NEAR GRANJENO — As more than two dozen migrants filled out processing paperwork near the levee here one warm April evening, deputies from the Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office arrived to assist the lone U.S. Border Patrol agent seen covering a swath of at least 10 square miles. For Border Patrol, it’s business as usual. For the constables, it’s overtime.
Some of the deputies assigned to a crossing spot known locally as El Rincón del Diablo, or the Devil’s Corner, located in the shadow of the Anzalduas International Bridge, stayed to assist the lone U.S. Border Patrol agent stationed just north of the Rio Grande while others headed toward the river to direct migrants to the de-facto staging area.
Plastic water bottles, empty pill packages, discarded clothing and coins from Central American countries — now worthless — scattered the caliche levee road under the bridge where the agent was parked. The road was imprinted with layers of footprints from migrants who stood there before having turned themselves in to request asylum.
The deputy constables instructed the migrants to remove their shoelaces and empty their pockets and distributed plastic bags to store belongings. They made sure no one was carrying a weapon and kept watch over the group — all duties another Border Patrol agent might assume if the agency had enough bodies to spare.
Local law enforcement who serve warrants and court papers, collect unpaid judgments and provide bailiff services for justices of the peace, these deputies spend their nights working the frontlines of some of the busiest migrant crossing points in Hidalgo County as part of federal and state border security grants.
As Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley find themselves overwhelmed by the recent increase in Central American families passing through here, the deputies’ presence has become more visible, as an April 4 ride-along revealed. It is often the constables, dressed in brown uniforms accented with red, who migrants first come in contact with before they are directed to a green-uniformed agent who takes their information before bussing them to the federal agency’s McAllen processing center.
During that evening’s five-hour shift, the deputies came in contact with 157 migrants, composed almost entirely of families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, before Border Patrol did.
“We do things to make it easier for Border Patrol because we know Border Patrol is up to their gills in work already, in processing; there are very little agents out on the front line,” Precinct 3 Constable Larry Gallardo said. “… We’re making sure that we’re assisting them to make it easier for them.”
Gallardo was the first constable in South Texas to apply for state and federal border security funds nearly a decade ago, which cover volunteer overtime hours for his deputies and also pay for new equipment for both border security efforts and everyday duties.
His precinct sits along the border and covers the western part of the county from tiny Cuevitas just south of Sullivan City to a portion of the city of Hidalgo. Precinct 3 also contains Anzalduas County Park, a heavily patrolled area that wraps around the river and is a popular spot for smugglers given its proximity to Mexico.
“As local law enforcement, we’re there to prevent drugs and criminals from coming into our country,” he said. “But being out there we come across what’s happening today — that’s illegal immigration.”
Constable deputies, like other state law enforcement officers, don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration law and detain migrants. They instead mostly perform a kind of crowd control, directing migrants who have just crossed the Rio Grande to awaiting Border Patrol agents stationed a couple of miles away and making sure no one tries to evade the agents.
Some migrants become apprehensive when they first see the uniformed deputies.
“They are kind of afraid because number one, they’re still not sure where they are,” Deputy Constable Reynaldo Reyna said. “Number two, if you think about it, the country they’re coming from, the police is usually the military…”
“Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos,” deputies said as migrants appeared, a greeting translated in English as “welcome to the United States,” which is intended to orient migrants who at times are unsure whether they are still in Mexico.
The sandy, dusty roads that run through El Rincón twist and turn, and it’s all too easy for migrants to get lost and find themselves walking in circles. It’s not unheard of for deputies to come across human remains in this area.
“Pásale, pásale,” or “go on ahead,” deputies urged, giving directions to the levee.
After sundown, the only illumination comes from the stars, and from the headlights and tail lights beaming from the parked patrol units that deputies activate as beacons along the roughly 5-mile stretch from the riverbank to the levee road.
“These people aren’t running from us,” Rene Gonzalez, chief for the Precinct 3 constable’s office, said, adding this area of the border sees mostly families or unaccompanied minors, all of whom want to turn themselves in to initiate the asylum process.
The constable said his focus is ensuring that migrants are “directed to the right direction so they can get processed and go to the legal system instead of ending up going through (the border), blending into the community, possibly ending up at stash houses (where) the conditions are very bad.”
Women and children held at stash houses are at risk of being sexually assaulted, he said, adding the dangers continue as migrants attempt to make their way on foot around the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint. Over the past decade, hundreds of migrants have died from dehydration, heat stroke or hypothermia as they trek through the surrounding brush and ranchlands.
“The way we see it, it’s a kind of humanitarian factor,” Gallardo said of his office’s participation in these grants. “At least (by) detaining them there (at the river), they’re not dealing with … dangerous situations up north.”
‘We’re always there’
Precinct 3 constable deputies have come into contact with more than 5,000 migrants since the start of the year, according to data the office collects for both the federally funded Operation Stonegarden and state-funded Local Border Security Program.
Deputies only work the grant two or three nights a week because funds are limited, and Gonzalez doesn’t want these long days to take away from their other responsibilities. Of the office’s 17 law enforcement staff, which include the constable and his chief, 13 have volunteered to work the grant.
Based on the office’s data, deputies assist an average of a dozen migrants each hour they work the grant, which was the case April 4. Like clockwork, a new group of migrants came around the riverbend nearly every 30 minutes, with deputies closer to the river radioing up, “We’ve got multiple groups heading your way,” to those constables with the Border Patrol agent who simply responded “10-4.”
Deputies collect migrants’ country of origin, age and gender as part of the grants, data that Executive Assistant Raquel Ramos submits weekly.
The daily numbers she has inputted over the past few weeks have been in the triple digits — 248 on March 5; 340 on March 11; 194 on March 12; 294 on March 20; 351 on March 26; 292 on March 28; 232 on April 2 and 157 on April 4.
These reflect March increases across the southwest border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended approximately 92,600 people along the U.S.-Mexico border during that month, which was more than a 38% increase from February and a nearly 148% increase from the 37,390 migrants apprehended in March 2018.
CBP’s March numbers also exceeded those seen during the 2014 Central American migrant crisis, when at its height in May 2014, agents apprehended approximately 60,000.
The numbers have been so large recently Ramos asked if she could join the sergeant on the April 4 shift so she could visualize the numbers.
“I wanted to see it firsthand because I couldn’t imagine there were so many people,” she said.
While she’s all too familiar with the age range of the migrants the constable deputies encounter, which this year has spanned 19 days old to 59 years old, Ramos was still struck by the sight of young children grasping their parent’s hand as they trekked up the washboard road from the river to the levee.
The children sometimes waved at the deputies they passed by, revealing toothless grins, naïve to what lies ahead. Others struggled in the heat, exhausted from days and weeks of traveling north, a journey still not over after they reached the Border Patrol agent.
As the summer begins, constable deputies expect to see more families during these overtime shifts, and their presence becomes ever more critical as temperatures rise into the triple digits.
Whether more Border Patrol agents will be on-hand remains to be seen. But no matter the policy changes, the constable deputies will patrol the border.
“We’re always there to back (Border Patrol) up,” Gonzalez said.