County landowners grapple with migrant crisis

Part one in a series on the local impact of illegal immigration

By Shanna Cummings

Last week, hunters at Wolf Creek Ranch discovered skeletal human remains on the scrubland. A wallet found nearby possibly identifies the remains as belonging to a Mexican national from Chihuahua. It’s a grim reality that the discovery would surprise few in Culberson County and its neighbors. The remains of 25 illegal immigrants have been found here in 2021, and law enforcement suspects there are more still out there.

It’s also a reminder of the dangers faced by illegal immigrants crossing the wild, mountainous desertland of West Texas.

The Big Bend region of the Southwest Land Border saw a sharp rise in apprehensions and rescues of illegal immigrants in 2021, and so far Fiscal Year 2022, which started in October, is continuing that upward trend.

Human smuggling operations take advantage of desperate people’s dire circumstances to convince them to pay for assistance crossing into the US illegally. Immigrants are provided camouflage clothing, special shoe covers to hide their tracks, and backpacks full of food and water. Some immigrants carry drugs across the border as well, as part of the bargain.

But once paid, the guides, or coyotes, often won’t risk their own lives to ensure the group survives the crossing, and will abandon individuals or the whole group if circumstances warrant, leaving people to wander. Many are injured or unprepared for the extreme temperatures of the desert, leading to hypothermia, frostbite, heat stroke and dehydration.

Often immigrants will take shelter in empty buildings or approach homes looking for food, water, or a phone to call for help.

Rural impact

Landowners in Culberson County and neighboring counties have had numerous encounters with immigrants – some peaceful, others more violent – crossing through their land or approaching their homes. Most immigrants approach a rural house for water or food or assistance, but homeowners can’t tell which are desperate for water and which might be dangerous.

Nearby Jeff Davis county landowner Summer Webb said an immigrant tried to break into her house early one morning this year.

“We have young kids, and he wasn’t stopping,” she said. “Even with my husband and I yelling at him [in Spanish], he wasn’t stopping. We had to point a gun in my home at this person to make him leave.”

She said she doesn’t feel safe leaving her children home alone or letting them play alone in the backyard because immigrants have approached her backyard while her kids were on the trampoline.

“My daughter gets scared,” she said. “We don’t have women and children [immigrants], we have men, and men all dressed in black or men all dressed in camo. And for an 11-year-old girl who’s been told her whole life about stranger danger, that can be a little intimidating.”

Immigrants traversing the region looking for help or employment isn’t a new phenomenon. Albert Miller, partner and manager of Miller Ranch, said Texas ranches have employed migrant workers from Mexico for years. Immigrants in the newer waves coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador, however, are not the same, he added. They’re pushier, more demanding. He said one immigrant demanded a ride to Florida.

Landowners have also experienced property damage by migrants cutting fences on their way through, and have had to round up livestock that escaped when migrants left gates open. Sometimes livestock are killed after wandering onto the train tracks or the road through open gates or cut fences, causing car accidents. 

“First and foremost, that’s terrible for whoever got hit and hurt,” Webb said, “and second, beyond that, is the cost of the animal, the cost of the repairs, the cost of the fences. It’s a trickle down, and it’s continuous.”

During Winter Storm Uri in February, a migrant in distress set fire to a building on the Miller ranch so he could be found and rescued. Miller has also had immigrants steal property. One stole a four-wheeler, but was stopped just outside of Van Horn. “He got caught and we got it back,” Miller said.

The influx has had an emotional toll for landowners. Though she still has food and water available and will still help if needed, Webb said some of her experiences with illegal immigrants have caused her to harden her heart.

“I’m kind of over being a nice guy,” she said, “And I’m done with people thinking I’m heartless over it, especially when they live in town” and don’t have the same experiences with immigrants that she has had.

“We are the ones that are actually walking out to these people, giving them water,” Webb said. “It is absolutely not that we don’t care. We are fed up, but that doesn’t mean our humanity is gone.” 

Many rural landowners in Culberson and neighboring counties feel like their voices are ignored in the broader illegal immigration discussion. Several local landowners have banded together in support of a closed border with some kind of physical barrier and eliminating illegal immigration, but they have seen little effect.

This summer, US Border Patrol (USBP) in the Big Bend region initiated a project deploying rescue beacons to help immigrants in distress find help. On private land, CBP needs to obtain permission from the landowner.

The rescue beacons, to be installed along known human smuggling routes, have raised concerns for local landowners, who fear installing a beacon on their land will attract more immigrants to those locations and possibly more trouble. Some are also afraid that USBP providing assistance via the beacons will encourage illegal immigration. Miller said he supported installing a beacon on his land if requested, hoping immigrants would go to the beacon for assistance rather than the inhabited houses.

The rescue beacons are connected to 911, and immigrants in distress who activate one are collected by emergency services and ultimately transferred to Border Patrol for processing after medical treatment.

At a press conference held earlier this year announcing deployment of rescue beacons in the region, USBP Chief Patrol Agent Sean McGoffin pointed to human smuggling/transnational criminal organizations as the culprits responsible for continued illegal immigration. As long as those operations remain active, they will continue to prey upon the desperate, and the Texas Borderland will continue to face high illegal immigration.

But the US needs to accept some of the blame for illegal immigration, Miller said, both for the illegal drug business and employment.

“These illegals wouldn’t be coming across if they didn’t have a chance for a better life,” he said. “A whole lot of them are looking for a way out of where they are. In the past we’ve provided that. If there were not jobs here, would these people be crossing, if there were not a chance for a better life?”