MISSION — Meandering through the brush not far from the Rio Grande, some journalists were given infant dolls to carry down a dusty trail. Others lifted a fake body onto a gurney in a wooded area off the path frequently taken by agents and migrants alike.
“We lucked out with some overcast,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who joined the tour. The temperatures climbed into the 90s, and Cruz pressed a water bottle to his forehead.
Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karisch of the Rio Grande Valley Sector stopped a procession of dozens of people, including Cruz, journalists, congressional staff members and others who ended up walking a mile midday on Monday under the South Texas sun.
“It’s really easy for someone to peel off and sit underneath that tree and never get up,” Karisch said.
Summer time is often perilous for migrants crossing into South Texas, with regular grim reminders, such as four migrant bodies — a mother, one toddler and two infants — found near Anzalduas Park late last month. And a recent photograph — an image of a father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down on the muddy bank of the Rio Grande near Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico — propelled the public discourse about the border to another level.
So the Border Patrol on Monday sought to illustrate the threat migrants face upon crossing the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico, taking dozens of people through commonly traveled trails in the south Mission brush, which was scattered with occasional discarded clothing, water bottles and feminine hygiene products.
It was the annual Border Security Initiative, where Karisch and other agents periodically stopped the group to explain components of this stretch of the migrant journey.
But also on Monday, Border Patrol agents came under criticism after ProPublica published a story detailing a private, 9,500-member Facebook group where agents joke about migrant deaths and post sexist memes. The Border Patrol’s labor union, which has strongly supported Cruz over the years, condemned the Facebook group.
Cruz didn’t mention the group during his remarks on Monday, but he did hammer Congress for leaving loopholes in the immigration system that he blamed in part for the spike in crossings lately. In May, agents apprehended 132,887 migrant adults and children in between ports of entry at the southern border.
And in the summer months, despite climbing crossing numbers, migrants face another obstacle, one all too familiar to migrant families, the authorities and ranchers in South Texas, who at times find migrant bodies on their lands further north in Brooks and Willacy counties, where the land is softer and sandier.
In the Rio Grande Valley, after migrants traverse the Rio Grande, Border Patrol agents, with assistance from other state and federal agencies, are often waiting. Underneath the Anzalduas International Bridge, authorities have set up a sort of makeshift processing center, with a tent, water coolers and agents at the area called “Rincon Village,” a popular area for migrants to cross when they’re looking to turn themselves in to agents.
“It’s the remote part of the border that sneaks up on you,” Karisch said of the winding border, which can confuse migrants and their sense of direction.
At the end of the two-hour tour, the agents went through a mock exercise of an injured agent in the brush. Authorities set off a flash-bang-type device, and an agent with a K-9 went searching for the agent faking an injury in the brush. Soon after, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter landed nearby, and the mock recovery effort was in full effect.
The afternoon was winding down, and throughout the two hours, the agents leading the tour did not encounter any migrants. Agents supplied the dozens of people on the tour with cups of cold water after the group was soaked in sweat.
“Today,” Karisch said, “you’re blessed with a little cloud coverage.”