HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — The No. 2 in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol returned to South Texas on Tuesday, where he was No. 2 in charge of the Rio Grande Valley Sector for five years.
U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz offered high praise for new border wall barriers, including the controversial private border wall, and said the agency has to stay a step ahead of drug cartels and human traffickers who try to help migrants run from them.
Ortiz, who now works in the agency’s D.C. headquarters, spoke with Border Report on Tuesday afternoon at the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge.
This is a land port with which he is quite familiar, having been deputy chief of this sector from 2013-2019. The border crossing is also located near an underground tunnel that was discovered earlier this year connecting to Reynosa, Mexico. In late August, another tunnel was discovered connecting Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico.
The tunnels are proof, Ortiz said, that the 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall system is needed.
He said the Department of Homeland Security is building 9 to 10 miles of new border wall each week across the Southwest border, including a segment quickly going up just a few miles away on 23rd Street. The sectors where border fencing is currently going up include El Paso in West Texas; El Centro and San Diego, in California; and Yuma and Tucson in Arizona.
Ortiz said the border barrier coupled with flood lights, underground sensors and all-weather roadway enforcement zones are all part of a border enforcement system that is improving the ability of agents to patrol the riverbanks far more than when he was deputy chief.
He said the demographics of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the border has changed this past year and now tend to be single adult men, or unaccompanied youth who try to evade apprehension from Border Patrol agents.
“It’s a much different population than we dealt with previously in South Texas where quite often it was family units and kids (crossing),” Ortiz said. “What we’re seeing is single adult males trying to cross the immediate border area and most of those individuals are trying to get away from our officers.”
Since 2014, the Rio Grande Valley has been the epicenter for migrant children and families crossing and surrendering to Border Patrol agents. But in July 2019, the Trump administration began implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols program, or “Remain in Mexico” policy that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, court hearings for those migrants have been suspended and now those trying to cross will pay thousands of dollars to human traffickers who are often associated with drug cartels to try and cross the border into South Texas.
“South Texas continues to be the busiest place in the country. We’ve seen more encounters or apprehensions in South Texas than any other place along Southwest border and we continue to see an increase in narcotics,” Ortiz said. “The cartel hasn’t taken a break or quarantined themselves.”
We’ve seen more encounters or apprehensions in South Texas than any other place along Southwest border and we continue to see an increase in narcotics. … The cartel hasn’t taken a break or quarantined themselves.”U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz
He said that 1,000 Border Patrol agents have become infected with COVID-19 and three have died. The agency has had 370,000 encounters this year with migrants, with the RGV Sector leading the nation.
The agency has been working with local law enforcement to uncover hundreds of stash houses in the region, as well as tractor trailers full of undocumented migrants, which Ortiz said are run by the cartel. “So we have to up our game when it comes to the technology aspect,” he said.
DHS recently sent 619 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to the Laredo and RGV sectors to assist Border Patrol agents “on the front lines, as well as in our processing locations and checkpoints and ports of entry, to ensure we have adequate staff to meet the influx that we are experiencing right now,” Ortiz said.
Private border wall praised
Also assisting agents, Ortiz said, is the controversial private border wall built on a 3-mile riverbank south of Mission, Texas. The private wall, which is the subject of multiple lawsuits, was built by Fisher Sand & Gravel Company and with monies raised by We Build The Wall, an organization whose founders have been indicted and arrested on charges of fraud and misusing donated funds.
“The road next to the river was certainly a huge improvement to allow Border Patrol agents to move up and down that river,” Ortiz said. “One challenge I experienced in my five and a half years here is that the cartels always had the upper hand because they had the freedom of movement on the Mexican side and then could move across that river relatively quickly. Now with the infrastructure going into place, including the private border wall, it certainly gives us a greater advantage in some locations.”
He said that the enforcement road beside segments of border wall going up in sensitive areas, like the Eli Jackson Cemetery and near the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, will be reduced to a width of 38-feet, down from 150-feet “as a concession we were willing to make.”
On Wednesday, BorderReport.com will have continuing coverage of Ortiz’s return to South Texas, including his defense of the Trump administration’s heavily criticized policy to expel migrants, including unaccompanied children, either to Mexico or on flights back to their home country.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.