Border Patrol, Sheriff’s Department rescue undocumented immigrants caught in snowstorm

A group of migrants rescued by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas amid a winter storm that brought snow and freezing temperatures to the region. (Courtesy: U.S. Border Patrol)
A group of migrants rescued by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas amid a winter storm that brought snow and freezing temperatures to the region. (Courtesy: U.S. Border Patrol)

By Shanna Cummings

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Culberson County Sheriff’s Department worked to rescue around 14 groups of undocumented immigrants caught in the snowstorm over the weekend. There was no indication of drug smuggling.

As of press time, three dead have been recovered, with more expected to be found in coming days.

Left photo: A mesquite limb in a barbed wire fence marks the location where one of three deceased individuals were found after the weekend’s snowstorm.
Right photo: The Mass Casualty Evacuation Ambulance was deployed to the area and was put on standby in coordination with BorderRAC. A mass casualty bus that can transport up to 20 patients. (Courtesy Photos)
Left photo: A mesquite limb in a barbed wire fence marks the location where one of three deceased individuals were found after the weekend’s snowstorm.
Right photo: The Mass Casualty Evacuation Ambulance was deployed to the area and was put on standby in coordination with BorderRAC. A mass casualty bus that can transport up to 20 patients. (Courtesy Photos)

According to a press release from Border Patrol, the majority of the weekend’s over 200 rescues took place between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn. Most were abandoned by their smuggler guides. Once abandoned, some called 911 for help, or their loved ones reported them as in the country and in need of help. Some made it as far as Hwy 90 or I-10 and tried to flag down motorists for assistance. At least 10 individuals were taken to hospitals for treatment.

More may still be making their way to local highways. With the region still facing frigid temperatures, Border Patrol urges drivers to be on the lookout for individuals or groups like this on the side of the road, and to call 911, Border Patrol, or law enforcement if seen.

An ongoing situation

The number of undocumented immigrants crossing the region has increased significantly in recent months. Border Patrol statistics for the Big Bend region of the Southwest border show a 278 percent increase in single adult encounters, from 1,906 in January 2020 to 7,196 in January 2021. 

CBP public affairs officer Greg Davis said the size of the traveling groups has increased significantly as well, sometimes up to 40 individuals. And while a guide would normally escort a group to the designated pickup point somewhere past the border checkpoints, guides will often leave sick or injured individuals behind if they can’t keep up, and will abandon groups entirely when troubles arise.

“They don’t even think twice about it,” Davis said.

The result this weekend was over 200 individuals roaming an already inhospitable landscape made exponentially more dangerous by snow, high winds and single-digit temperatures. Prolonged exposure to these conditions can cause fatal hypothermia, frostbite and kidney damage.

Davis said CBP prioritizes health and safety of those they apprehend or rescue, addressing immigration status once those immediate needs are met. 

“We take life and limb seriously,” he said.

While three bodies have been found, it’s unknown how many more died attempting to cross during the storm. Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo said one body was discovered during the search for another one, and he expects to find more with time. “If we were to comb our country, we would find others who were left behind,” he said.