Border Patrol’s Last Line of Defense? It Isn’t at the Border

Security measures in Texas start at the Rio Grande but extend deep into the United States, as agents and smugglers go to ever greater lengths to outfox one another.

Nicholas Kulish

Human smugglers now charge vastly more for clandestine journeys into the United States than just a few years ago. Checkpoints like this one in Falfurrias, Tex., on the highway north from the border toward San Antonio, help explain why.

Migrants coming from Central America regularly pay more than $10,000, and Mexicans often fork over $6,000 just to cross into the United States and continue on to their intended destination. As the costs of human smuggling soar, the smuggling networks have greater resources to evade detection.

The Border Patrol is charged with stopping migrants from illegally crossing over the southwestern frontier and, even more important, from getting into the interior of the country. Getting through the heavily patrolled 100-mile zone beyond the border can be just as difficult as getting into the country.

So while people often think of the border as akin to a goal line that migrants are trying to cross, in many ways it’s more like the 50-yard line.

Border Patrol takes what it calls a “layered approach.” Here in the Rio Grande Valley, that starts with patrol boats on the muddy river. Next are 18-foot steel fences set back from the river, where agents patrol in trucks. In more remote areas, they use all-terrain vehicles or horses.

Border Patrol officers smooth the dirt by the fence — almost like a Zamboni at an ice rink — with giant tires pulled behind a truck, so that later they can see fresh tracks left by migrants.

Smugglers sometimes wrap migrants’ shoes in scraps of fabric to try to obscure their footprints. And guides increasingly take the trouble to dress their charges in camouflage for the border crossing.

Smoothing the ground along the Rio Grande border wall near Brownsville, Tex.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

At gaps in the steel fence, there are hidden cameras and sensors to alert patrols. I drove up to an opening in the fence between Brownsville and McAllen a couple of weeks ago and was discovered almost immediately by an agent. He ran my license plate and learned that it was a rental car, so he pulled me over. Smugglers often use rental cars, he said, in hopes of avoiding suspicion.

Smuggling networks rent houses or mobile homes, cover the windows and begin cycling migrants through dwellings that often are filthy and packed. American investigators call these flophouses on both sides of the border “stash houses,” the same term they use for places where drugs are kept. Houston police raided a stash house in 2014 that had 115 people inside, including children as young as 5, with no hot water and just one toilet.

Before moving a group of migrants, smugglers check their route for signs of law enforcement, said Paul A. Beeson, director of the Homeland Security Department’s joint task force overseeing the southwest border. “They are running countersurveillance on us,” he said.

Dozens of illegal immigrants were found in a stash house in south Laredo, Tex., in April. CreditU.S. Customs and Border Protection

But many smuggled migrants are caught at highway checkpoints like the one in Falfurrias, nearly 70 miles north of the border and one of the Border Patrol’s last lines of defense. On a busy day, more than 30,000 vehicles pass through Falfurrias, and more undocumented migrants are apprehended there than at any other checkpoint in the country, said Rene Quintanilla, a supervisory agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector headquarters.

There, agents have to rely on their instincts, Mr. Quintanilla said. In just seconds, they decide whether to send a vehicle, and its passengers and cargo, for a more thorough inspection.

Agents are trained to observe incongruities when questioning a nervous driver, like a single key in the ignition — sometimes a sign of a vehicle being used for smuggling, since most people’s car keys jangle on chains with house keys, work keys or knickknacks — or when cars ride low in the back where migrants may be hiding.

Border Patrol agents are trained to look for subtle signs of smuggling.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

When Border Patrol agents started looking for cars sagging in the back, Mr. Quintanilla said, smugglers started installing heavy-duty suspensions. “Some of these vehicles are modified to hide known or used smuggling techniques,” he said.

In the 1980s, guides trying to connect drivers with migrants coming out of the brush would often leave an X or other mark along the side of the highway. Now cellphones and mapping apps allow for carefully choreographed pickups and drop-offs without leaving such obvious traces for agents to follow.

“I’ve seen loads that used a combination of cellphones, sat phones and two-way radios, all three, to pull these off,” said Benjamine Huffman, chief of strategic planning and analysis for the Border Patrol.

The agents and their dogs have to contend with extreme heat and dizzying fumes.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

It was so hot the day a photographer and I visited that one of the agents’ dogs kept making a beeline for water when he was supposed to be sniffing out concealed humans and trafficked drugs. The agents have to endure exhaust fumes for entire shifts, day after day, that made me lightheaded in just an hour.

Smugglers hide migrants in the trunks of cars, stacked in the beds of pickup trucks and covered with tarps or even locked inside toolboxes in the beds of pickup trucks. Agents have found migrants in the backs of dump trucks and buried in sawdust. Migrants have crammed themselves into all manner of compartments built to avoid detection.

In 2014, a man was found being smuggled inside a washing machine at the Falfurrias checkpoint.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection
Four others were stowed inside the washing machine’s cardboard box.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection

Transporting unauthorized migrants is a federal crime, and drivers expect to be well compensated for their risk. The payments vary, from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 per migrant. Criminal complaints reviewed by The New York Times and interviews with law enforcement officials show that not all drivers are members of smuggling networks. Some are recruited on Craigslist or Facebook; some drive a group to settle a debt.

Two men hiding in the toolbox of a pickup truck to be smuggled across the border.CreditUnited States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

One woman, who was stopped last May on a ranch road in West Texas with three undocumented immigrants in her silver Mercedes, told officers she was expecting $6,000 to drive them two hours from Kinney County to San Antonio. She was sentenced to eight months in prison and three years of probation.

At the Otay Mesa port of entry in California, agents discovered a man in a compartment under the back seat of a pickup truck in 2015.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection
Border Patrol agents found unauthorized immigrants stuffed inside duffel bags at a checkpoint between Laredo and San Antonio, Tex., in June.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection

Increasingly, smugglers are relying on 18-wheelers, locking migrants in the trailers, often hidden behind the loads of cargo.

In trailers that are refrigerated to keep produce fresh, lightly clothed migrants — some sweaty from the trek or wet from the Rio Grande — can freeze. More often, the unrefrigerated metal containers turn dangerously hot in the South Texas sun. In the last two months, Border Patrol agents have disrupted 42 smuggling attempts along the southwest border involving tractor-trailers, discovering 406 people. Last July, 10 migrants died after traveling in the back of a truck in San Antonio’s scorching heat. The driver was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A tractor-trailer filled with unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala was discovered in January. CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection

Migrant advocates are often harshly critical of Border Patrol tactics, but agents say they are protecting the migrants from dangerous smuggling rings. “That’s what they see them as: a dollar sign,” said Frank Garza, a supervisor at the Falfurrias checkpoint. “Not as a person, just an amount.”

Agents found five people hidden in a refrigerated tractor-trailer at the Falfurrias checkpoint in May 2017.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection

Efforts to evade detection at the border and at checkpoints are nothing new. Illegal immigration peaked in 2000, when more than 1.6 million people were caught trying to sneak across the border. Spectacular examples have included people hiding in an engine block, behind a dashboard and even inside a passenger seat.

Immigrants have crammed into tiny spaces next to engines, above, or behind dashboards, below.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection
CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection
CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection
A man was sewn into a passenger seat of a vehicle in 2001 in an attempt to illegally cross from Mexico into California.CreditUnited States Customs and Border Protection

Under President Trump, there is intensified emphasis on catching people entering illegally. Here in Falfurrias, Border Patrol is building an even bigger checkpoint just up the road, redoubling its efforts to uncover hidden migrants.

A new checkpoint is under construction near the one at Falfurrias.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

For Gaza Protester, Living or Dying Is the ‘Same Thing’

Mr. Gerim, well within range, and resting between slinging stones, shouts back: “We want to return!”

Say what you will about root causes and immediate ones — about incitement and militancy, about siege and control, about who did what first to whom — one thing is clear. More than a decade of deprivation and desperation, with little hope of relief, has led thousands of young Gazans to throw themselves into a protest that few, if any, think can actually achieve its stated goal: a return to the homes in what is now Israel that their forebears left behind in 1948.

In five weeks of protests, 46 people have been killed, and hundreds more have been badly wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry.

With its 64 percent unemployment rate among the young, Gaza, under a blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt for years, presents countless men like Mr. Gerim with the grimmest of options.

They can seek an education in preparation for lives and careers that now seem out of reach, and hope for a chance to eventually emigrate. They can join groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, devoting themselves to armed conflict with Israel in return for a livelihood and a sense of purpose and belonging. Or they can stay home, staving off boredom by smoking shisha, a tobacco-molasses mix, or stronger stuff, and wait for things to change.

Mr. Gerim considers himself neither a terrorist nor a freedom fighter. He is not much for prayer or for politics; he says he does not belong to Hamas or Fatah or any other faction. He is a young man with nothing to do, for whom the protests have offered a chance to barbecue with friends late into the night, sleep late most mornings, make himself useful while singing songs of love or martyrdom or an end to suffering, and lash out at a hated enemy all afternoon.


Saber al-Gerim 22, center, in striped shirt, and other Palestinian protesters pulling apart a fence placed by the Israeli Army during a protest in the Gaza Strip last week.

Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

“It doesn’t matter to me if they shoot me or not,” he said in a quiet moment inside his family’s tent. “Death or life — it’s the same thing.”

The protests, with an outdoor festival’s schedule of fun and games, performances and creative programming — and carnage every Friday — is meant to build to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians mark the Nakba, or catastrophe, of their flight and expulsion when Israel was established 70 years ago.

The protest, which grew out of a young activist’s Facebook page and was a grass-roots initiative before being embraced, organized and publicized by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, has hardly scared the Israelis into altering their basic policy. Israel continues to treat the tiny coastal enclave like a deadly virus to be quarantined and, other than that, more or less tunes it out.

But it has been a success in one important respect: It has cast a light onto the unsolved problem that is Gaza, and reminded a world that had seemed to move on to more urgent crises that its two million people, deprived of clean water, freedom of movement and a steady supply of electricity, are sliding steadily into despair.

Mr. Gerim is typical in another way: He does not think of Gaza as his home, but he has no idea what home is.

His grandmother, Haniya al-Kurdi, 80, was a little girl when her family left what is now Ashdod, Israel, in 1948. She has never been back, but has heard that there is a coffee shop next to where her home was. The closest anyone else in the family has gotten was in 2013, when Mr. Gerim’s sister, Sabreen, now 26, contracted cancer and was allowed to spend a year in Tel Aviv getting treatment. On the way there, her mother, Iktimal al-Gerim, asked their driver to point out Ashdod to them from the highway.

For Mr. Gerim, the family’s old property is an idea more than a place he can actually picture.

Israelis themselves he has had more experience with. When he was about 10, before the Israelis evacuated their Gaza settlements in 2005, Mr. Gerim climbed a tree outside his grandfather’s house to get a better look at the soldiers a few hundred yards away. Then he fell to the ground and broke his right hand.

He has been as enterprising, and as ill-starred, ever since.

He used to raise pigeons and chickens on his family’s roof, for fun and for food — until an Israeli airstrike hit a neighbor’s house and it collapsed on the coop, killing all of his birds.

He sometimes dreams of working in an automobile-manufacturing plant, of traveling overseas to learn how to build cars, then coming back to Gaza to make them. But the closest he has ever gotten is loading tuk-tuks — motorcycles with cargo beds — or handling a pushcart to distribute sacks of donated flour, sugar and other staples to his fellow refugees.

In the autumn, Mr. Gerim sometimes harvests olives. When there is construction work, he looks for chances to lay bricks or pour concrete. He has never had a regular job.

He is stoic for a 22-year-old, though this may be an acquired response to adversity: His father is mentally ill, Mr. Gerim says, given to flying into destructive rages over the slightest disappointments. His family — two younger brothers, their sister and their parents — all share a single room with a tile floor and blankets but no beds. The kitchen floor is sand. The family’s debts are choking them, he says.

Mr. Gerim’s industriousness shows at the protests, as does his stoicism.

On Thursday, he arrived early at his family’s tent, a roomy contraption that was provided to them by the protest’s organizers, and set about sweeping the tarpaulin floor for the first of several times, before building a fire and cooking eggplants and tomatoes that city workers were distributing to the needy.


Mr. Gerim, center, with friends and relatives, making tea at the encampment on the border with Israel.

Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

At lunch, a charity handed out meals of chicken and rice, and then Mr. Gerim swept the floor of crumbs and bones, singing a love song as he did.

He has no girlfriend, and no hopes of marrying. “There is no money, no work,” he explained. “Marriage is not free.”

After lunch, he walked up to the fence for a quick look across at the Israeli soldiers, then foraged for firewood. He dragged a six-foot log more than a quarter-mile back to the tent, and broke it apart with his hands and feet.

Later, he assembled kites from sticks, clear plastic and paper — and talked about attaching soda cans to them stuffed with gasoline-soaked rags, to sail over the fence and maybe set something or someone on fire.

At 10 p.m., he and his friends began barbecuing a feast for 12. It didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. It takes a long time to cook 22 pounds of chicken wings on a grill about 18 inches across.

Sitting around the fire, a friend named Abu Moaz, 25, said he wanted to use a kite to drop leaflets in Hebrew and Arabic warning Israeli soldiers to “evacuate your houses and return to the countries from which you came.”

Everyone liked the sound of that.

Mr. Gerim went home to sleep, but was back at the tent at 8 a.m. on Friday, sweeping again, building the wood fire, drinking tea with his neighbors.

He went to Friday Prayer, then ate a falafel sandwich.

At 2:30, he was crouching behind the barbed-wire barrier, whirling his slingshot like a helicopter rotor, aiming in vain at Israeli soldiers again and again.

Around 5 p.m., he saw a group of men a few hundred yards to the south, and ran to see what they were doing. They had breached the barbed wire, and were trying to get to the main fence marking Israeli territory. Mr. Gerim hung back, and did not try to join them.

Near him, a man fell, hit in the stomach by what seemed like a grenade fragment, Mr. Gerim said.

He was not shocked by this, he said afterward.

“I could be shot or killed anytime,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Night had fallen now; the protesters were headed home. And soon Mr. Gerim was singing again — this time a Lebanese tune of weariness with conflict.

“Enough is enough,” he crooned softly in Arabic. “Enough for miseries, promises and words. School students, church bells, a soldier, a knight and the calls of prayer — all pray for prevailing peace.”

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9 Killed in Gaza as Palestinian Protesters Face Off With Israeli Soldiers

In Shejaiya, one of five main gathering points for the protesters, ambulances and stretchers came and went throughout the day. At one point, as a lightly wounded man holding a slingshot was carried off, he made an obscene gesture toward the Israeli side, prompting cheers and laughter; another held up two fingers in a victory sign.

Israeli news outlets reported that Palestinians had built an ancient war machine — a trebuchet, or slingshot-like catapult — to hurl heavy stones or even burning tires at the Israeli side. The reports included photos of the trebuchet but there was no confirmation on Friday that it had been deployed.




The United Nations urged both sides to avoid violence and said there were “strong indications” that Israeli security forces had used excessive force last week in driving back protesters, which may have breached international law.

Elizabeth Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, said the high casualty toll among protesters who were unarmed or did not pose a serious threat to security forces — and in some cases were running away from the fence — suggested Israeli troops may have used excessive force.

Some protesters had reportedly acted dangerously, but international law permits the use of lethal force only as a last resort in the face of an imminent threat of death or serious injury, she said. “An attempt to approach or cross the green-line fence by itself certainly does not amount to a threat to life or serious injury that would justify the use of live ammunition,” she said.

“If there is unjustified and unlawful recourse to firearms resulting in death, that may amount to willful killing and that’s a grave breach of the fourth Geneva Convention,” she added.

At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Palestinian ambassador, Riyad H. Mansour, condemned what he described as a failure by the Security Council to do anything to resolve the situation in Gaza, in particular its inability to vote on a joint statement condemning the violence last week.

“We believe that the Security Council to continue to disregard its responsibility is encouraging the Israeli side to continue with this onslaught against our people,” he said at a news conference outside of the Security Council chamber.

At the protests on Friday, despite the occasional crack of gunfire and whistle of bullets, which sent demonstrators running for cover, there was an eerily festive, almost carnival-like atmosphere on the periphery, with vendors selling food, drinks and flags. Israeli drones and surveillance balloons flew overhead, as did the occasional kite in the Palestinian national colors of red, black, white and green.

On the Israeli side, civilians sought vantage points with binoculars and cameras, straining to see the action from kibbutz watchtowers or outcroppings of farmland.

For much of the afternoon, thousands of Palestinians massed a few hundred yards from the fence, cheering and chanting like fans in a soccer stadium, applauding protesters who defied the Israelis, and jeering the Israelis’ firing of tear gas canisters, as if to say it couldn’t harm them. Some tried distracting Israeli snipers with mirrors reflecting the brilliant sun.

Again and again, as the sun sunk into the Mediterranean, came the sound of gunshots, the wail of sirens, the cheers in Arabic: “We are heading to Jerusalem with millions of martyrs.”

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At Gaza Fence, Violence Fades as Israel Warns of Broader Response

Palestinian health officials said 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and more than 750 hit by live rounds Friday, making it the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas.

In Friday’s confrontations, large crowds gathered near the fence, with smaller groups of protesters rushing forward, throwing stones and burning tires.


Palestinians on Saturday walked between tents, set up at the Gaza’s border with Israel.

Adel Hana/Associated Press

Israeli troops responded with live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets, while drones dropped tear gas from above.

On Saturday, the chief army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said that while thousands of Palestinians approached the border Friday, those engaged in stone-throwing were in the hundreds.

General Manelis denied soldiers used excessive force, saying those killed by Israeli troops were men between the ages of 18 and 30 who were involved in violence and belonged to militant factions. He said Gaza health officials exaggerated the number of wounded, and that several dozen at most had been injured by live fire, with others suffering from tear gas inhalation or other types of injuries.

Shifa Hospital in Gaza City received 284 injured people Friday, the majority with bullet injuries, said a spokesman, Ayman Sahbani. He said 70 were under the age of 18.

Mr. Sahbani said 40 surgeries were performed Friday and that 50 were planned Saturday. “These are all from live bullets that broke limbs or caused deep, open wounds with damage to nerves and veins,” he said.

General Manelis said that Hamas and other Gaza militant groups are using the protests as a cover for staging attacks. If violence goes on, “we will not be able to continue limiting our activity to the fence area and will act against these terror organizations in other places too,” he said.

The border protests were seen as an attempt by Hamas to break the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group seized Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to its rival, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

At the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres called for an independent investigation, while Security Council members urged restraint on both sides.

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U.S. Says It Can Pay for 100 Miles of Wall on 2,000-Mile Border


The existing border wall in San Diego this month. President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said on Friday that it could immediately fund 100 miles of new and replacement border fencing, a first step in the president’s plans for building a wall on part of the United States’ nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

The replacement fencing includes 28 miles in the San Diego region and a new 30-foot-high barrier in Calexico, Calif., that extends for two miles. In New Mexico, the Border Patrol will replace 20 miles of barriers that are intended to stop vehicles with new fencing to prevent people from crossing into the United States.

Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, described the construction as part of a new wall system because it would replace older, outdated barriers. Customs and Border Protection is the parent agency of the Border Patrol.

A mix of barriers — like chain-link fences, steel walling and beams — already stretches across more than 650 miles of the border. Ultimately, Mr. Vitiello said, the administration aims to cover 1,000 miles on the border with fencing or a wall.

President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration that he says will stop drugs, terrorists and transnational gangs like MS-13 from coming into the United States. The wall is projected to cost $25 billion over the next 10 years.

This year, the administration asked for $1.6 billion to build a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. But Congress rejected that request in the spending bill it approved last week. Instead, lawmakers provided nearly $1.6 billion for border security — including new technology and repairs to existing barriers — in what the administration has since described as a down payment on a wall.

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