Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a series about the border crisis. Read the first story, about Sister Norma Pimentel and her work with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, here; the second piece examines the crisis through the eyes of Kevin Pagan, the City of McAllen’s emergency management coordinator; and the third story covers Othal E. Brand Jr., one of the few politicians who has directly taken action in securing the border. In the fifth installment, our reporter talks with Edras, a sixteen-year-old who made the 1,400-mile trek from Guatemala.
“There’s an unusually large number of jet skis out today,” Border Patrol agent Albert Spratte says as he stares out at the Rio Grande. “I don’t know if that’s smuggling or a lot of people have discovered jet skis.”
It’s a lovely Saturday afternoon in Anzalduas Park, a grassy riverside expanse in the city of Mission. The sun is beaming, a light breeze cuts through the muggy air, a few families are lounging at picnic tables, some men are fishing along the bank. Across the water, Mexicans in swimsuits are sunbathing on a sandy beach while others zigzag around the Rio Grande on their Sea-Doos and Kawasakis, their wakes rippling against the U.S. shore.
“Some of this stuff is legitimate—people are just trying to have fun with their families,” he tells me, still casing the river traffic. “You don’t want to get to where you think, Oh, they’re all guilty. They’re not. On the Mexican side, you can rent the jet skis. But on the weekends particularly, you see the smugglers on jet skis because they use the crowds to draw people away [from them]. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
As Border Patrol has declared the most heavily trafficked stretches of the lower Rio Grande Valley off-limits to private citizens (including members of the media), Anzalduas Park, tucked into a bend in the river just twenty minutes southwest of McAllen, has become the go-to destination for reporters to witness the waves of border crossings. It has drawn everyone from network news to right-wing outlets like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and, like Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where immigrant families are cared for, the park has become one of the iconic sites of the crisis.
When reporters tour Anzalduas, Spratte often serves as the guide, which isn’t to say that he’s the kind of tight-lipped government spokesperson one would expect. In fact, he’s not really the Border Patrol’s chosen emissary at all. A husky 48-year-old with a gray crew cut, Spratte serves as the sergeant at arms of National Border Patrol Council Local 3307, and his status as a union leader has liberated him to talk to the press. And while he claims to be media-shy, he’s pretty clearly relishing the opportunity to speak for his tribe. Within minutes of meeting me, he’s criticizing Washington politicians (“What was it Nancy Pelosi said, ‘This is not a crisis, this is an opportunity’? This is a crisis”) and telling me that his fellow agents feel they’re badly in need of more resources. He’s also upset with his bosses for censoring the rank and file.
“When this really started out we were taking people down to the river and other areas, and now all of a sudden it’s ‘Oh, this is restricted, you can’t come down here,’ ” Spratte says. “I think it’s pretty close to a violation of the First Amendment. They want to restrict the press from these areas, but why? It does not harm them. I think it brings light to the issue. It’s gotta be something from up top. They don’t want people to know.”
When we meet at Anzalduas, Spratte is off-duty but still hypervigilant. He likes working “the line,” and he wants to show me the chase. As we circle the park, he spots a constable’s truck parked near the shore. Standing next to it are two women and one man. They are dressed in crisp exercise clothes and look like lost tourists. “Oh, my god,” Spratte yelps as we get close enough to make them out in more detail. “They’re Chinese!” Spratte says they likely arrived moments earlier on jet skis before surrendering to the first law enforcement officer they encountered. “It goes in spurts,” he adds. “Chinese, Indians—we’ve even caught Israelis.”
We drive on and stop near the park’s boat ramp, where a few young men are relaxing on a long wooden deck. “Look at the two guys to our left,” Spratte whispers to me after we’ve been there for a couple minutes. I turn. There are two Hispanic men—late teens, maybe early twenties. Spratte continues: “One of them’s been on his cellphone the whole time that we’ve been here. The other guy has kind of a nice hat.” He pauses. “[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 walk away, hopping into a silver Chevy Malibu coupe, and drive past us. “Maybe they were told to move,” Spratte says. “You hate saying ‘game,’ but it’s like a chess game. Where are the pieces moving?”
The movements continue. Spratte and I get back into my car and continue driving slowly around the park, only to see a black van in front of us speed off the road and come to a sudden stop a few feet from the edge of the riverbank. A burly, goateed man wearing an American flag bandanna hops out and sprints at full speed toward the hatchback door, grabbing a video camera and running toward the water. A moment later, another cameraman emerges from the van, along with a woman in a spotless white dress and a tall, wiry guy wearing a black tank top, an unbuttoned bowling shirt, and Stars and Stripes–patterned cowboy boots. They’re filming something and enjoying it tremendously.
“Why do I gotta do your job, dude?” the cowboy-boot-wearing man says to Spratte when we approach.
“No comment,” Spratte laughs.
The cowboy-boot-wearing man is Charlie LeDuff, the irreverent and proudly gonzo host of his own syndicated news show,The Americans With Charlie LeDuff. (A former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times staff reporter and the author of the best-selling book Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff comes across like a cross between Dennis Hopper and Anthony Bourdain. Spratte had shown LeDuff around Anzalduas the previous day, and now the TV host tells the Border Patrol agent what he and I have just missed. A smuggler on a jet ski was ferrying two people, including a pregnant woman, over to the U.S. shore. LeDuff and his crew had spotted the watercraft and sprung to action. The smuggler, seeing that he was about to be on camera, aborted his crossing, sticking out his middle finger and shouting at the newsman. Still clearly visible on the Mexican shore, the smuggler cradled the pregnant woman in his arms and carried her back up onto the beach.
“It’s pretty crazy out here,” Spratte says. “They’ll be back once you leave. They don’t like the press.”
“No, I don’t think I’ve made a friend there,” says LeDuff.
Spratte asks what the smuggler said to him.
“‘You’re costing me money’—in English!”
“Is that going to be prominent?” Spratte asks.
“Fuck yeah!” LeDuff exclaims. “We’re going to loop that bitch.”
Jet skis dropping off pregnant women. Chinese border crossers in fancy workout attire. A park full of could-be spies. These sights of the Rio Grande are almost hallucinatory, but they don’t seem to alarm Spratte. They seem to fatigue him. Not long ago, he says, agents’ mouths would drop open when they’d hear about a group of fifty immigrants getting caught. Now, he says, “if you tell me, I’ve got a group of fifty, I need help, I would laugh at you. If you said, I’ve got a group of three hundred, now that would be cool, because that would be a new record. And the records are only going to keep increasing.” (According to Spratte, agents in the Valley have had a single pickup of around 280 immigrants.)
“Adults are one thing,” he continues. “Adults made the conscious decision to come up here. With kids it’s different. You got to take care of them. We give them water; we give them food. On a kid’s birthday you’ll go get a Happy Meal or bring them a stuffed toy. That’s the side of agents a lot of people don’t know about.”
Still, he knows that good intentions and a few warm gestures aren’t a solution. “From the point we catch them, our job is to catch and process—we normally don’t do detentions,” he says. “The law says, ‘Take 72 hours to maintain or hold somebody,’ and sometimes that’s stretched.” But the increased number of apprehensions has overwhelmed the Border Patrol stations, turning what should be lightly used holding areas into overcrowded cellblocks of children and young families. “They are not enough facilities out there. The concern is, Would you be able to treat someone like that in an American jail?”
The day after touring Anzalduas Park with Spratte, I return to the same spots with another law enforcement officer, Hidalgo County Precinct 3 constable Larry Gallardo. The sun again is beaming, a light breeze again cuts through the muggy air, and the fishermen again are standing by the riverbank. Like Spratte, Gallardo looks vigilantly at the park-goers and tells me some are working for smuggling networks: “The game warden is going to start checking for licenses to make sure they’re not scouts. What they do is they go out there with nothing on the damn line.”
There are fewer jet skis racing around the water this afternoon and no amped-up TV news crews running around. The place feels calmer. But there are still crossings. As Gallardo and I are driving around the park’s ring road, the constable spots a couple of trucks from his precinct stopped near some grills and picnic tables. A small group of deputies is nearby talking to a small teenage boy with spiky black hair and a black long-sleeved T-shirt inlaid with a rhinestone cross. “This guy just came across,” Gallardo says as he drives over.
Gallardo starts talking to the boy in Spanish. He’s sixteen, from La Unión, El Salvador, and says he’s come to live with a cousin in New York. His father is dead. He has no brothers and sisters. He wants to help his mother, and maybe he’ll be able to do it from America. His voice starts to quiver.
“Are you afraid right now?” Gallardo asks him.
“No,” the boy replies.
“Don’t be scared,” Gallardo says in a reassuring baritone.
“This is a story we come across all the time,” Gallardo says to me, as the deputies go back to talking to the boy. “We had a sixteen-year-old and a four-year-old the other day—the sixteen-year-old was the uncle and the four-year-old’s mother and father had been here for two years already. That means this four-year-old had not seen his mother for two years.”
A white-and-green Border Patrol truck arrives a few minutes later, and the agent gets out. He will be the one to transport the boy back to the station, where the boy will likely spend several days in those overcrowded cells before being transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility for juveniles. If the Department of Health and Human Services deems the boy’s cousin a suitable guardian, he’ll end up in New York with him. Months from now—whether he’s lucky enough to have a lawyer or not—he’ll have to make a case for his asylum.
“What’s your name?” the agent asks the boy, in Spanish.
“Olvin,” he says in a steady, clear voice.
“Olvin,” the agent repeats slowly to himself. He smiles. “Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos, Olvin.”