MARFA, Texas (Border Report) – Thirty-two migrants have died this year after crossing into the United States in the Big Bend area of Texas — four times as many as in the previous year.
That is why the U.S. Border Patrol this week unveiled a new tool to cut down on those fatalities: an array of solar-powered rescue beacons being placed in remote enclaves of the West Texas desert.
The 30-foot towers feature illustrations and simple phrases in English and Spanish at the base instructing migrants who are lost, were abandoned by cartel smugglers, are injured or suffering from dehydration to push a big red button that will alert authorities to their plight.
The first beacon went live in Presidio County a few weeks ago and has already resulted in the rescue of 10 migrants. The other 29 are pending the green light from the owners of the expanse near the U.S.-Mexico border, said U.S. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Agent Sean McGoffin.
The beacons will increase agents’ ability to assist distressed migrants, given that the sector covers 517 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. When a beacon is activated, the agency will dispatch help and also scan any nearby cameras to get a better idea of what is going on, he said.
The uptick in migrant deaths — mostly attributed to heatstroke and dehydration — coincides with an unprecedented surge in unauthorized migration and to cartel smugglers that often abandon those who hire them as soon as they can’t keep up. Agents say they have apprehended nearly 30,000 migrants since Oct, 1, a three-fold increase from the last fiscal year.
“This area has never seen this amount of people coming. This is not only new for our agents but also for our residents,” McGoffin said. “So, this is something we’re trying to do on top of what we normally do in getting these rescue beacons out to get help to people in need.”
The federal official says the emergency is bringing the Border Patrol and residents closer together.
“Most of the ranchers have lived here for years and years and they’ve seen people in distress. While they obviously don’t like their property destroyed or littered, they know these people are in need of assistance. They do a very good job of keeping us informed as to what they’re seeing so we can react,” McGoffin said.
Border Patrol officials say local ranchers complain about torn fences, people trespassing on their property and leaving garbage, including plastic bags that harm their cattle when ingested.
Farmers, ranchers feel ‘collateral damage’ of migration
Evan Means said it was impossible not to be aware of illegal immigration while growing up in Far West Texas.
“We always had migrant traffic, but it was mostly people looking for work. But now with so many people coming across we don’t know what their backgrounds are, what they want,” Means said. “We’ve had fences cut, cattle gotten out, we’ve had people break into our guest house and leave the shower on for three weeks. We find trash, backpacks, duffel bags all over our properties.”
Means said neighbors with “a big heart” would like to help people in need who might be hungry or thirsty, but the size of the groups coming across now raises concerns.
“The cartel is a dangerous group of people, so we don’t know who’s in those groups they’re sending. They could be all harmless but there could be those who are from the cartel that are armed, that are dangerous, that could be carrying narcotics,” she said. “We don’t know who’s in our property, sometimes we don’t know who’s in our porch.”
Means spoke on behalf of the group Concerned Far West Texans, which consists of residents from the surrounding counties of Brewster, Presidio and Jeff Davis, and which aims to raise awareness about the migrant situation on their ranches and small border towns.
She said residents are “very appreciative” of the Border Patrol but some want officials in Washington, D.C., to come to the border and listen to the concerns of those who are experiencing the effects of illegal immigration firsthand.
“I feel people in powerful positions need to talk to the ranchers, to the locals and see how it is affecting them and their livelihoods,” she said. “Just being able to know that we’re heard and that people are seeing what’s going on here is very important to us.”
Sheriff: Mexico needs to do its part
Local law-enforcement officers such as Danny Dominguez, the sheriff of Presidio County, say the migrant surge and resulting citizens’ complaints are draining their resources.
“I’m very short-handed as it is, but when a deputy leaves to do those kinds of duties (deal with migrants), it takes away from the citizens of the county and it bothers me a little,” Dominguez said.
The sheriff says he empathizes with Border Patrol agents who also have to leave their posts along the border to go process such large numbers of migrants. But he wishes Mexico would step up to control migrant trafficking.
“Locally we do our best, but it’s really on the Mexican side that has to do it because they’re the ones allowing the cartel to do this, and as long as the money keeps flowing in, it’s not going to stop,” Dominguez said. “The cartels just want the money in their pocket, and they don’t care. It’s like, ‘here you (the migrant) are. You’re on your own.’ They’re just cowards, that’s all they are.”
Border Patrol officials said a lot of the migrant traffic in the Big Bend area is coming from the Mexican border town of Ojinaga and from other places in the state of Chihuahua. Federal officials declined to identify the groups responsible for the uptick in migrant trafficking.
However, a Mexican newspaper last month quoted a high-ranking Chihuahua law-enforcement official as saying that the Juarez-based La Linea drug cartel is kidnapping and “disappearing” independent smugglers in order to take full control of the migrant trade in the cities of Ojinaga, Aldama and Manuel Benavides.