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Migrants Turn To Risky, Remote Crossings


And now to immigration, this next story takes us to the stark desert landscape in one of the most remote areas on the border with Mexico. It's known as Customs and Border Protections' Big Bend sector in Texas. And it's one of the areas that's been historically seen by migrants as just too dangerous to pass through. But now there is a rise there in both risky crossings and migrants waiting in Mexico for their turn to claim asylum. Marfa Public Radio's Carlos Morales reports from Presidio, Texas.

CARLOS MORALES, BYLINE: It's approaching midday, and I'm riding with Border Patrol agent Derek Boyle along the snaking Rio Grande. On either side of the river, the seemingly endless Chihuahuan Desert - no houses, no buildings.

DEREK BOYLE: And so when you're talking about vast lands, if you look out as far as you can see, we patrol out that way.

MORALES: Boyle's the agent in charge of the Big Bend sector's Presidio station. We park near the river's edge. He grabs his walkie-talkie, and we head out into the dry, 94-degree heat to the chatter of cicadas.


BOYLE: So that's the Rio Grande river right there.

MORALES: Just a sliver of flowing water about four to five feet wide.

BOYLE: And it's even thinner as you go down either right or left of our location right now. It gets thinner.

MORALES: Before long we come across signs people have crossed here - sandy, worn-out clothes, empty water bottles and food that's been left behind.

BOYLE: It's all - like, even that sitting there, was it put there because it fell off of something? Or did they put it there as a marker, to mark the way?

MORALES: The Big Bend is difficult, unforgiving desert terrain. The name refers to the bend in the Rio Grande along the southern edge of Texas, 250 miles from El Paso. It's isolated, which makes the sudden bump in apprehension numbers stand out and cause concern.

BOYLE: And we've almost doubled the previous high number of apprehensions ever in the station. Every apprehension we make now is a new record.

MORALES: At the same time, hundreds more people are waiting 15 minutes away in Ojinaga, Mexico, Presidio's sister city across the Rio Grande. Here, migrants choosing to stay put crowd hotels and apartments until it's their turn to make an asylum claim. In Ojinaga, I meet mostly Cubans, like this man from Havana.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) In Cuba, there's no freedom of expression. There's nothing. If you don't agree with the government, they step on you.

MORALES: He doesn't give me his name. He's worried it might affect his asylum claim. The man says to get to Ojinaga, his family of four - a wife, his son and nephew - spent $15,000. I ask him why this dusty pocket of the border. A friend, he says, told him it was safer here than in bigger cities, like Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) He told me, come over through Ojinaga. Don't go over there. This is a calm part of the border. There's no problem here. You don't get harassed in the streets. They don't take away your money or assault you.

MORALES: That's one reason more and more migrants are making the difficult trek to rural border outposts. Taylor Levy is an El Paso-based immigration lawyer.

TAYLOR LEVY: In Juarez in particular, you can see that the cartels hang out.

MORALES: Criminal thugs who go after vulnerable migrants.

LEVY: You know, they have lookouts and scouts who hang out at the base of the bridges and will target people directly after they're turned away, when they try and seek asylum, before they can even get their name on the list.

MORALES: For those I meet waiting to approach the port of entry in Presidio, they hope smaller towns will have shorter lines. The man from Cuba says only five people are allowed to approach the Presidio port each day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We're going to keep living until it's our turn to pass over to the United States.

MORALES: Back along the Rio Grande, Agent in Charge Derek Boyle says he thinks large migrant groups will continue to come through rural areas like his.

BOYLE: It goes to show the scope of the crisis itself.

MORALES: Boyle says because of the large number of migrants, he needs at least 50 more agents. Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced he was deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the border. But there was no mention of the Big Bend.

For NPR News, I'm Carlos Morales in Presidio, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carlos Morales