I. Albert Spratte, a husky 48-year-old U.S. Border Patrol agent, stood on the high-banked shore of Anzalduas Park, scanning the blue-gray waters of the Rio Grande. It was a typical June afternoon in Mission, with the sun transforming the South Texas town into a stifling convection oven. Occasionally a gentle breeze would whip off the water, breaking the heat, but it was only a minor reprieve. Everything—even the brittle grass—seemed to have been baked into a state of lethargy.
Every so often, the languor would be shattered by a high-pitched roar. At the center of the river, a bevy of Jet Skis darted across the surface in aggressive curlicues, their wakes crashing against both shores. Upon first glance, their riders seemed to be doing nothing more than hotdogging on a summer day, but Spratte considered a more ominous possibility. “There’s an unusually large number of them out today,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s smuggling or if a lot of people have discovered Jet Skis.”
Anzalduas Park, once best known for migratory songbirds and Boy Scout campouts, had grown notorious over the previous few weeks as a site of illegal border crossings, especially for the children and young families fleeing the violence-and-poverty-plagued countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and surging across the Rio Grande in record numbers. In May more than 10,000 unaccompanied minors had been taken into custody in the United States, a deluge that overwhelmed the processing capacities of the Border Patrol, the Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. immigration courts, leading to overcrowded facilities, protracted detentions, and absurdly delayed judicial hearings. (The average wait for a court date is now nearly six hundred days.) In early June President Barack Obama had declared the immigration wave an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and the story soon erupted in headlines worldwide.
As the summer wore on, the number of border apprehensions would drop, and the most overheated fears about the crisis would subside. By early September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson would declare, “The worst is over for now.” Still, the impact of the migrant wave, especially in the area of its highest concentration, was seismic: of the 66,127 unaccompanied minors and 66,142 family units apprehended along the two-thousand-mile border during this fiscal year, a full three quarters crossed through the three-hundred-mile Rio Grande Valley. That glut of arrivals had presented agents like Spratte with a new set of problems. “There are two kinds of traffic,” he told me. “There’s the traffic that we have to catch and the traffic that catches us.” The newest influx of immigrants fell predominantly into the latter category, surrendering in droves to the first American law enforcement officers they met in the hopes of winning legal asylum. And there were few better places to get caught than Anzalduas Park, a wide-open tract that was overrun by officers from the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the local constable’s office. Once an immigrant made it to shore, his or her apprehension was pretty much guaranteed.
The sheer volume had changed Spratte’s perspective on his job. “As an agent, it used to be that if you heard, ‘We’ve got a group of fifty,’ your heart started beating and you’d go for it,” Spratte said. “Now if you told me, ‘I’ve got a group of fifty, I need help,’ I’d laugh at you. If you said, ‘I’ve got a group of three hundred,’ that would be something.”
Anzalduas Park wasn’t the busiest spot for crossings on the Rio Grande, but because it was easily accessible and open to the public, politicians and journalists congregated there to witness the immigration surge firsthand. For much of June, Spratte had been their guide. He liked working the line, and he was eager to show the out-of-towners what the border was really like. The son of an immigrant himself—his mother is from Spain—Spratte had spent the past eight years based in the Valley, and as the sergeant-at-arms of the local agents’ union, he was able to speak publicly despite the fact that the Border Patrol’s rank and file had been told to avoid the media.
On the day I visited Anzalduas Park, Spratte was off-duty and he and I had driven down to the river together. Soon after we arrived, he spotted a truck from the local constable’s office parked near the shore. Standing next to it were a deputy and a trio of civilians—two women and one man—dressed in exercise clothes. They looked like lost tourists asking a friendly cop for directions.
“Oh, my God,” Spratte yelped as we got close enough to make them out in more detail. “They’re Chinese!” They’d likely arrived only a few moments earlier on smuggler-piloted Jet Skis. “For a while there, we were getting Indians,” Spratte said. “You’ll have certain people from one country, and it’ll ebb and flow.”
A Border Patrol agent arrived to formally apprehend the Chinese migrants and take them to the McAllen station for processing. Spratte and I drove on, turning toward the park’s public boat ramp, where a dozen Department of Public Safety squad cars were parked in an imposing line.
“The smugglers usually operate in pairs,” Spratte said as he looked back out at the Jet Skis on the water. “You’ll have somebody distracting, and downriver or upriver, there’s somebody crossing. Sometimes the Jet Skis are legitimate—people just having fun with their families. You don’t want to get to where you think they’re all guilty. But on weekends, the smugglers use the crowds as a distraction.”
A few young men sat nearby on a wooden deck, perched above the water. We parked and walked over to get a good view of the river. “Look at the two guys to our left,” Spratte whispered as we stood on the deck. I turned. The men—in their late teens, maybe early twenties—looked totally unremarkable, a couple of dudes from the Valley hanging out on a Saturday afternoon. “One of them has been on his cellphone the whole time we’ve been here,” said Spratte. “The other guy has kind of a nice hat.” He paused. “The smugglers have a lot of scouts here. Does it mean those two are? No. But I think it’s reasonable that at least one of them is involved.”
The two guys soon got up and walked away, perhaps because they were wary of our whispering, perhaps because a Border Patrol vehicle was approaching, or perhaps because they simply had somewhere else to be. A few moments later, they drove by in a silver Chevy Malibu coupe, glaring at us, the one man still on his cell.
“Maybe they were told to move,” Spratte said. “You hate saying ‘game,’ but it’s like a chess game. Where are the pieces moving?”
We got back into the car and continued driving around the park’s perimeter, only to see a black van in front of us speed off the road and come to a stop a few feet from the edge of a bluff. A burly, goateed man wearing an American flag bandanna around his head hopped out of the van, sprinted toward the hatchback, opened it, grabbed a video camera, and scrambled to get a shot of something in the water. Another cameraman also emerged from the van and was soon joined by a woman in a white dress and a tall, wiry guy wearing Stars and Stripes–patterned cowboy boots, who was directing the crew. Less than a minute later, they put down their cameras, exultant.
“Why do I gotta do your job, dude?” the cowboy-boots-wearing man said to Spratte when we approached a few moments later.
“No comment,” Spratte laughed.
The man was Charlie LeDuff, the irreverent and proudly gonzo host of his own syndicated TV news show, The Americans With Charlie LeDuff. A Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times staff reporter and the author of the best-selling book Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff nonetheless came across as a wild-man intellectual, a cross between Dennis Hopper and Anthony Bourdain. Spratte dubbed LeDuff “good people”—he’d shown him around Anzalduas Park the previous day—and now the TV host told the agent what we had just missed. A smuggler on a Jet Ski had been ferrying two people, one of them a pregnant woman, over to the U.S. shore. LeDuff and his crew had spotted the watercraft and sprung into action. The smuggler, seeing that he was about to be on camera, aborted his crossing with Scarface-like flair, sticking out his middle finger and shouting at the newsman over the roar of the Jet Ski’s engine. Returning to the Mexican shore, the smuggler cradled the pregnant woman in his arms and carried her onto the beach.
“It’s pretty crazy out here,” Spratte said. “They’ll be back once you leave. They don’t like the press.”
“No, I don’t think I’ve made a friend there,” said LeDuff.
Spratte asked what the smuggler had said.
“ ‘You’re costing me money’—in English!”
“Is that going to be prominent?” Spratte asked.
“F— yeah!” LeDuff exclaimed. “We’re going to loop that bitch.”
II. Since the earliest days of the Texas republic, life on the Rio Grande has been both constantly evolving and forever repeating itself. The wild scrublands of the 1850’s were tamed into an agricultural boomtown in the 1900’s, with real-estate speculators selling “snow diggers” on cheap farming tracts and citrus dreams. Today, most of the farms are gone, and endless strip malls and impoverished colonias stand near lands reclaimed and restored to their natural state by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before there were rafts of Mexican marijuana and truckloads of U.S. firearms crossing the Rio Grande, there were bootleggers trafficking in tequila and rum; before the current surge of Central American children, there were the Brazilian immigrants in the mid-aughts, the Nicaraguan war refugees in the eighties, and the uninterrupted generations of Mexican laborers. Before July, when Governor Rick Perry announced that he would deploy one thousand National Guard troops to the border, there was the 2010 National Guard deployment, the 2006 deployment, the 1989 deployment, and the legendary 1916 deployment to protect the U.S. from the marauding forces of Pancho Villa.
And yet, for many Valley residents, the crisis this summer felt different. Never before had so many border crossers been among the most vulnerable—children traveling without their parents, young mothers carrying bewildered babies in their arms. And not since the Mexican Revolution had the Rio Grande Valley felt more militarized. Over the past two decades, law enforcement presence on the river had spiked sharply: in 1994 there were 393 Border Patrol agents in the Valley; as of July there were 3,234, with another 300 slated to arrive by the end of the year. Add to that a $30 million deployment of DPS troopers, the arrival of the National Guard, and the appearance of a few anti-immigrant militias, and it was difficult to go near the river without running a gantlet of lawmen and the occasional vigilante.
Nowhere was this clearer than a few miles downriver from Anzalduas Park, on an overgrown expanse known as Rincón village. The area had once been home to more than two hundred families, but it had since been deserted and was almost entirely bought up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks to its proximity to Reynosa, it has become the preferred spot for smugglers to bring children and families across by the hundreds. In response, Border Patrol agents have effectively closed the area to all civilians, including the media.
But one Sunday morning in August, I drove there with Lorenzo Anzaldúa Jr., a 49-year-old medication aide who grew up in Rincón and now serves as the self-appointed representative of the abandoned community. Anzaldúa traces his family’s roots in the area back “two-hundred-twenty-something years,” to before there was a Texas or even a Mexico; Anzalduas Park, Anzalduas Dam, and the nearby Anzalduas International Bridge were all named after his distant forebears. His family members—his sister, an aunt, and a cousin—still own land in Rincón village, and Anzaldúa is the only U.S. citizen without a badge to visit the area with any frequency.
When Anzaldúa and I arrived in Rincón, he set up some folding chairs on his sister’s plot of land and warned me about rattlesnakes and a cougar that he’d recently heard prowling through the underbrush before launching into a soliloquy on his family’s history. He recalled how, as a boy, he had lain out on the grassy berm next to us, whiling away weekday afternoons doing his homework and drinking his mother’s iced tea. Looking out on the large fallow field behind us, he conjured his late father on a tractor, mowing the grass while wearing a crisp white shirt and drinking a can of Diet Coke. He pointed to the tree line surrounding the field, then told me how he used to hunt crows with a slingshot, and how his family had hosted dove-hunting parties that brought everyone from longtime congressman Kika de la Garza to the actor John Saxon—“the f—ing movie star, from Enter the Dragon! They shot over three hundred doves, those sons of bitches.”