PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico (Border Report) – The young man in a black T-shirt and baseball cap picked up several empty plastic bottles littering the riverbank and placed them in a trash bag. He closed the bag with a tight knot and waded into the Rio Grande from Mexico.
As the water reached his chest and the current grew stronger, he used the bag as a flotation device. He walked until he reached U.S. soil just upstream of the 1,000-foot line of orange buoys placed by the state of Texas in the river south of Eagle Pass to deter illegal immigration.
A couple of hundred yards to the west, more than a dozen single adults and families with small children waded onto an island in the middle of the river. A Texas Department of Public Safety boat patrol with engines revving passed between them and the U.S. banks repeatedly.
The migrants waited for the boat patrol to leave and crossed the river with the children on their shoulders. When they found barbwire and Texas National Guard troops on the other side, they continued along the bank in search of a breach or a place without soldiers where they could pull up the barrier, get in and find a U.S. Border Patrol agent to surrender to and make an asylum claim.
Neither the string of orange buoys nor the razor wire, the boat patrol or the soldiers made the group turn back.
“It makes you afraid, but you have to go on,” said Yumaker, a Venezuelan mother of four.
The U.S. means not only work for her and her husband, but also an education for their children. Those goals make the obstacles almost seem tolerable, she said.
As they prepared to go into the river, her husband Jerlander placed the couple’s 1-year-old baby in a harness around his chest while her 9-year-old daughter Sofia held a small dog called Luna.
The family advanced toward the island with Yumaker holding her 5-year-old son’s hand tightly and the couple’s oldest daughter – she wouldn’t give her name or age – watching over Sofia and holding everyone’s documents in a plastic bag. They joined yet another crowd wading on the other side of the buoys.
Texas has deployed troops, DPS troopers and installed barriers south of the U.S. border wall, frustrated with a Biden administration Republican leaders say is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration.
Immigrant rights groups say they are aware of the obstacles Texas has placed on foreign nationals coming in between ports of entry. They say those efforts spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott have failed to stop the migrants despite $5 billion spent in the past two years.
“Billions and billions of dollars can be spent building barrier after barrier (and) it’s not going to tame these immigrants that want a better life for themselves and their families,” said Jesse Fuentes, a board member of the Eagle Pass Border Coalition advocacy group. “They’ve traveled for hundreds, thousands of miles. Do you think a little barrier is going to hold them back?”
Abbott recently brought a handful of Republican governors to Eagle Pass and shared data on how the efforts have led to thousands of migrant apprehensions, arrests and state felony charges filed.
And while migrant apprehensions went down in June in all U.S. Border Patrol sectors that include chunks of Texas, the numbers rose again in July in most places, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. In nearby Del Rio, the numbers held steady from one month to the next.
“You cannot put buoys all along the river. And even if they do, that’s not going to stop them. The only thing is it’s going to cause a lot of deaths and injuries that I have seen myself,” said Juanita Martinez, another member of the Eagle Pass Border Coalition and president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “I have seen children with gashes in their legs, innocent immigrants that now carry the mark of Abbott.”
On the Mexican side of the river, Jose Gutierrez agrees most migrants will skirt the buoys and sort river currents and concertina wire or die trying. Earlier this month he watched Piedras Negras, Mexico, first responders pull the body of a small girl out of the water. A few months ago, he struck conversation with a young couple from Venezuela before they went into the Rio Grande.
“The girl fell in the water, and she had difficulty getting up. They made it to the island, but the water is deeper beyond that. The boy made it across, but she did not; they found her body one kilometer downstream,” Gutierrez said. “You wish you could help them, but there is nothing you can do.”
The retired carpenter who lives near the river said migrants have been crossing the river to Eagle Pass for generations. If anything, more are coming these days, not less, he said.
As if to prove him right, a group of about 50 migrants came out of a shelter and from homes along Calle Reforma in Piedras Negras and walked two blocks north toward the Rio Grande that same afternoon.
Davis, a Venezuelan man in his early 20s, said he endured insect bites, extreme heat and humidity in the Darien jungle of Panama, hunger and the threat of physical assaults in several countries on the way to the U.S.
A river and a fence, “No me van a parar (Will not stop me),” he said.