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Cops in Texas border towns say their jobs have changed as crossings increase

PHARR, Texas – Each week, the Rio Grande Valley Police Chiefs meet for breakfast at the Junction Cafe in this border town to eat machacado con huevo and share stories.

On a recent Wednesday, seated at his usual table, Pharr Police Chief Andy Harvey described a frantic call he received from a man who had escaped from a hideout where he had been held with 70 other undocumented migrants.

Human smugglers, or “coyotes,” commonly use hiding places as enclosures as they prepare to infiltrate migrants deeper into the United States

In this case, Harvey recalls, “they were left to their own devices to the point where one of them snuck up and called us, 911, the local police, to come and help them because they were practically left alone “.

The house, a converted yellow trailer on a quiet street, would have gone unnoticed without the call. The man told Harvey he escaped because conditions made him fear for his life. He said there was no running water or furniture, but the coyotes had warned the 70 men and women not to leave.

Pharr police responded in February to a call from a man who had escaped from a hideout housing more than 70 undocumented migrants. The man told police that the hideout, which was in a residential area, had no running water or furniture.Courtesy of Pharr Police Department

Harvey found the house full of migrants, who were then turned over to federal immigration officials. Harvey also found a spiral notebook with the names of “caminantes”, or migrants who should walk, and “especiales” – migrants who paid smugglers more to be able to do at least part of their journey north by vehicle. .

Such crimes worry Harvey and his peers.

“One thing we don’t want, and I think we could all say the same as the chiefs, is crimes that are happening in our community and we don’t know it,” he said.

But while some foreigners think Texas border towns have become “war zones” over the past 20 years of border crossings, chiefs say that is far from the reality. Walking the streets of their cities remains safe, they said.

“They think the sky is falling here,” said another member of the breakfast team, Victor Rodriguez, police chief for neighboring McAllen. “The reality is that we have reduced crime over the same period, as opposed to an increase in crime.”

He said 2020 was McAllen’s 11th consecutive year of decline in crime.

Rodriguez, Harvey, and their breakfast partners serve border counties with a total population of over one million. They fear that the perception of a lawless border could harm the local economy, as they have had to explain to church groups and business convention planners that it is always safe to come to the Rio Grande Valley.

Drug traffickers and human beings pass through their towns. Customs and border protection said they seized at least 1,000 pounds of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine on this stretch of the border this year.

But as Harvey said, “They’re just passing by. They’re only stopping here for a short time, because they’re moving north.”

Rodriguez said the same applies to migrants: “These people don’t come to live here. They land here. They cross here.”

The real way the wave of migrants is affecting them, said Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, another member of the breakfast group, is to drain resources. Federal agents are so busy dealing with newly apprehended migrants that local police must do some of their other duties – like raiding hideouts, shooting coyotes, or rescuing border residents suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

“We are taking over,” Guerra said. “We are carrying out rescues in rural areas of the county [where] these immigrants are in danger. … It binds us. These are things that our federal partners would normally do. “

Children are a game changer

Due to the growing number of border workers, around 40% of federal border officers in the Rio Grande Valley are simply dealing with those who have been captured or who have reported themselves at legal entry points, the sector chief said. from the Border Patrol, Brian Hastings.

Hastings also said the record number of children crossing the border is labor intensive.

During the Biden administration, only children who arrive at the border without their parents are guaranteed entry. And unlike single adults and families, who can be released with court dates, children are held at border patrol facilities until they can be transferred to the custody of health services and social services and possibly the homes of parents or sponsors in the United States. There, they await decisions on their asylum applications.

“If you look at 2014, a year when we saw a record number of children crossing the border, or 2019, we were also around 35,000 for the whole year. We’ve already exceeded that number here in the Rio Grande Valley this fiscal year, ”Hastings said.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, on May 27 with the help of a smuggler tasked with rowing groups of people on the American side.
Abraham Villela / NBC News

For police chiefs and sheriffs, this means even more time spent on the humanitarian mission at the border rather than local law enforcement.

“Unaccompanied children pose absolutely no threat to our safety. It ties the hands of my federal partners,” Guerra said.

Hastings said the policy “could” encourage more parents to send their children alone rather than accompanying them.

“I think the scary part for us as border patrol officers is the safety of the children we see there.… We have seen smugglers stoop to the level of kicking children and people. who cannot swim out of a raft crossing the Rio Grande, knowing that our officers will rescue these children and the ferryman can swim safely to Mexico. “

He said he believes the United States needs an immigration policy that “is capable of providing humanitarian assistance” while ensuring national security. “With what we have now, we are struggling with that because of the high numbers that we are seeing,” he said.

The humanitarian crisis and the danger of travel for migrants are messages that chiefs and sheriffs are repeating to congressional delegations, where they say comprehensive immigration reform legislation is needed.

Brownsville Police Chief Felix Sauceda, also present at the breakfast table on Wednesday, said the chiefs are working to make policymakers understand that what is happening here is the “product of politics” and that they need “resources, sufficient resources, to continue to operate from day to day in full collaboration with our state and federal partners.”

Rodriguez said he wanted everyone to know that immigrants crossing the border do not stop at the border, which means any border crisis is national.

“They’re going to Houston. They’re going to Dallas. They’re going to Chicago. They’re going to New York,” he said. “That’s where these people go. And that, I think, is probably the [greatest] misperception of all of this. “

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