Just off US highway 281, south of a spit of a town called Encino in Brooks county, there’s a cross made of wind-strewn flowers tied to a utility pole marking the spot where 10 undocumented migrants were killed last month when the speeding van carrying them crashed. The makeshift shrine on a stretch of the highway deep in south Texas also contains some candles, a pair of work boots and a small Mexican flag. All mark what is suspected to be an extreme example of the collateral damage that results from securing our international borders. Law enforcement speculate that the inhabitants of the van were to be dropped off to traverse dangerous, snake-infested backcountry and circumvent a US Customs and Border Protection checkpoint located a few miles north of the accident site.
The immigration checkpoint is called the Falfurrias border patrol station, which leads out of the busiest of the immigration agency’s 20 sectors along both the Canadian and Mexican borders with the US. Its function is to interdict smugglers and drug traffickers. This landmark is at the center of Missing in Brooks County, a new documentary that details the growing number of deaths plaguing the nation’s border with Mexico and the logistical challenges in identifying even a single migrant among many hundreds who die annually.
Originally opened in 1940 and located 70 miles north of the Rio Grande, Falfurrias station, in Brooks, is considered one of the most hi-tech checkpoints in the country. Two years ago, the station received a $30m facelift. An average 10,000 vehicles a day pass through the checkpoint. Cameras take photos of your vehicle long before you speak to an agent. And X-ray machines can tell if migrants are hidden in the vehicle.
The checkpoint is located in an 1,100-sq-mile region of desolate ranchland that is famously difficult to navigate and is patrolled by a two-person sheriff’s department. To the distant east of US 281, the main thoroughfare in the region, is the historic King Ranch. To the west is country just as rugged and, typically, the preferred route for smugglers to send migrants to circumvent the checkpoint.
Many people along the US-Mexico border consider the checkpoint at Falfurrias the real border. Families can spend a lifetime in Hidalgo county, where I live, and get along fine without documentation. But the checkpoint is strictly to be avoided if you are a migrant or smuggler because getting caught there can be a ticket to deportation or prison. This is where everyone traveling by road outside of south Texas is stopped and asked their citizenship.
On some levels, it seems a fairly innocuous exercise to have to declare yourself “American” before being waved on your journey. As a child in my home town of El Paso, I reveled in passing border patrol stations just to see the uniformed agents and the drug-sniffing dogs, staples at checkpoints. That was until I witnessed the fear of an older distant relative traveling with us who, though in the country legally, did not have her documents. The agent allowed my relative through the checkpoint with a stern warning. But the incident caused my parents and every other adult in our car to gasp in panic, which I didn’t understand until they explained deportation to me.
To this day, routine school activities such as a field trip or even a high school sports event to cities such as Corpus Christi or San Antonio, which are not too far from Hidalgo, can cause anxiety among school administrators who know the chances are good that some of their students are undocumented and may encounter problems at these checkpoints.
Four years ago, in a notorious case, a 10-year-old girl who was being rushed by ambulance from the border city of Laredo to a hospital in Corpus Christi for emergency surgery was temporarily detained by border patrol agents because she was undocumented. They eventually allowed her to proceed to the hospital – but she was accompanied by immigration agents who stood outside the operating room and took her 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 clients in the vicinity of that roadside memorial along US 281. The migrant is given a little water and often-scant directions to march through unforgiving backcountry to meet the smugglers north of the Falfurrias checkpoint. I have visited some of this ranchland, which has a barren sameness to it that makes it difficult to find your direction. Throw in a relentless south Texas sun and even a short journey can become a challenge. But for migrants, these are not short journeys. They are miles long, often at night, into unfamiliar terrain with dangerous wildlife.
Just weeks before the van accident, Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss released Missing in Brooks County, a five-year odyssey for the film-makers that graphically shows the problem as the number of migrants slipping into the country has hit a 20-year high. The film-makers’ intent was to follow a pioneering associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University who was leading an effort to use DNA technology to identify hundreds of dead migrants, many of whom are buried without identification and many more whose remains are torn apart by animals and scattered across the terrain. But as Molomot recently told me, that story, like the issue of immigration itself, became much more complex.
As the documentary points out, back in the Clinton administration, which was dealing with its own migrant surge, immigration officials adopted a new policy of deterrence that forced migrants into some of the United States’s most dangerous terrain. Just like so many other deterrence policies, the checkpoints, which drive migrants into the backcountry, has not resulted in fewer migrants, only more deaths. The film notes that more than 20,000 migrants have died in the south-west US since the policy was enacted in 1994.
So many lives have been lost, including many in Brooks county, that a cottage industry of support workers have sprung up that do everything from set water jugs in remote areas of the county to locating and analyzing the DNA of those who have perished in this unforgiving region of Texas.
The documentary weaves together the rarely seen compassionate role of law enforcement as officers search for and recover bodies and the less compassionate role of camouflaged and heavily armed civilians who spend their nights wearing night-vision goggles to look for lawbreakers.
I drove through the checkpoint a few weeks ago on my way to Austin. The agent who checked my vehicle looked like a teenager, a potential rookie that smugglers looking for checkpoint weaknesses could exploit. With a glance in my backseat and upon hearing my declaration that I’m an American, the agent waved me through. My vehicle soon approached 80mph as I drove through the desolate landscape. In half an hour, I would hit the town of Falfurrias with a population of roughly 5,000. On foot, in the backcountry, with limited food and water, that journey is far different.
Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org