Surge in migrant smuggling strains resources, threatens life in far West Texas, county judge says

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Water lines cut, fires started, costly ambulances filled with migrants, border leaders complain

A boot hangs near a break in the border wall in rural Hudspeth County in West Texas where there has been an uptick in human trafficking of migrants and drug smuggling, the county judge told Border Report. (Courtesy Photo)

DEL RIO, Texas (Border Report) — Several counties in rural West Texas have declared local states of disaster due to a tremendous increase in migrant trafficking through the region, which they say threatens residents, businesses and puts the lives of migrants at risk.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Presidio County Commissioners Court became the latest to issue the special declaration to help stop the influx of migrants coming from Mexico through dangerous and remote terrain. The declaration read: “To proclaim a local state of disaster whereas, the health, life, and property of the residents of Presidio County is under the imminent threat of disaster from the human trafficking occurring on our border with Mexico.”

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara is seen leading Commissioner’s Court online Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Presidio County is home to Marfa, Texas.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara had signed the order on April 28 but took it before commissioners on Wednesday insisting it should be issued by the full court.

“I believe that as a united front we need to sign this declaration of state of disaster,” Guevara said during the commissioners’ court online meeting Wednesday. “All around us they are catching a lot of illegal aliens and these are not people trying to come here for asylum. For the most part, they feel like they’re dangerous criminals and that the situation is out of control.”

They’re dangerous criminals and the situation is out of control.”

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara

The declaration came after the nearby counties of Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Brewster and Culberson issued similar declarations. These counties are on or near the border with Mexico and span 100 miles east of El Paso County to the Big Bend region.

“Many ranchers expressed how they are finding people on their ranches, illegal aliens on their ranches, six or seven, and sometimes they come into the house and ask for coffee and breakfast and they’re afraid. What can they do? They fix them breakfast,” Guevara said.

Hudspeth County Judge Thomas Neely, 93, told Border Report: “I’ve been on the border here all my life and I’ve never seen a crisis like this one.”

“There are people all up and down the border seeking asylum but the ones we’re getting through here are more of the criminal element like the drug smugglers and that sort of thing and they’re doing a lot of damage to our local ranchers and farmers who are along the border,” Neely said Tuesday afternoon via phone. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Rural mountainous and cavernous Hudspeth County, in West Texas, is a popular location for human smuggling. (Courtesy Photo)

Many migrants are getting left behind by coyotes, or smugglers, and are injured and dehydrated and struggling to live. They are desperate, Neely said. And they are resorting to cutting precious water lines that supply water for the county’s 5,000 residents and starting fires to alert rescuers — or other migrants — for help.

‘The name of the game’

Hudspeth County Emergency Management Coordinator/County Administrator Joanna MacKenzie told Border Report the county’s jail has already incurred $200,000 in costs associated with the migrant surge, including medical care and transportation.

A break in the border wall is seen in rural Hudspeth County where the largest city is Sierra Blanca, Texas, with a population of 480 people. (Courtesy Photo)

“Fences are cut and cattle get out onto I-10. Water lines are being cut, which for us out here are life-sustaining, these are miles and miles-long water lines,” MacKenzie said.

Migrants also often wear large black trash bags to camouflage themselves “and when they’re picked up they’re cut off and the cattle are eating them and it’s killing cattle.”

There is a burn ban in effect in Hudspeth County and the fires started by the migrants are adding to wildlife threats in the region, she said.

There is no hospital in Hudspeth County, so injured migrants who are picked up on the road by first responders are taken by ambulance to neighboring counties, like El Paso, which is 90 minutes away.

The desperation faced by leaders in these Southwest borderlands comes after ranchers and leaders in counties north of South Texas also experienced similar car chases, bail outs and damage to property related to human smuggling in deep South Texas that started when President Joe Biden took office.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehends a migrant on March 26, 2021, in rural Brooks County in South Texas in an area where bailouts and smuggling of undocumented asylum seekers often occurs. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

‘We’re drowning’

Hudspeth County only has a total of six, privately operated ambulances. On May 5, two of the ambulances were filled with injured migrants who had been hurt hopping off a train prior to the Border Patrol checkpoint in Hudspeth County. That meant there were only four ambulances left in the vast county, should they need them.

Neely said all these factors led Hudspeth County Commissioners on May 18 to become one of the first counties in the region to issue a local state of disaster signed by the full court, saying “this border crisis has created unsafe situations.”

The Hudspeth County declaration reads in part: Texas counties along the United States’ border with Mexico are experiencing a security humanitarian and public health crisis as thousands of migrants and refugees cross the border illegally into the United States, with instances of hundreds of individuals being apprehended each day in Hudspeth County.

You can view the full declaration below or download here:

DHS officials are adding 10 additional emergency boxes in Hudspeth County in hopes that migrants will use those, rather than light fires. In addition, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent 70-80 troopers to the region as part of Operation Lone Star, MacKenzie said, but they are fearful it won’t be enough.

“We’re drowning. Our Hudspeth County jail right now has almost 30 individuals who are being held for trespassing and property damage,” MacKenzie said of the jail in the county’s largest town of Sierra Blanca, which has 480 residents.

Currently, there are 11 bodies in the Hudspeth County morgue for which the county will be responsible to find means to bury, Guevara told Presidio County commissioners as they discussed the issue on Wednesday.

Similar burial costs could also affect Presidio County, she said, and they don’t have additional funds to cover these expenses.

“We’re aware very much of the increasing danger to the public and the increasing risk to the public,” Guevara said. “So there is a crisis.”

Gregory Davis, U.S. Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer for the Big Bend Sector, told Border Report that they are “shifting resources where necessary and thinking smartly to get ahead of the situation.”

“That’s the name of the game,” Davis said.

On Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has scheduled a news conference with the head of DPS where they are is expected to provide an update on the state’s efforts to secure the border with Mexico.

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