In the predawn hours one rainy day last week, dozens of Mexicans and Central Americans made their way across the Rio Grande and up the riverbanks into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were changing shifts — prime time for people smugglers attempting to evade authorities.
But agents were waiting. Some families and youths traveling alone hoped to claim asylum and turned themselves in. Many of the adults hid in the rain-soaked fields until agents tracked them down using night-vision goggles, dogs and helicopters.
Several of the men sprinted through cotton fields until the mud sucked their shoes off and they collapsed on farm roads, exhausted and defeated.
It was a familiar scene. Newly released data show that migrants were stopped 180,034 times across the southern border last month — nearly eight times the total during May 2020 and among the highest monthly totals in recent years.
That brought total apprehensions for the year to 711,784, nearly five times the total during the same period last year, though direct comparisons are difficult because of a policy implemented early in the COVID-19 pandemic that dramatically increased the number of people who have been caught multiple times.
Since March 2020, the government has summarily expelled migrants to Mexico using an obscure 1944 public health law, giving them the opportunity to immediately try crossing again.
The recent increase in crossings has come at a tragic price: Between October and the end of April, at least 148 migrants died along the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where there were 50,793 apprehensions last month — up from 3,698 in May 2020 — Border Patrol agents respond to about one fatality a week.
Most of the migrants drowned in the river and nearby canals or got lost on ranches and died of exposure and dehydration as they attempted to travel deeper into Texas, Border Patrol agents said.
Among those apprehended last week was Jose Leonidas, a 38-year-old from El Salvador who sat wet and muddy near a field just north of the riverbank, handcuffed to a chain of 10 fellow migrants.
“We want to seek asylum,” he said.
Border Patrol agent Jesse Moreno explained that at the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration created a policy that bars most migrants from seeking asylum. President Biden continued the policy, exempting only people younger than 18 who arrive at the border without adults. With rare exceptions, the rest are expelled to Mexico.
“We don’t want to go to Mexico,” Leonidas said.
But he knew the drill. He had already crossed the border the week before, been caught by Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico — only to try again.
The father of three said he had been unemployed and left for the U.S. to join relatives in Virginia after the economy and gang violence in El Salvador worsened during the pandemic.
Smugglers had charged him $5,000. After he and two other men in his group were kidnapped in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, his family paid an additional $500 in ransom.
“We can’t process you,” Moreno said.
He asked how many of the men in the group had crossed the border before. About half raised their hands.