Record immigrant deaths leave law enforcement in shock

A large white shipping container sits at the edge of a nondescript field in Eagle Pass, Texas. The smell of the stool hangs in the air. The scene is quiet save for the hum of the generator battling the Texas heat to cool the five bodies stored inside. The doors are locked.

Maverick County Deputy Denise Cantu helped deliver the fourth body to this temporary resting place. Cantu, 28, has worked in law enforcement for six years, but has lived her entire life in Eagle Pass. She is used to the demands of her role as an officer of the law, but she is not used to seeing death in her community on a daily basis.

The five bodies are migrants who drowned in the Rio Grande. More than 850 immigrants died on the southern border in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a record. Hundreds of people died of exhaustion or dehydration in remote border deserts or were smuggled in the back of vehicles. In June, 53 migrants died trapped in the back of a suffocating tractor-trailer in San Antonio. The river has claimed many others.

The humanitarian crisis weighs heavily on law enforcement. Local police and sheriff’s departments are under strain. Police officers and Border Patrol agents deal with death on a weekly basis and struggle to leave their experiences in the field. But amid the tragedy, border communities are rallying around their first responders.

Cantu witnessed the tragedy firsthand at a popular crossing point under the Incoming Port of Entry Bridge that connects Piedras Negras, Mexico to Eagle Pass. Heaps of goods are scattered on the banks: discarded identity papers, shoes, clothes. “It was a mom and two little girls,” Cantu recalled looking across the water. “A child of 4 and 2 years old. But she could only wear one. The mother grabbed the 4-year-old child by the hand. But the current was stronger. Cantu watched the doctors try to revive her. “It was already too late,” she said.

She herself has two little girls. “I try not to let it sink in,” she said. “It’s not something I want to take home…It’s a fight. It hits me. But… I try to leave it at work.

Eagle Pass, a small town of around 30,000, is home to some of the most dangerous crossing points and has become the focal point of the wave of illegal immigration. Immigrants underestimate the Rio Grande. In Mexico, it is known by another name, the Rio Bravo: fierce, wild, restless. The river flows peacefully on the surface, but the strong currents rush below. Heavy rains make the swollen river even more treacherous. On September 3, eight immigrants were taken away in a single day.

Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber was part of the Border Patrol. “I never thought that I, as a sheriff, would be doing immigration work again. That’s what we do,” he said. Schmerber wears jeans and a straw cowboy hat and carries a gold-accented pistol in a brown leather holster on his hip. Pictures of his German and Mexican ancestry hang on the wall.

“Now we have all these people dying,” Schmerber said. Because the sheriff’s department has countywide jurisdiction, it is responsible for bodies. They find one or two every day. Maverick County is not equipped for death on this scale. The county does not have a coroner and local funeral homes do not want to take responsibility. A local funeral home helps transport the body to the refrigerated shipping container. Schmerber is working with the Mexican consulate to bring them back to their families. The department fingerprints the bodies and checks their tattoos. When WORLD’s Bonnie Pritchett and I spoke with Schmerber, they had five bodies in the storage container: three from Mexico, one from Honduras, and one unidentified. If the remains cannot be identified, the body is driven 132 miles to the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office. Chief Medical Examiner Dr Corrine Stern says she is running out of space.

The sea container used as a mortuary at Eagle Pass
Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Schmerber worries about his deputies. “They see it every day, he said, MPs are human beings. … They also have feelings. It affects everyone. »

The Eagle Pass Police Chief shares his concerns. Federico Garza Jr. says immigration shouldn’t be a police department. His agents receive calls from residents who find immigrants in their backyard asking for money. “The citizens here are very compassionate,” he said, but “Eagle Pass is not used to this.” An officer waits with the individual at the scene until Border Patrol officers arrive, which takes time during which the officer cannot be on patrol.

A grant from Texas Governor Abbott’s border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, helps Garza pay for overtime. “But the problem becomes…working the same workaholic all the time,” he said. It is not the drownings, trespassing or litter that litters the banks of the river that most afflicts its officers. It’s seeing immigrants roaming the streets of Eagle Pass at night, lost and alone. “They see them walking everywhere…with very little help,” he said. They can’t help them all. The police department has a job to do: protect the community of Eagle Pass. Their resources are limited.

Garza wonders if things will ever change. “There is just too much infighting between our leaders that sometimes we get nothing. And we suffered for years,” he said. He thinks the feds should secure the border, but he doesn’t want it to look like a war zone. He wants better technology, not chain-link fences and barbed wire.

A Texas National Guard Soldier, Spc. Bishop Evans drowned while trying to save an immigrant on April 22. The woman survived. It took Border Patrol and state troopers three days to find his body. Flowers and small American flags tied to a pole near the river crossing form a makeshift memorial.

“Everything about the situation worries me. I worry about the welfare of immigrants who are in the hands of criminals. I have seen people die. … It keeps me awake at night,” Chief Patrol Officer Jason Owens said. “And then the things that my men and women must have seen when they were trying to save these people. And sometimes they can’t always succeed. That bothers me. Owens is the Border Patrol Chief for the Del Rio Sector, an area that stretches 242 miles along the border and spans 47 counties. He manages approximately 2,000 agents and employees.

The influx of illegal asylum seekers has changed their profession. “The humanitarian crisis we are going through at the border has a cost in many ways,” he said. Immigrants crossing ports of entry find themselves in the hands of criminals and smugglers and often risk their lives. The patrollers are forced to assume a humanitarian role. They perform search and rescue and process hundreds of immigrants every day. “And when we do that, we can’t be on patrol doing the border security mission,” Owens said.

In the fiscal year that ended September 30, US immigration authorities arrested approximately 475,000 people crossing the border illegally in the Del Rio area. They know of at least 160,000 others who fled.

Illegal crossers who are determined to be “non-threatening” are processed at a facility in Eagle Pass, dubbed the Firefly Softsation. Border Patrol erected the orderly maze of large white tents in July to handle the growing influx. Of the center’s 316 employees, 140 are Border Patrol agents. The rest are contract workers who keep the tents running smoothly around the clock. Agents from other DHS agencies are volunteering to spend 30 straight days away from home to help prepare meals. , cataloging personal effects and filling the tables with snacks: chips, apples, breakfast bars, bottled water. “I always argue that we don’t have enough,” Owens said.

His agents are also emotionally overwhelmed. The boat patrol team sometimes picks up small children from the river. He said officers performed CPR on infants and saw whole groups taken away. “And every day, going home to their families, waking up the next morning, getting back in uniform and just continuing to show up day after day,” Owens said.

He worries about burnout. “There is no break… There is no light at the end of the tunnel. This is what it means to be emotionally overwhelmed,” he said.

Chief Patrol Officer Jason Owens at Firefly Softstation

Chief Patrol Officer Jason Owens at Firefly Softstation
Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Owens served with Border Patrol for 26 years. Long shifts mean his officers lack time with family and their children’s school events. He wants the American people to see their dedication: the changing of diapers and the mixing of formula, the toys they bring from home for immigrant children.

Amid scathing social media reviews and backlash, he is grateful for the community support at Eagle Pass and neighboring Del Rio. “We couldn’t do our job without them by our side,” he said. Border Patrol works alongside local charities, law enforcement, city leaders and businesses. “It’s everyone who has a stake in what’s going on here, coming together, finding mutual understanding and trying to get through as best we can,” Owens said.

After Border Patrol turns the immigrants over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are transported to Mission: Border Hope at Eagle Pass or the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition 55 miles west of DelRio. Shon Young is coalition president and associate pastor at City Church in Del Rio.

He says it’s not just the immigrant who needs care. In 2021, 15,000 Haitian immigrants crowded under a bridge in Del Rio. Border Patrol asked local churches to help feed them. He saw law enforcement bring their own items and distribute diapers to families in need. When World Central Kitchen arrived to take over, the church focused its attention on Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Security agents. They handed out Chick-fil-A sandwiches, sports drink paddles and care packages.

A few agents from the Texas Department of Public Safety and Border Patrol agents attend the town church. The church regularly hosts barbecues for officers from each local Border Patrol post. They hand out med kits full of snacks they can keep in their vehicles and grab quickly: a pack of chewing gum, a bag of nuts, beef jerky and other bric-a-brac. “We want to let them know that the church cares and loves them and is there for them through their difficult times,” Young said.