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As More Migrants Cross Rio Grande, Border Patrol Rescues Surge

The U.S. and Mexico reached an agreementon Friday that was expected to defuse the Trump administration's threat of tariffs on Mexican products. Mexico said it will do more to stop the flow of migrants coming north, which includes immediately expanding the Migrant Protection Protocols across its entire southern border.

The Trump administration wanted Mexico's help to address the surge in migrants crossing the southern U.S. border.

More than 144,000 migrants made the very dangerous journey into the U.S. just last month. Traveling by land -- across deserts or scrublands with little or no water -- can be very dangerous.

But water itself can be even more dangerous. Many migrants risked their lives by swimming across the rain-swollen Rio Grande. In some cases, migrants used rafts or they walked across shallow areas in the river, which are not easy to find.

Earlier this week, several Border Patrol agents boarded an airboat to patrol the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas.

“Easiest way to get on is right here, just hold your step and grab onto the railings,” said Border Patrol agent Reynaga, who asked to be identified only by his last name.

The agents entered the river down a boat ramp in Shelby Park, which includes sports fields, jogging paths and a municipal golf course overlooking the river. The park is sandwiched between the two bridges that serve as ports of entry in Eagle Pass.

This area is also where agents have seen most the migrants in the Del Rio Sector -- their area of responsibility.

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Golfers play near the international bridge in Eagle Pass.

Reynaga drove the boat as the agents scoured the water for people.

The agents reported rescuing migrants more than 400 times, mostly from the Rio Grande, over the past eight months. Throughout the same period last year, they performed 46 rescues. Agents are responsible for 209 miles of the Rio Grande in this sector.

The agents explained that the river winds back and forth and fluctuates between deep and extremely shallow areas. They said some migrants may cross what seems to be a shallow section but then the strong currents can sweep them into deep waters.

Those currents endangered one migrant family a few weeks ago. Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Brady J. Waikel was there.

“At one point the adult male at the very end slipped off the rescue line and drifted a couple of yards,” Waikel recalled. “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, he slipped off the rope.”

The father was able to grab onto Carrizo Cane, a tall bamboo-like plant growing on the bank and pull himself out of the water.

That’s when Waikel jumped in to save the boy.

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Brady J. Waikel, assistant chief patrol agent (from left), and Border Patrol Agents Reynaga and Ancira ride an airboat on the Rio Grande.

Waikel said the water rescue operations can have a personal element.

“When I saw that kid drifting, I saw my own son drifting in the river,” he said. “And all of these agents have family, and when we see these people in distress, that’s usually who our agents are thinking of.”

Early summer is 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, but the increase in flow can cause the river to swell and flow faster.

“For several weeks, our rescues were even more serious than they normally are,” Waikel said. “The river was several feet higher than it is right now.”

Waikel said their sector’s resources are stretched thin, and that every Border Patrol station in their sector was filled beyond capacity.

“Our stations are filled with family units, single adults awaiting prosecution, with mothers with children, and they’re not designed for that,” he said. “Most of our stations were designed many years ago, but they were designed for single adults primarily from Mexico because at the time that’s what we were catching.”

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
'Sonia,' a Honduran woman who asked for her real name to not be used, seeks asylum. She and her familiy wait for a relative to buy them tickets to San Antonio.

Recent months saw instances of overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities and deaths of migrant children while in the custody of federal officials.

Waikel said the humanitarian aspect of the job is not lost on them -- it’s as important to them as the enforcement aspect.

“We feel for these people, and we’re doing everything in our power to treat them as humanely as we can while we’re holding them in places that by design were never meant to hold this vulnerable population.”

About a mile from the river, a group of migrants, including some who swam the Rio Grande, gathered after the Border Patrol released them.

They received notices to appear in immigration court at a later date. Their next stop was San Antonio, about 150 miles away.

"Sonia," a Honduran woman, said she was headed north with her husband and her four daughters. She asked that her real name not be used.

She said she was aware of dangers of crossing the Rio Grande, but she would not be deterred. The family paid fishermen about $40 to help them find a safe place to cross.

“We were scared. We got off a bus at night and crossed at night,” she said. “But fortunately there were some men fishing, so we gave them what little money we had so that they could help us cross.”

Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Clothes left behind on the banks of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

The Trump administration has limited how many migrants it will process at official ports of entry. Sometimes it’s just a few a day, so migrants like this family resort to crossing the river and turning themselves into Border Patrol agents.

“My husband carried our youngest daughter, and I carried another,” she said. “Our brother-in-law carried another.”

The Honduran family was lucky. Fifteen migrants have died, most in the river, in the Del Rio sector so far this fiscal year. Agents worried there will be more.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at@ReynaldoLeanos

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos