A dramatic shift at the border as migrants converge on a remote corner of South Texas
It was late afternoon when José Albornoz emerged, tired and soaking wet, from the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas.
The first person he encountered on the U.S. side was Luis Valderrama, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who owns the cattle ranch where Albornoz was now standing.
"What's under your shirt?" Valderrama asked in Spanish.
It was a good question. There was a huge bulge visible under Albornoz's black T-shirt that could have been anything. Valderrama asked Albornoz if he had a gun or a knife.
"Don't be worried. I'm not carrying anything bad," Albornoz said, pulling out a wet plastic garbage bag.
He took out a dry change of clothes, a small bag with his documents, some throat lozenges, and — most importantly — his smartphone.
"My trip was organized and planned by Google, practically, not me," Albornoz said in Spanish, laughing.
Then he turned on his phone to call his wife back in Venezuela to let her know he'd made it to Texas.
Albornoz crossed the river in what has become one of the busiest corridors on the southern border. Many of the migrants who later wind up on buses or planes to the north pass first through this remote stretch of the Rio Grande.
NPR spoke with dozens of migrants, who said they're choosing to cross here because they've heard from other migrants that the journey is relatively safe.
This new wave of migrants is coming largely from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. That's significant because these migrants generally cannot be expelled under the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42. And immigration authorities are mostly releasing them into the United States, where they can seek asylum.
In August alone, the Border Patrol recorded more than 50,000 apprehensions in the Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass — tens of thousands more than in traditional migration corridors like the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. The number of migrants arriving from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua was nearly equal to the number from Mexico and northern Central America.
"This is something that we have never seen before," said Valderrama. "It's incredible what's going on right now."
Immigrant advocates improvise to accommodate thousands of migrants
Immigrant advocates in Eagle Pass had never seen numbers like these before, either. So they've had to improvise.
When migrants are released from U.S. custody in Eagle Pass, they're dropped off by bus at a former warehouse on the outskirts of town. A non-profit called Mission: Border Hope has transformed the building into a bustling way station for migrants.
"Our main purpose is to help them continue their journey," said Valeria Wheeler, the group's executive director.
There are showers, and a kitchen handing out free sandwiches. There's also a counter where migrants can buy a bus ticket to San Antonio, and catch another bus or a plane to wherever they're going.
She says the group moved into this space in April, after their contacts at the Border Patrol urged them to.
"Actually this place was built because of the anticipation they had," Wheeler said. "They told us: 'Valeria, you will need a bigger place. There's gonna be a lot of more people.' "
The Border Patrol was right. Mission: Border Hope is now serving about 500 migrants a day, or more. When NPR is there, many of them are either charging their smartphones or talking into them — trying to sort out their travel plans, or getting money from friends and relatives to pay for their tickets.
The majority of these migrants are young men, but some are older. There are a few families here, too.
"My kids' future was very uncertain in Venezuela – that's why we wanted to leave," said Denny Velasco, a migrant traveling with his wife, Kimberly González, and their two young kids, ages 3 and 10 months.
"It's not safe, you live in fear," Velasco said in Spanish.
Both Velasco and González have degrees in business, and they were both working at a car dealership in Caracas. But they say the economy in Venezuela has collapsed. They could barely afford to feed their kids, and their neighborhood was overrun by gangs.
"People we knew said this was a safe place to cross, many have crossed here in recent months," González said.
Still, the journey was dangerous, she said. They had to cross the jungle in Panama, and avoid drug cartels in Mexico. When they finally got to the Rio Grande, the river was high. It took them four tries to cross.
Velasco says he sometimes feels guilty putting his children through all this.
"I never asked my baby girl if she wanted to come. I never asked [my son] if he wanted to make the journey," he said. "Even though we are doing it for them."
Then it was time for the family to get on the bus to San Antonio, and on from there to Los Angeles.
Few migrants stay in Eagle Pass for long
Some of the migrants who pass through Mission: Border Hope choose to take the buses to New York and Chicago and Washington, D.C., paid for by the state of Texas. Very few stay at the border for more than a day or two.
NPR spoke with dozens of residents in downtown Eagle Pass, and many expressed sympathy for the migrants.
That includes Gerardo "Jerry" Morales, a county commissioner who also owns a local business, the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory.
"Being in a border town, you kind of grew up with this," Morales said. "A big percentage of them are passing by. They're not staying here."
In fact, Morales said, he'd like to hire some of these migrants to work for him if he could.
"We've been short staffed for the past three years, hiring and hiring and hiring. And people in the U.S. don't want to work," he said. "What's broken with our system, that we can't get people to work right now? Yet you have these people coming in that want to work."
Migrants who seek asylum can apply for work permits after six months. They cannot work legally until those permits are issued, though many do find employment more quickly.
But not everyone around Eagle Pass is happy about this new shift in migration. Many ranchers and pecan farmers outside of town don't like it, because often the migrants are crossing on their land.
The impact of migrants on ranches and farms
Rancher Luis Valderrama raises cattle on 350 acres overlooking the Rio Grande, covered in carrizo cane and blooming purple bushes called cenizo. He agreed to show NPR where big groups of migrants have cut holes in his fences.
As the sun went down, Valderrama drove his ATV to a spot on the banks of the river where big groups of migrants have recently crossed.
"It looks like they're changing here," Valderrama said, pointing at large piles of discarded clothes, water bottles, shoes, backpacks, garbage bags and more.
Valderrama says some of his cows have died after eating trash left behind by migrants. And that's not the only thing that bothers him. A few weeks ago, Texas State Guard troops put in a brand new fence here, with razor wire across the top.
"I was happy with the idea of a fence. Because it would keep my cows from getting out even further," he said.
But just a few days later, he'd already noticed a hole where migrants had cut their way through the brand-new fence.
"Unless you have people responding and out here working, it's just a visual effect. It's not deterring anybody," he said.
Valderrama spent 24 years with the Border Patrol, and he does not like what he's seeing at the border today. He thinks the Biden administration is sending the wrong message by releasing so many migrants into the interior, which Valderrama argues is encouraging more people to cross illegally.
"If the immigrants knew that you weren't going to be released, and they were going to go to a detention camp and wait for a hearing, and they'd be in a camp for six months to a year, they would stop coming," Valderrama said.
But Valderrama has some sympathy for migrants, too. His mother was born in Mexico, he said, and he's got dual citizenship.
"I see why they're coming over. If the doors are open, the welcome flag is up," he said. "If I was from that side, I'd do the same thing."
'If I didn't try, I'd regret it forever'
It's just then that the interview with Valderrama was interrupted by José Albornoz.
The Venezuelan migrant appeared in the middle of a dirt road near the river, soaking wet and breathing heavily. He's not young or skinny like a lot of migrants who cross here, and stopped in the shade to catch his breath.
Albornoz explained that he'd been walking since 3 in the morning, trying to avoid trouble from drug cartels or Mexican police.
"We migrants are not people. We are only walking dollar signs from the time we leave our country," he said. "You have to pay everyone for everything along the way."
Albornoz says he brought $2,000 on the trip and spent all of it on the way. He didn't have enough left to pay anyone to help him cross the river in a large group, he says, which is why he crossed alone.
Back in Venezuela, Albornoz had a job at a company that makes bully sticks, a kind of dog treat that's popular in the United States. The company was successful, Albornoz says. But that meant it was constantly getting harassed for payoffs by corrupt government officials.
Albornoz was barely making enough to support his family, he said. So he left his wife and three daughters back home in Barinas, Venezuela, and he's trying to start over in the United States at age 40.
"I understand that the U.S. is helping Venezuelans by allowing us to come in and work here so we can help our families there," Albornoz said. "It's better to say I tried and failed than not to try. If I didn't try, I'd regret it forever."
Then Albornoz climbed into Valderrama's ATV, and the rancher drove up the hill toward the main highway. Valderrama took out his phone and speed dialed the Border Patrol. A few minutes later, an agent pulled up in a pickup truck. He asked Albornoz a few questions. Albornoz climbed in, and the truck pulled away.
José Albornoz texted a few weeks later from Montana, where he's already found a job in construction.
"I think I'll stay here for a good long time," he said.
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