Jnear American Highway 281, south of a town in a town called Encino, Brooks County, there is a cross made of wind-blown flowers tied to a utility pole that marks the place where ten undocumented migrants were killed last month when the van carrying them crashed at full speed. The makeshift sanctuary on a stretch of road in South Texas also contains some candles, a pair of work boots and a small Mexican flag. They all mark what is suspected to be an extreme example of the collateral damage that results from the security of our international borders. Law enforcement speculates that the occupants of the van had to be abandoned to cross the bottom of the dangerous and snake-infested country and evade U.S. customs and border protection located a few miles north of the site. the accident.
The immigration checkpoint is called the Falfurrias border patrol station, which leaves the top 20 sectors of the immigration agency along the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. Its function is to ban smugglers and drug traffickers. This milestone is in the center of Missing in Brooks County, a new documentary detailing the growing number of deaths affecting the nation’s border with Mexico and the logistical challenges of identifying even a single migrant among the many hundreds of people who they die annually.
Initially opened in 1940 and located 70 miles north of the Rio Grande, Falfurrias Station in Brooks is considered one of the most advanced checkpoints in the country. Two years ago, the station received a $ 30 million facelift. An average of 10,000 vehicles a day go through the control. Cameras take pictures of your vehicle long before you talk to an agent. And X-ray machines can tell if migrants are hiding in the vehicle.
The checkpoint is located in a 1,100-square-mile region of desolate ranching land that is famously difficult to navigate and that patrols the department of a two-person sheriff. In the far east of US 281, the region’s main thoroughfare, lies the historic King Ranch. To the west is an equally rugged country and usually the preferred route for smugglers to send migrants to evade the checkpoint.
Many people along the U.S.-Mexico border consider Falfurrias checkpoint to be the true border. Families can spend their entire lives in Hidalgo County, where I live, and get along well without documentation. But the checkpoint should be strictly avoided if you are a migrant or smuggler, because being caught can lead to a ticket for deportation or imprisonment. This is where everyone who travels by road outside of South Texas is stopped and asked for their citizenship.
On some levels, it seems like a pretty innocuous exercise to have to declare yourself “American” before being agitated during your trip. When I was a kid in my hometown, El Paso, I enjoyed passing border patrol stations just to see uniformed officers and dogs sniffing drugs, basic at checkpoints. It was until I witnessed the fear of an older distant relative traveling with us who, although legally in the country, did not have their documents. The agent allowed my relative to pass through the checkpoint with a stern warning. But the incident caused my parents and all the other adults in our car to panic, which I didn’t understand until they explained the deportation to me.
To this day, routine school activities, such as a field trip or even a high school sporting event in cities like Corpus Christi or San Antonio, which are not too far from Hidalgo, they can cause anxiety among school administrators who know the chances are good some of their students are undocumented and may have problems at these checkpoints.
Four years ago, in a notorious case, a ten-year-old girl who was being rushed by ambulance from the border town of Laredo to a Corpus Christi hospital for emergency surgery was temporarily detained by officers. of the border patrol because he had no papers. Eventually, she was allowed to go to the hospital, but was accompanied by immigration officers who were left out of the operating room and taken into custody when doctors released her from the hospital.
But the saddest reality of these border patrol checkpoints is the number of lives lost when smugglers dump their migrant customers in the vicinity of this roadside monument along U.S. 281. it gives a little water and often scant directions to march through indulgent countries. he meets the smugglers north of Falfurrias control. I’ve visited some of these farms, which have a sterile resemblance that makes it hard to find your address. Throwing yourself into a relentless South Texas sun and even a short trip can become a challenge. But for migrants these are not short trips. They are miles long, often at night, to unfamiliar terrain with dangerous wildlife.
A few weeks before the van crash, Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss launched Missing in Brooks County, a five-year odyssey for filmmakers that graphically shows the problem as the number of migrants fleeing the country has reached a maximum of 20 years. The filmmakers intended to follow a pioneering associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University who led an effort to use DNA technology to identify hundreds of dead migrants, many of whom are buried unidentified and many more. of which they are torn by animals and scattered on the ground. But, as Molomot recently told me, that story, like the subject of immigration itself, became much more complex.
As the documentary points out, already in the Clinton administration, which was dealing with its own wave of migrants, immigration officials adopted a new deterrent policy that forced migrants into some of the most dangerous terrain in the United States. Like so many other deterrence policies, checkpoints, which drive migrants backwards, have not resulted in fewer migrants, but more deaths. The film notes that more than 20,000 migrants have died in the southwestern United States since the policy was enacted in 1994.
So many lives have been lost, including many in Brooks County, that a homegrown industry of support workers has sprung up doing everything from water jugs set in remote areas of the county to locating and analyzing DNA from the people who have lost in this unforgivable. Texas region.
The documentary weaves the compassionate role rarely seen by law enforcement as officers search for and retrieve bodies and the less compassionate role of camouflaged and heavily armed civilians who spend their nights wearing night-vision goggles to search for offenders.
I drove the checkpoint a few weeks ago on my way to Austin. The agent who checked my vehicle looked like a teenager, a potential newcomer who could be exploited by smugglers looking for weaknesses at the checkpoint. With a look in the back seat and hearing my statement that I am American, the agent handcuffed me. My vehicle soon approached 80 km / h as it drove through the desolate landscape. In half an hour, it would arrive at the city of Falfurrias with an approximated population of 5,000 inhabitants. On foot, on your back, with limited food and water, this trip is very different.
Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo County, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked for the Washington Post and Texas Monthly, as well as eight other newsrooms. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org