FALFURRIAS, Texas — Far from the crisis along the border with Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley, the checkpoint here exists to deter those who made it this far but want to get away.
To an American, the three-lane checkpoint some 70 miles from the border seems far from threatening.
A Border Patrol agent asks if you’re a U.S. citizen. Answer correctly, and he lets you through.
But for illegal immigrants who want to elude capture, the Falfurrias checkpoint, with drug-sniffing dogs looming, is the likely end of the journey.
So the migrants do what it takes to avoid it.
The news is filled these days with accounts of unaccompanied children from Central America, or mothers with children, who willingly surrender to the Border Patrol. It’s the trend that has overwhelmed the government’s resources.
Illegal immigrants trying to sneak into America, however, take a more traditional route.
These border crossers, usually men, don’t qualify for protection under the 2008 law that guarantees a date in immigration court for children born in countries other than Mexico and Canada.
After crossing the border in groups, usually with the aid of a smuggler, these immigrants pile into the back of U-Haul trucks or other vehicles for a drive up North Highway 281.
A smuggler escorts them from Hidalgo County to Brooks County and its privately owned ranches.
The terrain alongside the highway becomes rough brush and crude vegetation, with numerous mesquite and oak trees. The landscape from one mile to another looks much the same.
Civilization emerges, but only sort of. A large sign indicates the entrance to a hotel, but there is no hotel.
The quiet makes it difficult to know that deep inside these ranches near the Falfurrias checkpoint, illegal immigrants are tearing and climbing fences, building shaded shelter out of brush, living – and dying – here as they try to evade the Falfurrias checkpoint.
Smugglers drop off the migrants along the boundaries of these ranches, a few miles south of the checkpoint, where a sign warns that “smuggling illegal aliens is a federal crime.”
The smuggler tells his passengers that if they get around the checkpoint, without passing directly through it, they can walk three hours to Houston, where opportunity and freedom ring.
But Houston is 285 miles away.
Many of them don’t make it out of Brooks County, an impoverished region with an underfunded sheriff’s department that pays for the processing of those who die here.
The Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, which employs all of four deputies, has recovered 37 bodies so far this year. Since 2009, it has recovered 399 bodies.
The southern border in the Rio Grande Valley benefits from the $1.3 million-per-week surge in law enforcement operations ordered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Border apprehensions are down to 700 per day, from 1,600 a day three weeks ago.
But the benefits are harder to detect here in neighboring Brooks County, a non-border territory where dwelling among illegal immigrants is a way of life.
According to data provided to The Daily Signal, Border Patrol agents working out of the Falfurrias station caught double the amount of illegal immigrants in June, most from countries other than Mexico, than they did in January.
The Border Patrol station in Falfurrias also is responsible for portions of Jim Wells and Kleberg Counties.
Ronnie Osburn: The Documenter
Ronnie Osburn, wearing a cowboy hat and bulging brown belt, drives a white truck. A bumper sticker on the back reads, “F*** it, I should have died at the Alamo.”
Osburn’s business is cattle. His mission, though, is reporting and documenting illegal immigrants who trespass on his property.
For 34 years, he has managed the 12,500-acre Tepeguaje Ranch in Encino, where he lives alone.
Driving the length of the property takes 25 to 30 minutes. Osburn makes the drive often, looking for footprints as evidence of overnight or early morning activity.
A few weeks ago, he directed a group of 10 men from El Salvador, ages 19 to 23, to Border Patrol agents, who apprehended them. The men had shown a light outside a window of Osburn’s home, and asked to use the phone.
One wouldn’t know that this would be the end for the El Salvadorans, who smile boyishly for a photograph Osburn snaps of them. A boy wearing a beanie playfully sticks his tongue out for the photo. An older boy waves.
The photo lives in an album Osburn keeps in the truck. Other photos show dead bodies, skulls and bones, a bloodied toilet.
“I take photos so people know what happens here,” Osburn says.
He sleeps near a Beretta, precisely close enough so that he can reach for the gun in the dark. He keeps a loaded AR-15 assault rifle and a Ruger 380 in the truck, a comfort that does not stop him from persistently rubbing his fingers together.
Osburn can see only what’s in sight, and it’s hard for him not to wonder who or what lives deep into his property, in areas too thick with brush for his truck to navigate easily.
On a recent morning, Osburn drives his truck past the mangled fence that lines the boundary of his gated property.
Osburn installed ladders on the fence, in hopes the trespassers would use them instead of ripping the fence wirings to get past. But the migrants don’t use the ladders, Osburn says, because they think the ladders are booby-trapped.
Osburn drives past his hunting camp, where he leases out cabins for corporate guests who pay to shoot game on his property. He keeps the cabins unlocked, so that when migrants inevitably break in, seeking a cleansing from the desert heat, they don’t damage the front doors.
For the first time in a month and a half, Osburn drives off-road, deep into the tangled brush where the migrants build shaded hide-outs.
The ride is bumpy, no path beneath the truck’s tires.
The hip bone of a cow hangs from a tree branch. Osburn figures a drug smuggler probably hung it there to scare visitors. Unfazed, he drives past it and stops near two huts built with dead branches.
Border Patrol helicopters that occasionally fly over Osburn’s property would not be able to detect these hide-outs, constructed strategically deep into the woods.
Osburn works closely with the Border Patrol. He calls the supervisor of the Falfurrias checkpoint when he spots a suspected illegal migrant. He explains:
I only call when I get a visual. Footprints or left-behind belongings are not worth calling about, because they [the migrants] are probably long gone.
Whoever made a home out of these huts probably has been gone for a few weeks, Osburn says, judging from the signs.
A rusted can of beans is on the ground inside one hut, with a sock, a gallon of water, a Vienna sausage wrapper and a package of pills lying nearby.
A black blouse rests flat atop the twig roof of another hut, as if hanging out to dry.
The evidence supports a trend that Osburn suspects to be true, and that Border Patrol statistics confirm.
“The last two to three months, they [illegal immigrants] are everywhere,” Osburn said. “With all of the attention on the river, other guys are piling in here. But I’m not leaving. This is where I live.”
Linda Vickers: BEST Team Leader
“Load up,” Linda Vickers orders the BEST team, her nickname for her three German shepherds and one Italian mastiff: Blitz, Elsa, Schatten, and Tinker Bell.
The dogs launch into Vicker’s Polaris Ranger and prepare to track the activity of illegal immigrants.
Vickers, wife of a veterinarian, has lived on this nearly 1,000-acre ranch a few miles north of the Falfurrias checkpoint since 1996.
In fall of 2006, she co-founded the Texas Border Volunteers, a group of landowners who roam her property and other ranches and report sightings of illegal immigrants to the Border Patrol.
Her dogs, trained to sniff for footprints, do most of the work.
Vickers says so far this year she has reported 206 illegal immigrants – all on her own property. The Border Patrol caught 145 of them.
“That’s a good success rate,” Vickers says.
Last year, she reported 191 illegal immigrants on her property, 128 of whom were caught.
But she insists that illegal immigrant activity on her property, located a few miles past the one-way Falfurrias checkpoint, has decreased over the past few months.
Osburn, though, has reported more activity on his ranch, located before the checkpoint. Vickers says:
People may be dying of dehydration before they make it here. It also helps that Governor Perry put more law enforcement on the border. I’ve seen less tracks and visuals since then.
In June, the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department recovered 12 bodies, the highest total for a month this year.
Vickers has a close relationship with Border Patrol agents and the sheriff’s department. Brooks County is the kind of place where authorities know landowners by more than name.
In 2005, the Border Patrol initiated a partnership with major landowners. The agents figured that if the ranchers report on what they find, it would make their jobs easier and create trust. Vickers says:
We have a good relationship with them. If I report it, they come.
On the last Thursday of each month, the Falfurrias Border Patrol station hosts a potluck meal for ranchers. They even appointed their own liaison with the ranchers.
Vickers’ BEST team has been known to chase packs of illegal migrants up trees, as the dogs did a few summers ago with some men from El Salvador who turned out to be members of the gang MS-13.
Vickers also carries water and snacks to give to illegal immigrants on her land, and she has empathy for those who make the journey for the right reasons. But her mission is clear.
“I want them apprehended,” she says. “And we’ve gotten damn good at it.”
Benny Martinez: Second Responder
The Brooks County Sheriff’s Department is the second line of response to catch illegal immigrants, after the Border Patrol.
But these officers have responsibility for those who die here.
From 2009 to 2013, Brooks County spent about $2,100 per body on transportation, storage, and autopsy fees, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Signal.
The county spent $155,419 total on such costs last year.
Coming up with that money is difficult. The sheriff’s department operates with a $585,000 annual budget. The county, faced with declining property values, this year stopped providing health insurance to employees.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez also has worked for the state and the federal governments, so he understands bureaucracy.
Martinez says federal officials have not responded to a letter, sent in December, asking for financial assistance to address the fallout here from the border crisis. Drafted by Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez, the letter was signed by Sheriff Rey Rodriguez. Sitting amid the American Indian-themed decor of department headquarters, Martinez says:
If you keep the [Falfurrias] checkpoint here, we need to be looked at as a border county. How can Brooks County ask for millions of dollars when it has four deputies? They are not being logical or realistic about nothing.
Martinez, and other officials here, want Brooks County to be included in the Department of Homeland Security’s “Border County Region,” which would make it eligible for more state and federal funding devoted to border security, enforcement, and drug interdiction.
This year, Martinez says, the sheriff’s department received $130,000 from the federal government. The department, he says, spends 85 percent of its budget on issues related to illegal immigrants.
The privately run detention center next door currently holds 600 migrants.
Martinez expects the problem to get worse. DHS plans to expand the Falfurrias checkpoint to 16 lanes (eight for primary inspection, eight for secondary inspection). He says:
The border-related traffic will only increase. Be fair about it and recognize this county for what it is.
- Steve Weyrich co-produced the video report.