By Rick Staly
What happens at the border with Mexico impacts every community in the United States with drug addiction, overdoses and deaths. It strains community social services, health and education systems, law enforcement, court systems, county jails and state prisons. And it affects crime rates. It doesn’t matter if you are 1,300 miles away, like Flagler County, or living in the Rio Grande Valley at the Mexican border: you are being affected and paying for what happens or does not happen at the border. This is not a Republican, Democratic or Independent issue. It is an American crisis, and the border crisis is coming to you whether you like it or not.
Myself and four other Florida sheriffs and a police chief joined Florida Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., on a fact-finding mission to ground zero along the Texas-Mexico southern border in McAllen, Texas and other border towns such as Roma, Texas. (Cammack invited all Florida Sheriffs to join her on a fact-finding mission to the border. In my case the $848 cost of the trip–flight and hotel room–was paid by the drug dealers of Flagler County from drug seized assets/profits, which I think is ironic. I personally paid for any meals and incidentals like I always do when I travel on Agency business although Florida law does allow me to be reimbursed, but I choose not to do that.)
The McAllen sector is in my opinion ground-zero for human and drug smuggling in America and is known by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as the Rio Grande Valley Sector. This is also where 18 percent of all narcotics are seized by CBP, and they believe they only seize a fraction of the narcotics actually being smuggled in to America by Mexican cartels.
Based on intelligence reports I have received as sheriff, we know that fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine invading Flagler County and other communities across the nation is coming from Mexico. At the southern border, seizures of fentanyl are 182 percent higher this year than this same time last year [5,298 since January, as opposed to 1,876 by June 2020] with CBP seizing 1,060 pounds of the deadly drug in June 2021 alone. In comparison, in June 2019 CBP seized only 293 pounds. Recently, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods told us Florida seized over a dozen “bricks” of heroin and fentanyl stamped with markings from a Mexican drug cartel. (See the picture here.) Ocala is less than 2-hours from Flagler County.
We were boots-on-the-ground for over 28-hours. After we arrived in McAllen, Texas, we were briefed on the border situation by Cammack’s staff and then by the Border Patrol Council, a labor union. Interestingly, no one from CBP leadership was present to discuss the situation. We then toured the border area near McAllen. We saw hundreds of migrants in a chain link fence compound under an expressway overpass waiting to be processed at the Temporary Outdoor Processing Site or TOPS. They would be seen by two medical contractors only checking for lice and scabies but not Covid. The CBP goal is to process them within six to eight hours and then turn them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
We continued on patrol and went to a completed section of the border wall. When you think of a border wall you think it is actually on the border. But that is not the case in Texas. The wall is actually a quarter to 3-miles inland from the Rio Grande River, so when the migrants turn themselves in or are found they are already deep on American soil.
As we approached the wall, we could see 60 to 100 migrants waiting in the darkness at the gate and in the tree line. They were mostly families with young children and teenagers. They congregate at the gate because they know CBP will let them in to begin the immigration process with a court hearing scheduled three to five years from now! This is what we were told. I have not seen the Notice to Appear. We were told most returned are under Title 42 for Covid emergency denied access, mostly single males. Families, females with children are handled differently. In fact DPS had to start using rapid DNA as cartels were using “rented” children to get migrants in to the U.S. and then the child would be returned to do it over and over. CBP actually helps them find the access points by placing signs with arrows. Initially, I thought that was crazy but it’s more efficient and effective if they come to you than if you have to spend resources on a rescue mission or risk them dying on American soil from dehydration or hunger.
[Editor’s note: Some migrants are let in and given court dates based on their asylum claim, some are detained, some are returned, and most of those given court dates–56 percent, according to a fact-checking analysis by the Washington Post–do show up, with other tracking studies showing higher rates, once differences between completed and ongoing cases are accounted for.]
They come with the clothes on their back and maybe a small backpack. That night more than 100 migrants entered the United States from just this one location. We left the wall at 12:30 a.m. We were told this cycle repeats itself every night at various areas across the Texas border.
The next day we started at 7 a.m. and got back to our hotel room at 3:30 a.m. the next morning. The day started with a briefing by high-ranking officials of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) on Operation Lone Star. We then joined DPS/Texas Highway Patrol on a patrol boat on the Rio Grande. After a briefing and donning a heavy armored vest that also doubled as a life-jacket, we boarded our 34-foot patrol boat (the boats are actually made in Clearwater, Fla.) equipped with three 350hp outboard motors for a total of 1,050hp. To understand just how dangerous it is to patrol the Rio Grande because of the Mexican cartels smuggling drugs, each DPS boat is equipped with five .50 caliber machine guns and plenty of ammo.
Heavy armor steel plate area used to protect the Troopers. CBP had told us that cartels will shoot at their boats but not at DPS. As we left the docks, we observed scouts for the drug cartels letting the cartels know when DPS was on patrol. We also noticed beautiful mansions on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande that, according to DPS, are owned by the cartels. We did not engage or see any smuggling during our patrol of the Rio Grande but we did see plenty of indicators.
Next, we were briefed by ICE/Homeland Security Investigations. So far this year they have seized over 140,000 pounds of methamphetamine and estimate by the end of the year they will seize close to 200,000 pounds. They showed us videos of brutal attacks they intercepted that cartels use to send warnings to “traitors” such as cutting out a heart from a living person and holding it in the palm of their hand as it still beats before decapitating the person or cutting off a live person’s limbs with a chainsaw. All of this is occurring within two miles of the U.S. border. Mexico’s drug cartels are buying the chemicals to make these dangerous drugs from labs in Wuhan, China. Chinese money launderers have teamed up with Mexican cartels to profit and “wash” the money through Chinese businesses because of laws passed by Mexico tracking large deposits.
We then went to a border farm on the Rio Grande River and met the farmers who have farmed this land for generations. We learned from them how migrants cut down their fences and trespass on their property, and how they occasionally find a dead person on their land, how their farms are destroyed when a human trafficker flees from police crashing through their crops and then migrants run through their land to escape apprehension. They said that on one hand they support the wall, but on the other hand they do not, because it splits their land, making it harder to farm and irrigate, or because it was built in areas they didn’t feel was needed. No one from the federal government had asked for their input. The federal government under a unique law called the Declaration of Taking Act is allowed to exercise that taking in exchange for a check, almost overnight.
On our way to the farm, we saw stacks and stacks of border wall purchased by the federal government just sitting and rusting. We were told the federal government stopped the construction but could not stop millions in payments already executed through contract. I saw stacks and stacks of border wall, partial installation, wall foundations built and excavation areas and no work being done.
After dinner, where the farmers joined us too, we joined a DPS lieutenant where for the next 6.5 hours we were on patrol with him outside McAllen, Texas, then to Roma, Texas, located in Starr County. Roma, Texas is ground zero for human smuggling because the Rio Grande River is shallow and narrow. DPS tells us they hear the cartels shooting at each other over control of Ciudad Miguel Alemán in Tamaulipas, Mexico, which is the border town across from Roma, Texas. Controlling this border town is strategically and financially important to the cartels.
Cartels are making $6,000 per person or a discounted rate of $12,000 for a family of three, depending on the country of origin. CBP apprehends 6,000 people per day, which means the cartels deal in a multi-billion dollar smuggling business. Cartels use wrist bands of different colors indicating which cartel the immigrants paid for safe passage. The American side of the Rio Grande River banks are littered with these bands. If you can’t pay you “work-off” your cost by working in slave labor shops, in the sex trade or smuggling drugs in to the United States. Passage to America is not safe without a wristband.
There is no deterrent for coyotes along the border. At an area known as the “boat ramp” in Roma, Texas we could see the town of Ciudad Miguel Alemán in Mexico, an official border crossing nearby, and smugglers and their “clients” lining up on the Mexican side of the river to be brought to American soil. It was here that we witnessed the human smugglers or “coyote’s” walk across the Rio Grande pulling a raft filled with 8 to 10 migrants, mostly women and children, bringing them to America in plain view of National Guard troops, DPS and CBP. They would drop them off and return to Mexico to fill another raft. They had no fear of arrest because as officials told us, if they try to arrest them, the coyotes dump the raft over, forcing CBP or National Guard to conduct a rescue mission. (In May alone CPB performed over 7,000 rescues. Though the figure applies to the nation as a whole, most are along the southern border.)
Often this is done to divert or distract CBP and the National Guard so drug smuggling, MS-13 gang members or other criminals or previously deported individuals can cross further up-steam or downstream. We witnessed one coyote who would purposely bring his raft to a rocky area while talking on a cell phone to divert authorities. This is the same coyote who boldly told the National Guard that on his next trip over, he was bringing a 2-month-old infant, and if they tried to arrest him he would throw the infant in the river.
We were told if they don’t wait until the raft is unloaded it is too dangerous to go into the water on slippery rocks with all their gear, and the coyote only has to get to the middle of the river to be back in Mexico. If they flatten or sink the raft, the coyotes just buy another one because there is so much money involved and the rafts cost pennies compared to the overall profits in human smuggling. Ironically, passengers wear masks and life jackets for the “voyage.”
At this one location called the “boat ramp” 180 migrants turned themselves in to the National Guard and CBP. They are taken by a CBP bus to a Temporary Outdoor Processing Site. Once CBP is done they turn them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which then turns them over to a “Non-Governmental Organization” or NGO. The NGO’s then buy them a bus or airline ticket, give them some cash and send them on their way across America with a Notice to Appear in Court. (Not every migrant who crosses is dispersed into the country. A portion are. But migrants are also expelled under Title 42, a policy the Biden administration is continuing, as this CBP memo details, or they are detained. In May according to CPB, 62 percent of all encounters with migrants resulted in expulsions alone. The NGOs are involved in the process only from a humanitarian perspective and do not have court or legal authority to issue notices to appear.)
We were told by CBP to look for “brown envelopes” when we got to the airport as many of the migrants we saw crossing the border would be on our plane. CBP was right. There were hundreds of brown envelopes at the airport. Vans were dropping them off in front of the airport and then they went to a special access line where no photo identification was needed and boarded planes, including ours. On the front of the envelopes in big letters was printed “Please help me. I do not speak English. I am getting on flight #… to…” and a location was listed. Just walking through the airport I saw Orlando, Miami and Tampa destinations and there were many other people holding brown envelopes with destinations I could not see. And, we the taxpayers are paying for this because the NGO’s, such as Catholic Charities and Methodist Children’s Homes, request reimbursement for their costs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
However, this is not my biggest concern with illegal immigration. The people that cross the border and turn themselves in are just looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Who could blame them? We are the greatest nation on earth with the most opportunity (obviously I wish they would enter legally but our broken immigration system has caused this crisis). They have come from over 140 countries just this year. This is not just the southern triangle problem or Mexico’s.
My biggest concern is what we were told are the “got-aways” that are in this country. On July 13th alone we were told there were 204 of them, or the equivalent of 75,000 in a year. The actual number may be higher, though verifiable figures are difficult to find. (A Washington Post report in April cited Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz saying in February that his agency in “had recorded 1,000 got-aways on a single day, describing that as an unusual event. But since then, the figure has become a new normal.”) What is a “got-away?” Got-aways are individual migrants who don’t want to be detected by CBP or DPS. They include the criminal element such as MS-13 gang members, one of the most vicious gangs in the world, drug mules, fugitive criminals and those that are trying to return again after being deported before or for committing crimes in the United States. These are the most dangerous migrants. They have been spotted by CBP detection devices but couldn’t be caught. We know they are in our country but who are they and where did they go?
Administration policies matter and have significant influence on the security of our country. Today 43 percent of CBP agents are assigned and doing “child care” instead of drug interdiction and catching the dangerous “got-aways.” The CBP union told us the stay in Mexico policy until your scheduled hearing worked. CBP also is using a Title 42 Emergency Order to expel migrants and is fearful that once Title 42 expires the floodgates will open even more. Title 42 allows CBP to immediately deny access and expel migrants immediately back to Mexico or their home country because of the pandemic. This is the last tool that CBP has available to protect Americans and immediately deport migrants.
This is a problem of epic proportions and the border is coming to a town near you. That is why local law enforcement must take action to understand the scope and cause of the problem and the influx of people and drugs coming to their town, city and county to be able to take action to protect their community. It is time that our elected representatives, on both sides of the aisle, fix the broken immigration policy and the real crisis at the border. As it stands today, we have no functional or secure border and it is putting every American in the United States at risk. A country without a border is no country.
Rick Staly was elected Flagler County Sheriff in 2016 and reelected in 2020. Reach him by email here.