JIM WELLS COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — An old steel gate still holds sentimental value for cattle rancher Susan Kibbe, even though it’s been hit by during high-speed chases more times than she can count.
Her late husband, Harlow, built the gate nearly 40 years ago on their 1,500-acre Lacona Ranch in remote Jim Wells County, Texas.
Over the past few years, Kibbe says several gates and fences on her vast ranchlands have been repeatedly damaged in incidents involving migrant smuggling.
Law enforcement officials tell Border Report that chases and bailouts involving migrants occur daily in these parts of South Texas, about 80 miles north of the Mexican border.
To evade the massive U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint about 20 miles south on Highway 281 in the town of Falfurrias, Texas, smugglers force migrants to walk for miles through the prickly pear brush and sandy terrain around the checkpoint.
Those who make it this far north are picked up by smugglers and driven down dirt trails and private roads that cut through this remote ranching county.
Kibbe says they ram gates and drive recklessly through her lands, often letting out livestock and putting other motorists at risk.
“They hit certain areas. They’ll ram either a gate or fences,” said Kibbe as she gave Border Report a recent tour of Lacona Ranch.
“It’s crazy!” she said.
At one entrance, Kibbe has left a bent steel gate next to the new replacement, which itself was hit less than a week after being installed.
“It was damaged but not totally destroyed so we just left it as a reminder that if people don’t understand this is just one example of what property owner’s damage they sustain over periods of time,” she said.
Kibbe is executive director of the South Texans’ Property Rights Association, a group that represents property owners and ranchers along the South Texas border.
The group advocates for tougher border security and backs Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a $4 billion Texas-funded border security initiative.
The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector is the busiest for migrant encounters along the Southwest border. During the fiscal year 2022, which started on Oct. 1, border officials have encountered 377,994 migrants, about a quarter of all migrants encountered along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Border agents call migrants who go undetected “got-aways,” and according to numerous media reports, the Department of Homeland Security reports over 500,000 this year on the Southwest border.
“If an agent loses the certainty of arrest at the border and are unable to locate the migrant(s), those are considered ‘Got-Aways,'” the Border Patrol said in a statement to Border Report.
Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez says “got-aways” are wreaking havoc on his rural ranching county, which is just south of Jim Wells, and about 20 miles closer to the border.
He says his county has spent over $1 million in the past few years on migrant-related pursuits, detention, as well as autopsies.
Sixty-nine migrants have died already this year, Martinez said Thursday as he met with Border Report at his offices in Falfurrias.
And with daily temperatures in the triple-digits for weeks this summer, he said he expects more bodies will be found.
In 2021, there were 119 migrants who died in Brooks County. Of those, 10 were killed in a rollover crash off of U.S. 281 exactly one year ago Thursday.
Martinez says there are three or four pursuits with migrants daily in Brooks County and most involve groups of at least 20 people.
The chases often end in bailouts where migrants scatter and cars and vehicles damage property.
Migrants not arrested often then get lost in the thick brush, or fall prey to deadly wildlife like rattlesnakes.
“The terrain is very deceiving. We do have sand dunes, loose sand, we’re only 100 feet above sea level. The vegetation is thick,” Martinez said. “It’s harsh.”
The county is 944 square miles — the same size as Manhattan, New York — but has a population of only 15,000.
Only one deputy is on duty at any given time and Martinez says smugglers know that and they wait for law enforcement to be engaged or preoccupied, and then they move migrants through rural ranch lands.
Through Operation Lone Star, the county gets 10 to 15 state troopers to help patrol daily.
“They also stay busy on their part. So that means the traffic is getting through,” he said.
“We have a lot of brushland and private land and a lot of damage to private property,” Martinez said.
“Some of the fences are gone and ranchers just don’t repair them. They leave them down because they’re just going to get torn down again,” he said.
As for Kibbe, she says most of the members in the property rights association suffer property damage relating to a surge in migration. And she says they can’t afford it and are tired of tolerating it and want lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to act.
“It’s just one more thing we have to add to the list of expenses and it shouldn’t be. Just because we happen to live in a certain geographical area,” she said.