, which started after noon in 95-degree weather, could typically take around an hour. The walk isn’t especially difficult, but the heat quickly weakens the body. With the humidity making the weather feel around 100 degrees, immigrants easily get dehydrated.

In a moment of desperation, immigrants have been known to drink from cow troughs, which are often polluted with grass, insects and bacteria. Huey said immigrants can get extremely sick.

“Their first instinct is to drink this water,” she said. “It’s not a good source of water and it may make it worse.”

Huddled under a small portion of brush with shade, sometimes immigrants will stay hidden to regain strength and wait until sundown to continue walking. However, agents said it isn’t uncommon for people to be crossing in the middle of the day.

To monitor typical areas known for activity, agents employ remote video surveillance, which this sector has almost 30 systems. When agents encounter illegal immigrants in the brush here, they’ll often try to run away, but there’s nowhere to run to, and they’re detained.

“They’re on a timeline,” said Agent R. Gonzalez Jr. “If it’s secluded, they can walk for miles. If it’s not they might wait. Once it’s sundown, they come out.”

But should those breaks prove to be unsuccessful in helping the illegal immigrants regain their strength to continue on their path, they can find a rescue beacon. The mechanism lists instructions in English, Spanish and Chinese to assist illegals that want to call for help. After the alarm is set, Border Patrol agents are alerted instantly and each call is checked.

“They think they’ll come here and get a better life,” Huey said. “But they don’t make it.”

End of the Road

When illegals first encounter Border Patrol agents, they’re often upset. They lament the money they’ve spent, the trust they put in their guide, said Gonzalez.

The Texas heat is often too great for people to bear. Guides usually know the trail and have walked the area several times, knowing what to expect and what kind of demand the trip can take on a person’s body. Illegal immigrants, however, are often unaware of the stress, or even how long the trip takes.

“They’ll say, ‘They sold me on the one-hour walk,’” Gonzalez said. “They’ll tell them it takes an hour to get to Houston, so they have no idea what they’re in for. That one-hour trip turns into three days with no water.”

Once they encounter agents who help get them water and other medical treatment, Gonzalez said agents always ask why they didn’t come equipped with water or food. They tell agents their guides took their water and food from them before eventually leaving them behind for being unable to catch up.

If caught, a guide could face a felony charge with a punishment of a jail sentence from five-to-seven years, Gonzalez explained.

But while they’re working to secure the border, agents said they also work to help people who are lost and ill.

“Not a lot of people know what we do,” Gonzalez said. “We get a lot of hate mail from people who say we’re not real cops, but they just don’t know what we do.”

Border crossings along these trails occur daily, no matter the conditions, agents said. And as the summer and even hotter temperatures begin to define the life and death struggle of people crossing the border illegally, agents urge people to think twice about taking this illegal, and often deadly, path.

“It’s a difficult walk,” Huey said. “We want people to be aware of the dangers.”

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