EAGLE PASS, Texas (Border Report) — The mass migration of Venezuelan asylum seekers crossing from northern Mexico into South Texas doesn’t appear to be stopping despite new rules by the Biden administration to expel the majority of them back to Mexico.
Border Report took a four-hour ride along with Maverick County Sheriff Sgt. Fernando Ibarra on Thursday and got exclusive access to areas where U.S. Border Patrol, Texas National Guard and DPS troopers apprehend migrants who have just crossed the Rio Grande into Eagle Pass.
This is part of the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, and since July this area has had the most migrant crossings of any region on the entire Southwest border.
Despite the new rules announced by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday — in which Mexico has agreed to take back Venezuelans who cross illegally into the United States between ports of entry — most of the migrant crossers we encountered are Venezuelan.
Sgt. Ibarra, 31, has lived in Eagle Pass his entire life. He spoke Spanish at home before learning English in elementary school. His family originally is from Mexico and migrated here legally.
He says it saddens him to hear the stories of those who take weeks to get to this point of the Rio Grande, but as a law enforcement agent, he is also skeptical and worries about what “criminal elements” also are crossing.
About 200 Venezuelans per day are among the 1,500 to 1,700 who cross here daily, he says.
In September, there were a spate of drownings as the river rose but migrants, mostly Venezuelans, continued to come across.
“Border Patrol is having to deal with so many Venezuelans,” Ibarra said as he drove his canine SUV unit along dusty dirt and sand trails beside the riverbank. “It gets pretty crazy out here because of the I.A.’s.”
I.A. is an abbreviation for “illegal alien” that he uses often as he meanders down rural roads in this county of just 58,000 residents that borders Piedras Negras, Mexico.
“I hear from the individuals that come across: why they want to be here in the United States. Some of them are pretty sad. Some of them do have good intentions but some of them have bad intentions,” Ibarra says. “So those are the challenges we have to face to find out who are the good ones; who are the bad ones. Overall we have to do our job as Maverick County Sheriff’s deputies to protect the citizens.”
Like many law enforcement officers on the border, Ibarra works with Border Patrol extra overtime shifts paid for through Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program for local law enforcement on the border to help federal agents.
On Sept. 26, Ibarra was the sole law enforcement agent in pursuit of a car full of six smuggled migrants. He said he noticed the car’s expired tags, and when he pulled it over and got out of his vehicle, the driver hit the gas and led him on a 40-mile chase north through two other desolate and rural jurisdictions.
Their speeds hit 125 mph, and he said the other car drove with its lights off to evade him.
Ultimately the Charger he was chasing flipped over about a half mile before a DPS trooper had set up tire spikes to help him. Two men were ejected and one migrant died on the scene.
The pursuit is fresh in his mind and he spoke about it often.
He also recalled an elderly woman was sexually assaulted by a migrant who he said crossed over and wandered into her home.
And as he watched about 55 migrants, including several children, loaded onto a large white bus and searched by DPS and National Guard and Border Patrol agents, he said he once had a 91-year-old Cuban woman he helped after she crossed the river.
“She kept fainting and falling over,” he said. “Who tries to cross the border at 91?”
He says he doesn’t follow politics, but during the half-day ride along he repeatedly questioned why the Biden administration believes the South Texas border is safe?
“Vice President Kamala Harris says they’re fleeing harm and coming to us to the land of the free and escaping harm from Venezuela, but you have some of these people coming here bringing harm,” Ibarra said.
Billy Zavala, 42, is a carpenter from Venezuela who crossed Thursday morning from Piedras Negras, Mexico, and was apprehended with a group of 15 other migrants, almost all Venezuelans.
They were blocks from the international bridge commonly called Bridge No. 1 here.
When asked if he knew about the new DHS regulations that could end him sent back to Mexico, Zavala said he did not.
He left his home in Falcón State in the northern coast of Venezuela, bordering the Caribbean Sea, and traveled for “one month and two days,” he said in Spanish.
He ticks off the countries he traveled through to get here from South America: Panama, and the dangerous Darién Gap; Costa Rica; Nicaragua; Honduras; Guatemala and Mexico.
He says he wants to work in the United States “to help my family” by sending money back home.
Wearing a worn red T-shirt and jeans he looks down and says he owns nothing in the world. “I have nothing. I lost it all on this trip.”
His brother lives in Ohio and is waiting for him.
But Zavala might not get to him.
The new DHS regulations are set up to encourage Venezuelans not to make the dangerous journey north.
Men and women migrants are loaded into vans by Border Patrol agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, after crossing into the United States on Oct. 13, 2022. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
It’s part of a “coordinated campaign” between the United States and Mexico to target transnational criminal organizations that profit from human smuggling, according to a DHS news release.
Venezuelans who cross illegally in between ports of entry into the United States will be expelled back to Mexico if:
- They have been ordered removed from the United States in the previous five years.
- They crossed without authorization between ports of entry after the Oct. 12 announcement.
- Irregularly entered Mexico or Panama after the date of announcement, or are a permanent resident or dual national of any country other than Venezuela, or currently hold refugee status in any country.
- They fail public health requirements.
But DHS says that 24,000 Venezuelans will have the opportunity to legally migrate if they:
- Have a U.S. sponsor.
- Pass biometric and security screening checks.
- Have all vaccinations and pass health screens.
“These actions make clear that there is a lawful and orderly way for Venezuelans to enter the United States, and lawful entry is the only way,” Mayorkas said in a news release.
“Those who attempt to cross the southern border of the U.S. illegally will be returned to Mexico & will be ineligible for this process in the future. Those who follow the lawful process will have the opportunity to travel safely to the U.S. and become eligible to work here,” Mayorkas tweeted.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, told Border Report that Mayorkas called him Wednesday afternoon and explained the new regulations.
“He called me to let me know that this is a way that they’re trying to reduce the number of Venezuelans that come over here where they have to apply from over there and if they go to Panama or Mexico they wont be able to come in. They will be returned. Mexico has agreed to accept them,” Cuellar said.
Venezuelans and Cubans have been exempt from Title 42 border health restrictions, imposed at the start of the pandemic, because the United States does not have repatriation agreements with their governments.
But Cuellar said Mexico’s agreement to accept Venezuelans is a game-changer. And he’d like it applied to other groups of asylum seekers to reduce migrants crossing through the Southwest border.
“If they can make this one work then I highly highly encourage them to roll this out not only to Cubans and Haitians but I think they ought to apply it to other people also,” Cuellar said.