MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — After 20 minutes of crawling on all fours under thorny thistle, through spiderwebs, and over dead tree branches and prickly brush early Thursday morning, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno came to a clearing in a South Texas field with thigh-high wild grass and carrizo cane where he reached down and pulled out Luis Arturo Solorzan.
Solorzan, 46, of El Salvador had been hiding for about 15 minutes. He told Moreno he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico on a raft with a group of other migrants around 7 a.m., and for 75 minutes, they’d been walking and trying to evade arrest. Two ran and agents chased them. None had documents to legally be in the United States.
Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno searches on Thursday, June 17, 2021, in tall grass for migrants and moments later pulls out Luis Arturo Solorzan, 46, of El Salvado, who was hiding in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)
Solorzan was among several migrants whom Moreno helped find as he patrolled Thursday morning in the Rio Grande Valley Sector — the busiest for migrant apprehensions on the entire Southwest border. And Solorzan just one of several migrants Border Report witnessed leading agents on chases in what Moreno called a constant game of “hide and seek.”
Moreno took Border Report on a five-hour ride-along, one of the first allowed in this sector since agents stopped taking media out in the field in early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Officer Tom Gresback, who accompanied Moreno on Thursday.
Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno searches near Mission, Texas, for footprints and other clues leading to migrants who crossed the border illegally on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)
Crawling in the soft soil, through wet fields of the invasive cane, slipping down muddy ravines being fed on by hungry mosquitoes, Border Report watched as Moreno and other Border Patrol agents sleuthed for clues that could lead them to hiding migrants.
“A lot of people don’t understand that our job is hard. It’s a dangerous job and it takes strength, smarts and an understanding of what’s going on out here. I think a lot of people think we’re babysitting, but we’re not,” said Moreno, a 13-year veteran on the force who is originally from the Rio Grande Valley.
“Our guys do it well and we do what we need to out here like going through brush and on our hands and knees,” he said as he drove his muddy Border Patrol SUV through dirt trails along the border where migrants frequently cross.
The grass that was slanted at an angle indicated where migrants walked. Grass that is dry in parts could mean someone brushed against it. Agents look for the slightest of colors, other than green, and Moreno on Thursday even caught one gentleman who had been hiding just feet from his SUV and within a couple of yards of a dirt patrol road after a tiny patch of white reflected from his black sneakers before the sun came up.
Agent Moreno stoops below a tree on Thursday, June 17, 2021, in an area where discarded clothes lie on the dirt soil, and flattened carrizo cane are telltale signs that migrants have walked through. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
Solorzan was found beneath a canopy of wet cane. His left leg had cramped from squatting and he had trouble walking and leaned on two agents who led him out of the field after he was caught.
A helicopter offering air support above helped to identify his whereabouts.
He said that in El Salvador, he had owned a small gas station and paid about $500 rent per month. But the coronavirus pandemic hurt his business.
Ten months behind rent, he gave his landlord his last $200 and they confiscated his motorcycle. And that’s when he said he headed north to look for work.
“I couldn’t pay all the rent I owed,” he said tearing up. “I couldn’t support my family.”
He was led to three other adults who had been apprehended by two other teams of Border Patrol agents in a remote area of Mission, Texas. Two had run, and it took a total of seven field agents to corral the lot.
After walking down a dirt road, they came to a brick wall where they were unhandcuffed and hoisted over the wall, and agents waited with them for a transport van that soon took them all away.
The group would be processed and questioned and likely returned before noon to Reynosa, the northern Mexican city across the river. This is because Title 42 border restrictions that prevent asylum seekers from remaining in the United States are still in place, except for families with very young children or those with special conditions.
The restrictions were put in place during the Trump administration as a way to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The prospect of the Biden administration lifting those restrictions has state and local leaders concerned that an even larger number of migrants will try to cross in this hot and often forgotten part of deep South Texas if they think they won’t be returned to Mexico and have a chance at staying.
Texas Gov. Abbott, a Republican, on Wednesday released more details for his recently announced plan for the State of Texas to build a wall through its entire 1,254-mile border with Mexico. Abbott and state lawmakers from the Legislative Budget Board have authorized spending $250 million in immediate funds for a project manager to survey and estimate what it will take to build such a massive infrastructure, which Abbots promises will finish what former President Donald Trump started.
“The border crisis we’re dealing with right now is a direct result of the open border policies put into place by the Biden administration,” Abbott said Wednesday from the state Capitol. “It was far more under control under the Trump administration.”
“It is out of control and a change is needed,” Abbott said last week during a Border Security Summit he held in Del Rio, Texas, where he first floated the idea of the state building a border wall, as well as charging anyone who crosses illegally with criminal trespass, which carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail.
But the idea doesn’t fare well with many border residents here who say there already are miles of 18-foot-tall and 30-foot tall rusting metal bollards built by Trump’s administration that are incongruent with the mostly agricultural and green landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.
When asked how he feels about Abbott’s plans, Moreno replied flat out that he won’t discuss politics. His job is simple: To guard the border in between the ports of entry. And he said he does so with a stellar team of agents who coordinate and communicate through a variety of tactical operations including ATV, horse and canine patrol units, air patrols, river boats, drones, and a Tactical Operating Center that constantly relays information from mobile surveillance towers and cameras mounted on the border wall to agents in the field.
His SUV sinks into potholes, muddy from recent rains, and his radio crackles with the names of various landmarks that agents ping to one another — “la pulga” (fleamarket); the “UHaul”; the “pumps”; “green gate”; “Mac 40”; and the “no-dragging sign” — to help them find these desolate and unmarked off-road spots that are frequent trafficking areas for undocumented migrants.
The smugglers for transnational criminal organizations, also called coyotes, charge migrants upwards of $5,000 per head to cross the Rio Grande. And from Border Patrol agents to local lawmakers, everyone is in agreement that the human traffickers have full control of where and when migrants cross.
Migrant encounters on the Southwest border have topped nearly 900,000 this fiscal year, so far. There have been at least 271,927 encounters in the RGV Sector, CBP reports — the most of any sector in the nation.
The RGV Sector averages 1,150 arrests each day, Moreno said.
On Thursday, the balmy, 80-degree cloudless morning yielded many migrant adult men and only one woman, but there were no families. An agent said “dozens” of families had crossed in the dead of the night, but none were found as the sun started to come up.
Central Americans, mostly from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, frequently cross into this part of Hidalgo County. And that included Freddy Tejado, an out-of-work carpenter from Honduras who was arrested around 6 a.m. Thursday.
Moreno came upon him after climbing a muddy ridge. Tejado was sitting on the ground wearing a bright red sweatshirt and immediately put his hands up and said in Spanish that he was “tranquilo” or calm, and said he was “una buena persona,” (a good person) and could be trusted.
Moreno was alone in the brush and it took a while to walk him back. Eventually, another agent came to help.
Above, Agent Jesse Moreno apprehends Freddy Tejado and searches him and cuffs him and then looks for other migrants in south McAllen, Texas, on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
With his hands cuffed, Tejado moved his head back and forth trying to get the mosquitoes off his face. He said he left his wife and children in his homeland to come find work.
He said he had been part of a group of five men and had gotten separated when they ran away. He tried to double back to the river but got lost and decided to sit and wait when he heard sounds in the brush.
Moreno patted him for weapons as Tejado told him that his friends made it north.
“What he doesn’t know is that we already caught them,” Moreno said in English.
The sun was not yet up just 20 minutes prior when agents working near the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge spotted several men and arrested them in McAllen, Texas. All were from Central America except for one man who said he was from Reynosa. All wore black caps and sweatshirts and carried jugs of water in their backpacks.
Agents sat them up against a fence and had them take off their shoelaces and belts (for safety precautions), gave them blue face masks, and had them put all their belongings, including cellphones, in plastic government-issued bags. Several of the men had multiple cellphones that had been wrapped in cellophane — a necessary precaution given how wet all of their blue jeans were from crossing the river.
They said they didn’t pay to cross. But Moreno shook his head at that later, saying “everyone pays.”