As More Migrants Cross Rio Grande, Border Patrol Rescues Surge
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump's threats to impose tariffs and the negotiations that followed all took place against the backdrop of an increase in border crossings. Last month, Border Patrol encountered more than 144,000 people crossing from Mexico into the U.S. That's about a 30% increase from April. And as Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leanos Jr. reports, some are so desperate to cross they are risking their lives by swimming across the swollen Rio Grande.
REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: Several border patrol agents are boarding an airboat to begin patrolling the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Easiest way to get on is right here. Just hold your step and grab onto these little railings.
LEANOS: Border Patrol agent Reynaga drives the boat as the agents scour the water for migrants. They have rescued migrants more than 400 times in the Del Rio sector, mostly from the Rio Grande, in just the past eight months. That's way up. They did 46 rescues during the same period last year. Agents are responsible for 209 miles of the Rio Grande in this sector.
The river winds back and forth and fluctuates between deep and extremely shallow areas, so you may cross in what seems to be a shallow section and get swept away in the deep waters by the dangerous currents. Those currents separated one migrant family a few weeks ago. Assistant chief patrol agent Brady Waikel was there.
BRADY WAIKEL: At one point, the adult male at the very end slipped off the rescue line, and he drifted a couple of yards. As that was happening, there was a child right in front of him who was turning around screaming for him. And as the child was more concerned with his father, who slipped off the rope, the child slipped off.
LEANOS: The father was able to grab onto the carrizo cane, a tall, bamboo-like plant growing on the bank, and pulled himself out of the water. That's when Waikel jumped in to save the boy. Waikel says Border Patrol agents are often seen in a negative light but says they're human, too.
WAIKEL: I mean, when I saw that kid drifting, I saw my own son drifting in the river. And all of these agents have family. Our agents are no different. And when we see these people in distress, that's usually who our agents are thinking of. You know, they're no different.
LEANOS: This is the high-water season for the Rio Grande. And sometimes, the International Boundary and Water Commission increases the flow from the Amistad Dam to deliver more water downriver. The commission warns the border patrol ahead of time. This causes the river to swell and run faster.
WAIKEL: Several weeks there, our rescues were even more serious than they normally are, so the river was several feet higher than it is right now.
LEANOS: A group of migrants, including some who swam the Rio Grande, are gathered about a mile from the river after being released by the Border Patrol. They've been given notices to appear in immigration court at a later date, and now they're waiting for their ride to San Antonio, about 150 miles away.
One Honduran woman is headed north with her husband and four daughters. She asked that her name not be used. She worries that speaking out could hurt their asylum case. She says back home, they had heard about the dangers of crossing the Rio Grande. But they knew it was something they had to do, and so they paid fishermen about $40 to help them find a safe place to cross.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through translator). We were scared. We got off a bus at night and crossed at night. But fortunately, there were some men fishing, so we gave them what little money we had so that they could help us cross.
LEANOS: The Trump administration has limited how many migrants it's processing at official ports of entry. Sometimes it's just a few a day, so migrants like this family are resorting to crossing the river and turning themselves in to border patrol agents.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through translator) My husband carried our youngest daughter, and I carried another. Our brother-in-law carried another.
LEANOS: The Honduran family are among the lucky ones. Fifteen migrants have died, most in the river, in the Del Rio sector so far this fiscal year, and agents worry there will be more.
For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Eagle Pass, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.