A shift by immigrant smugglers to target the tough-to-defend U.S.-Mexico border in southernmost Texas has accelerated this year as the Border Patrol scrambles to shift its resources from states farther west, according to an internal agency report obtained by The Associated Press.
From Oct. 1 through May 17, agents in the southernmost tip of Texas made more than 148,000 arrests, on pace to match last year's total in less than eight months, according to the intelligence report. That compares with nearly 63,000 arrests in the Tucson, Arizona, sector, which it surpassed for the first time just last year. The Rio Grande Valley sector averaged nearly 1,100 arrests per day from May 11-17, according to the document.
What these numbers look like on the ground is a near-constant flow of people across the Rio Grande. The arrests do not represent the full level of traffic, only those who are caught, but the report's hourly breakdowns showed the arrests never stopped. Heat maps illustrating concentrations of arrests glowed bright red along miles of the Rio Grande south of McAllen.
"I don't think we have anywhere near the resources that we would require to even make a dent in what we've got going on here," said Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent in McAllen and local vice president of the agents' union. "I think it's common knowledge that we don't have the resources, that's why they're coming in droves like they are. They're exploiting a weakness that they've found and quite frankly they're doing a good job of it."
When a delegation of state agriculture commissioners from around the country visited the McAllen Border Patrol station Wednesday, they were told about 1,400 arrests were made the night before. They saw more than 1,000 immigrants, many mothers with infants or solo teenagers, being held in spaces intended to accommodate only a fraction of that.
In a statement Friday, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron addressed the government's efforts to deal with unaccompanied children, who have contributed to the crowded conditions at Border Patrol stations and overwhelmed available shelter space. Last week, the government announced it would once again temporarily house as many as 1,000 of the children at a San Antonio Air Force base. DHS has designated someone to coordinate efforts, sent additional senior staff to the region and expanded awareness campaigns in the immigrants' home countries.
Last month, at the McAllen station to welcome a new group of temporarily assigned agents, the sector's Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz said he and the new chief were talking a lot about staff levels.
"We do plan to bring on additional agents," Ortiz said. "Our plan is to certainly increase the staffing commensurate with the threat level down here."
The Border Patrol has been trying to beef up its resources in the area for more than a year. Most new academy graduates come straight to Texas, and 115 agents from sectors elsewhere in Texas as well as Arizona and California have been temporarily detailed here. At the end of the last fiscal year, the Tucson sector had 1,049 more agents than the Rio Grande Valley.
The difference is not only in agents. Drones hum above the South Texas border with high-powered cameras, and a growing fleet of blimp-like aerostats are tethered at busy crossing spots to watch with infrared cameras. But one slide in a presentation by Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher in March listed each sector's "deployment density," which it defined as having "sufficient assets to detect and respond to illicit cross-border activity." At that point, before the arrival of the temporary detail, the Rio Grande Valley ranked third from the bottom on the Southwest border at 58 percent, compared with 100 percent in San Diego.
The Southwest border totals are less than half the arrests made annually between 2004 and 2006, though they've been rising for the past two years.
When most of the traffic was crossing in Tucson, the overwhelming majority were Mexican citizens.
But of the 7,640 arrests made in the Rio Grande Valley last week, Mexicans ranked fourth, behind people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Widespread gang violence and lack of economic opportunity are cited as factors in the growing numbers of people from those countries. Crossing through Mexico into South Texas is their most direct route.
Immigrant smuggling is a huge business dominated by Mexico's drug cartels, which either cross the groups themselves or collect a tax per head from smugglers.
"These guys watch us," Cabrera said. "They know where we're at, when we're going to be there, when we're going to leave."