By CBS7 Staff
Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 12:41 PM CDT
ODESSA, Texas (KOSA) - A never-before-seen surge in illegal immigration is happening in far West Texas, according to statistics from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Along with more migrant encounters, Border Patrol agents are conducting more rescues and finding the bodies of those who did not survive the trek, according to CBP statistics. This fiscal year, there has also been an increase in the number of drugs found.
Watch Border Patrol: Behind the Badge - Part 2 here
Along the border, agents have encountered a record-setting 1,541,651 people to date in the 2021 fiscal year. In the Big Bend Sector, which includes 78 West Texas counties and Oklahoma, 34,694 undocumented people have been found in 2021. The numbers mark an over 380 percent increase. The majority of the people, 32,150, are single adults, according to CBP. The fiscal year will end on September 30, 2021.
Big Bend Border Patrol Sector Chief Sean McGoffin told CBS7 the increase is substantial.
“It’s a significant increase. You know, when we look across the numbers, the highest we’ve ever had in apprehensions in this sector prior to this year was 9,600 approximately. This year, you know, we’re up over 33,000 apprehensions this year,” he said.
Some of the migrant encounters happen in the high desert mountains near Marfa.
Special Operations Supervisor Justin Millican started working at the Marfa Border Patrol Station more than a decade ago. He said he has noticed a difference in the amount of traffic.
“When I got here, we saw groups of four to six. Now, there’s groups of 10, 15 and 30 sometimes,” Millican said.
Agent Millican explained the challenge that large groups present to agents.
“You might encounter a group of 30 by yourself. So that can become a significant challenge to contain 30 migrants at one time until you get back up, which could be miles away,” he said.
Public Affairs Officer for the Big Bend Sector, Greg Davis, said transnational criminal organizations employ guides to take undocumented people and drugs through the harsh landscape. While a concrete price could not be named, Chief McGoffin said people pay thousands of dollars to be brought illegally into the United States. Davis said migrants are not given the full scope of the trek.
“The transnational criminal organizations tell the migrants a lie. They sell them a lie, they take their money, and they’re told it’s going to be a very short walk, it’s just going to be a short walk to the United States, and they’re in, and everything will be fine,” he said.
Davis said many people don’t have the proper clothing, food and water rations, or gear to survive in the area.
“Terrain where every plant and animal is designed to hurt, maim, or kill you,” he said.
After surveying the landscape, Agent Millican described how he has found undocumented people.
“Severe dehydration, fatigue, a lot of them will have walked so far they’ll have blisters on their feet,” he said.
Starting near the Chinati Mountains, it’s a several-day walk to the nearest town, according to Davis.
“Where we’re standing, it’s another 25, 30 miles to Highway 90. Add another 25 to 30 to get to I-10. These folks have no idea,” Greg blank said.
Transnational criminal organizations make use of the mountaintops, many times stationing a lookout to track border patrol agents’ movements. Chief McGoffin said the people could be left to fend for themselves or are left behind if they can’t keep up with their group.
“The smugglers are counting on to keep them moving and keep them going. And you know, when those people don’t make it, they leave them behind. And that’s just heartless to leave somebody behind knowing that they’re going to die in the desert all for some financial gain,” he said.
In the Big Bend Sector, agents have found 37 undocumented people dead, and rescued 726 people this 2021 fiscal year, according to blank. Both statistics show an increase from the 12 deaths reported and 178 rescues conducted in 2020. Around 300 rescues were made during the February winter storm alone, which knocked out power for many Texans.
“They froze to death or in the difficult hot terrain where they died without water. Now, either way, those two, two ways of death are extremely brutal. Nobody should have to experience that,” Chief McGoffin said.
Every agent CBS7 interviewed relayed a story of a rescue that has stayed ingrained in their memory. For Chief McGoffin, it was a call he responded to earlier in his career from an 18-year-old migrant mother who needed their help.
“Something that I’ve always been mindful of my entire career is in her water bottle that she had; she had saved the last quarter of that bottle for her baby. And her baby was still alive. We didn’t make it in time for the mother; we did everything we could.”
The chief went on to explain how events impact agents.
“At the end of the day, this was an 18-year-old young lady who had given everything for her child, and she died, and I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget her face in the way that I found her. And those things bother agents sometimes, you know. But we provide all the assistance that we can to our agents because finding somebody in that kind of situation is very difficult for everybody. But we want to make sure they have the opportunity to talk to somebody about it,” he said.
Agent Millican said the deaths stick with him.
“You work so hard to make sure they’re ok, and you get there in time. I feel bad for their family that I couldn’t make it there in time, or the agents couldn’t make it there in time,” he said.
Chief McGoffin said the preservation of life is a top priority.
“We’re all fathers, husbands, brothers, sisters, and we try to do everything we can to preserve life,” he said.
One place smuggling is happening is in Candelaria in Presidio County. Across the Rio Grande River lies the community of San Antonio Del Bravo. Agent Millican said the community is a staging area since the land is usually dry, allowing people and vehicles to move freely.
Supervisor of the Presidio Border Patrol Station, Joshua Guerrero, showcased another area where smuggling occurs. Down the river in Presidio, the river is usually easy to cross.
“Crossings here every day. Every day, as soon as the sun goes down. Only because when the river is low flowing, it’s easy to cross, it doesn’t go past your knees,” he said.
Guerrero said fewer people are crossing now because recent rain from the monsoon season filled the river. The people who do cross put their lives and border patrol agents’ lives at risk, according to Guerrero.
“It’s very dangerous to cross when the rivers flowing so rapidly. It may seem like it’s steady on top but it’s flowing really fast on the bottom,” he said.
Agents are responsible for patrolling 517 miles of the Rio Grande that separates the U.S. from Mexico. Agent Guerrero said agents have to be aware of criminal organizations on the Mexico side trying to impede their operations, as well as the people who are crossing.
“Now it seems like they’re just keeping us busy here in town with non-citizens coming in, and they’re running their contraband a little on the outskirts of town,” he said.
There’s an increase in drugs being smuggled across the southwest border. According to the CBP website, 26,658 pounds of drugs have been found in the fiscal year 2021. A year prior, 24,633 pounds of drugs were found. Out of the drugs listed, cocaine showed the most significant increase. One hundred eighty-six pounds were reported in 2021, compared to just 23 pounds in 2020.
Davis said the transportation chain is also causing concern.
“Smuggling of people, narcotics contraband are being facilitated by people here in the United States,” he said.
Davis said that CBP has noticed younger people are being recruited on social media to pick up undocumented people or drugs over the past year.
Chief McGoffin said the increase in illegal immigration and drug smuggling has lead to a rise in vehicle chases in towns scattered from the border, all the way up to Midland and Odessa. The chief said the criminal organizations aim to bring people to the two largest cities in the Permian Basin and Trans-Pecos area.
“We see box trucks full of people with no ventilation in the heat, you know, we’ve seen tractor-trailers, same thing,” he said.
Chief McGoffin said citizens are also operating “stash houses.”
To find as many people and drugs as possible, the agency maximizes its resources. The goal implemented by the chief is to allow agents to apprehend people in the most accessible parts of the terrain. The agency uses surveillance technology, unmanned aircraft and drones, and air and horse patrols to monitor activity.
One horse patrol agent, Ryan Evans, said horses allow the sector to go on private property without leaving a big footprint. The horses are also allowed at the Big Bend State Park, which falls under the Big Bend Sector’s jurisdiction.
“People who are coming across don’t realize how hot it can get in the daytime. And they’re calling us asking for help and begging us to come save them,” Agent Evans said.
The sector isn’t alone in its efforts to stem the flood of illegal immigration. Chief McGoffin said help from the Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers and DPS Air Support is making a difference by allowing them to expand operations. The chief also credits regular meetings with law enforcement in border towns in Mexico.
Partnerships with local sheriff’s offices and police departments are also helping the sector tackle the surge. Local agencies, like the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office, are taking advantage of grant funding provided by Operation Stonegarden. The operation aims to enhance coordination and cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Chief McGoffin said they partner up to share information and resources to have a better picture of how illegal activity is occurring in the sector. No national guard members sent by other states’ governors are in the sector, according to the chief.
When asked how many undocumented people agents encountered have remained in the U.S., Chief McGoffin pointed to public health rule instituted by President Trump that allows CBP to quickly expel migrants amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ninety-one percent, roughly, of the individuals we come in contact with are single adults. And as such, they’re amenable to Title 42. In most instances, we return everybody that’s amenable to Title 42 back to Mexico as quickly as possible to reduce the threat of any type of infectious diseases due to COVID,” he said.
Chief McGoffin said the sector aims to avoid causing a significant backlog on other sectors.
“For instance, we go to Del Rio or El Paso to remove people from the country or properly adjudicate them. And so, a lot of our, you know, about 30 % of the individuals that we come in contact with that are removed to Mexico are done in the Big Bend Sector through Presidio,” he said.
The sector provides undocumented people with medical resources when needed. But not every person is tested for COVID-19.
“We are not currently testing here because we’re removing them to other locations where if it’s necessary to be tested, they can be tested,” he said.
Chief McGoffin said he is unable to comment on Federal Judges’ orders concerning different policies and mandates that are working their way through the court system.
“The Executive Branch provides policy and guidance, and then you know, you have Congress who actually makes the laws. We enforce the laws and we adjust to the policies and guidance provided to us from the executive branch in accordance with the law,” he said.
Multiple agents told CBS7 the impact of what the U.S. Border Patrol is encountering can be felt many miles away in Midland and Odessa.
“Anything that happens on the border impacts any town U.S.A. Across the board, there’s no doubt about it. We’re talking about people coming through, narcotics, contraband that end up in every small town,” Greg Blank said.
Chief McGoffin said many agents carry a “silent partner” with them through the day. He went on to explain a silent partner is someone who passed away in the line of duty. The chief said he has a silent partner close to his heart. He added that the dedication of the people who serve at the U.S. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector is inspiring.
“The men and women in this organization every day go out there, knowing the conditions can be fatal, but they do it anyway because they love this country,” he said.
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