Michael Vickers’s ranch 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Brooks County, Texas, is near a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Undocumented migrants trek through harsh brushland onto his property to avoid capture. An electric fence encloses the nearly 1,000 acres; at 220 volts, says Vickers, a local veterinarian and avid hunter, “it won’t kill them, but it will make them wet their pants.”
Before taking a reporter on a tour of his ranch, Vickers pulls out a dozen blown-up photographs of migrants who died or have been apprehended on his property. In one, the body of a shirtless man sits slumped against a tree, his head lying limply on one shoulder. The man’s eyes are gone, trickles of blood running down from the sockets. Leafing through a bird identification book, Vickers stops at a page showing the crested caracara. “This is the bird that ate his eyes, probably while he was still alive,” he says, staring at the illustration of the yellow-faced, sharp-beaked bird.
In 2006, Vickers and his wife, Linda, founded the Texas Border Volunteers, which now has some 300 recruits who dress in fatigues and patrol private ranches in South Texas. They often use night-vision goggles and thermal imaging to track people in the dark. When they spot migrants, they say, they alert Border Patrol. Written instructions for volunteers instruct them not to get closer than 30 feet of a suspected migrant except in cases of “extreme” emergency. Even then, Vickers says, he warns volunteers providing first aid to be vigilant, as many migrants carry knives.
In her home, Linda dispenses a glass of strawberry, cucumber and mint-infused water, moving swiftly around the kitchen in her workout shorts, beige vest and calf-high cowboy boots. In a nearby hallway, a plaque hangs on the wall: “2012 Super Star Award Presented to the B.E.S.T. Team—119 Reported Illegal Aliens, 101 Border Patrol Apprehensions.” The plaque honors Linda’s dogs, Blitz, Elsa, Schatten and Tinkerbell, three of them German shepherds, who have been trained to sniff out migrants.
“You can’t hide from that nose,” says Linda, adding that her dogs can smell migrants as far as 600 yards downwind. A photograph of them on her all-terrain vehicle was the Vickers’s Christmas card two years ago, she says.
Linda, chief of staff for the Texas Border Volunteers, spends most of her time at home and says she frequently sees undocumented migrants near the house. Her dogs, whom she speaks to lovingly in basic German, alert her to them, she says. But she is not afraid—around here, “you gotta put your big girl panties on,” she says, her smile revealing straight, pearly white teeth. She is always armed with a .45 Long Colt—the kind of gun used to shoot ducks, her husband says. Her job, she says, brings her enormous satisfaction.
“It makes you feel good when Border Patrol loads up a group that you’ve reported,” she says. The walls of the Vickers’s office are covered in carefully organized deer heads. Several more lie on the floor. Linda rarely spends time in there, choosing instead to relax in the “estrogen room,” an area of the house that boasts a tanning bed and a sauna and overlooks the sapphire-colored swimming pool outside.
CAT AND MOUSE
Brooks County garnered national attention in June after the remains of dozens of unidentified migrants were discovered buried at a local cemetery in milk crates and plastic bags. The county has the highest number of migrant deaths in Texas—129 in 2012, 87 in 2013, and 42 this year so far, with many more expected during the scorching summer months. It is home to one of the Border Patrol’s busiest checkpoints. “In a sense, what we have is two borders,” says Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, coordinator of the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute. “We have one real border and then the border that has been set up by checkpoints.”
President Barack Obama is under growing political pressure over a recent flood of child migrants from Central America, driven by rumors that his administration is more welcoming than past administrations. Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to help deal with the crisis, while Texas Governor Rick Perry has asked for National Guard troops to be sent to the border.
One of Obama’s top campaign promises was to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but his efforts have so far produced very little. Congress is deadlocked, with conservative Republicans rejecting anything but a tough crackdown on people coming illegally into the U.S. While politicians in Washington bicker about the causes of the crisis and what should be done about it, Americans in border states and beyond are becoming increasingly polarized.
Texas is especially divided. Demographically, it is becoming a more Hispanic state, opening up the prospect of Democrats making gains there if they can present themselves as more sympathetic to the concerns of immigrants. At the same time, residents such as the Vickers are dealing firsthand with the problems caused by the influx of undocumented migrants.
The migrants who make it as far as Brooks County tend to be adults, since minors who cross the border will often give themselves up to U.S. authorities, trusting that they will not be immediately deported. Ranchers in Brooks County complain of property damage and trash left behind by the migrants, referred to more often than not around here as “illegals” or “wetbacks.”
One day in early July, two men and two women from Guatemala who looked to be in their late teens were spotted and reported to the Border Patrol. Their eyes were sunken, their skin scorched by the relentless sun that had worn them down as they walked for three days in 100-degree heat. When the agents arrived, the four looked resigned, walking over and sitting down in the small triangle of shade offered by the Border Patrol SUV. Three more migrants emerged from the brush and joined the group.
Down the road, a woman sauntered near the entrance of a ranch, her military green T-shirt hugging her plump curves and blending into the background. B.J., as the 53-year-old requested to be called, manages several large ranches in Brooks County, population 7,237. She said she had seen the migrants walking by on the highway and notified the Border Patrol.
“I will do everything in my power to send them back,” she said, sitting down at a wooden picnic table next to the main house. A pair of handcuffs hung next to a fireplace nearby. Behind B.J. were two dozen half-empty bottles of alcohol and a sign that read, “When life gives you lemons…break out the Tequila and salt.”
Ranchers like B.J. see themselves as the first line of defense against migrants. Before calling “the boys,” as she refers to the Border Patrol agents who make up the vast majority of her social circle, B.J. goes on a “manhunt.”
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says B.J. with a grin, driving through ranch trails. Her Heckler & Koch P2000 pistol rests in the cup holder next to her right knee. She starts by looking for footprints—they are most noticeable on the sand tracks she has set up next to the trails that she smooths by dragging tires. When she sees a fresh set, she speeds through the trails, finds the migrants, chases after them until they tire out, corners them and then yells, “Pa’bajo!”—Spanish for down.
“You can’t tell me this isn’t fun,” she said, chewing dipping tobacco and spitting its juice out into an empty plastic water bottle. “More fun than shopping and looking at sights.” As she came up to a yellow road sign that read, “Caution,” she pointed out the figures of running people she had drawn on it to make her friends laugh.
What if the migrants resist when she corners them? She smiles and says that is one question too many.
The brush migrants cross through around here is made up of oak and mesquite trees. Burrs, tiny seeds with irritating thorns that attach to clothing and skin, are ubiquitous, as are venomous snakes. In large swaths of the properties flanking the checkpoint, law enforcement officials have put sensors.
When she is not chasing border crossers, B.J., who is of Irish descent, spends several days a week fixing the fence that coyotes (people smugglers) damage and picking up the water jugs migrants leave behind. She also works as a crop loss adjuster for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
B.J. lives alone except for Wilson, a rock on which she drew eyes, a nose and pursed lips. During a recent drive in her vehicle, she buckled Wilson into the backseat, the back and bottom of the rock wrapped carefully in a towel.
“NO ONE IS DYING ON MY RANCH”
From October to May this year, 323,675 people have been apprehended along the Southwest border, a 15 percent increase compared to fiscal year 2013, according to the Border Patrol. More than 52,000 of these are unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, fleeing widespread drug-related violence in the region and drawn by rumors of amnesty in the U.S.
Overwhelmed, Border Patrol agents along the Rio Grande Valley have been handing some of these migrants a bus ticket to their final destination along with an immigration court citation. But for those who continue on their way north via U.S. 281, the longest continuous highway in the country, the journey through southern Texas can be more treacherous than the border itself.
Ten miles north of the Vickers ranch is Falfurrias, Texas, the largest city in Brooks County, which is called “The Land of Heart’s Delight.” Its mainly single-story buildings appear rundown, and many are abandoned. The biggest landmark in town is a Wal-Mart, known as much for its bulk items as for the brush behind it, a makeshift rest spot for migrants who have successfully circumvented the checkpoint, dodged Border Patrol agents and hidden from vigilantes. For them, the question remains whether the coyotes who dropped them off before the checkpoint will pick them up when and where they said they would.
Nearby is the South Texas Human Rights Center. It is run almost single-handedly by Eduardo Canales, 66, who has raised some $12,000 in private donations since last August. On a recent morning, Canales sat by his computer, hunched over a simple black-and-white map he received via fax from a man whose sister did not survive the journey. Its lines were drawn with the aid of a ruler: U.S. 281 on the top, rudimentary sketches of a ranch, windmill, water tank and hunter’s stations below it. In the middle, just above carefully drawn barbed wire, a tree. Next to it, a stick figure with the name “Silvia.”
“To get a map like that, it’s very rare,” said Canales, marveling at its detail. Silvia’s brother had convinced one of the people who had been traveling with her before the group left her behind to draw it and then sent it to Canales.
Canales made a few calls to the sheriff’s office, trying to assemble a team to find Silvia’s remains. At first he thought it would be an easy process and sped off to fill up his truck with gas. But the office was shorthanded, and, in any case, everyone was waiting for the Border Patrol to get permission to enter the ranch identified in the map. Most ranchers have given the Border Patrol a key or code to their gates, but almost everyone involved in rescues and apprehensions abides by “ranch etiquette” and calls the property owner before entering.
“The biggest challenge is that, all the way around, there is private property,” said Canales, underscoring the difference between the challenges facing migrants in southern Texas versus Arizona. He recently put together a civilian search and rescue team of about 10 volunteers, which works with the sheriff’s department, but they are struggling to secure access to the ranches and help migrants who have placed 911 calls.
Looking defeated, Canales sat slumped on his office chair. “We have to go through so many hoops to save a life,” he says. His office contains a stack of blue plastic barrels with “AGUA,” painted on them in white. One of his current projects is convincing ranchers to put these water stations on their property. The stations are simple and mobile, the barrels filled with gallon jugs of water that migrants can stealthily pick out and take with them.
It has been a struggle: Among others, B.J. and the Vickers have declined to put water stations on their ranches, saying that that would make it too convenient for migrants. In any case, says Vickers, the windmills provide a water source that is safe for cattle and therefore for migrants. As for B.J., when she sees water jugs left behind by migrants strewn around the ranch, she says, she feels nothing but a desire to “take your hands and strangle them.”
Some ranchers have acquiesced. County Judge Raul M. Ramírez is one of them. During an interview in his office, his voice sounded tired and hoarse from days of meetings and interviews following the discovery of the migrant remains buried without dignity in the local cemetery. Ramírez says that he agreed for Canales to place a water station on his ranch, which is 20 miles south of Falfurrias because “no one is dying on my ranch.”
He is familiar with the despair that death brings to the families of deceased migrants. Ramírez is often called out to pronounce migrants dead. He recalls, in particular, a call he received in 2012, shortly after pronouncing a 39-year-old Mexican man dead near a Wal-Mart. The man’s sister “wanted to know everything, where, if he had suffered, if coyotes and buzzards had gotten to him, what he was wearing,” recalls Ramírez.
Lavoyger Durham manages El Tule Ranch just outside Falfurrias. He thinks the government should close the border down. But until then, he says, he wants to do the right thing. "That's a terrible death, dehydration," he says, adding that the water stations he has set up have drawn criticism from other ranchers who accuse him of aiding and abetting the migrants.
Kass Hernández, one of the youngest ranch administrators in Brooks, allowed Canales to put two water stations on his property. Hernández is perpetually angry about the property damage and trash that migrants leave behind—he walks a few feet next to the fence, picking up sweaters, aspirin bottles and water jugs, visibly upset. But “we put water stations because it is the humane thing to do,” he says, surveying the cut barbed wire.
Hernández has placed several ladders against the fence in the hopes that migrants will stop cutting it, but says he still has sustained around $80,000 worth of damage.
When he sees several migrants together, he calls the Border Patrol. “It’s like a dog taking a crap on your front lawn,” he says of the groups. But he says he feels compassion for stragglers, the ones who are too weak to keep up or too sick to keep going. If one comes knocking at his door, Hernández says, he invites him or her in, sharing whatever he is having for dinner and letting the person make a phone call to loved ones back home. He enjoys the company, he says, but he never lets his guard down. During a recent visit to his house, he pulled out an Uzi and a .380 pistol from behind the kitchen cabinets and an assault rifle from a closet and laid them on the kitchen island.
Hernández says he used to go to the meetings with the Border Patrol, where Brooks County residents air their complaints. One of the most frequent, according to Hernández, is that when Border Patrol agents enter ranches, their vehicles spark fires in the brush.
“A lot of people have sold out, moving their families into town,” says Susan Kibbe, executive director of the South Texans’ Property Rights Association. Ranchers are concerned not only about liability issues and property damage but also about their personal safety, given the increase in migrant traffic through their property, says Kibbe.
Hernández stopped going to the meetings because he said there is tension between him and other ranchers who “talk like they know all the answers.”
PAYING THE PRICE
Most residents here have found common ground on one issue: the need to convince Washington to designate Brooks County a border county, a move that would help secure federal resources destined for border security. It costs the county around $2,250 to handle each migrant death, and such costs have put an added strain on a local economy already hit by dwindling oil and gas revenues. Last year, the county cut health benefits and pay for its employees.
“We have a humanitarian crisis, but we also have a humanitarian cost,” says Urbino “Benny” Martínez, chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff Department. Martínez says that plans to increase the checkpoint from three to eight lanes mean his county will be even more overwhelmed with immigration-related costs. He estimates that between 300 and 500 migrants go through the Brooks County brushland on any given day.
Kate Spradley, an assistant professor of forensic anthropology at Texas State University, is part of the team that identifies migrant remains found in Brooks County. “You can understand why they are overwhelmed. They’re dealing with a slowly accumulating mass disaster,” she says.
What the county needs, according to Martínez, is “more action and less talking. Forget the blue coats or the red coats or the independents.” As Washington stalls on the immigration issue, Brooks County pays a heavy price, he adds. Five years ago, his office had 10 full-time deputies; now he has four.
Elias Pompa is one of those deputies. The single 37-year-old father supplements his base salary of $24,000 with mechanic work on the side. The constant sight of migrant remains has taken a toll on him. During a recent shift, he scrolled through the photographs on his phone, looking for a particular one. It was of a Guatemalan woman in her early 20s who had been run over while running across U.S. 281, her mangled remains splattered on the pavement. Pompa said she looked “like a pretzel,” and he couldn’t eat for a full day after seeing her.
Back at the Vickers’s ranch, Linda’s dogs waded in one of the windmill water pools, clumps of algae floating on its reddish surface.
As dusk set over the expansive brush, Vickers drove his all-terrain vehicle in silence through the zigzagging trails. Then, suddenly, he stopped and reached down for his binoculars. He held them up to his squinting eyes for several seconds, a look of admiration on his face.
The deer stared back in surprise and then, in a flash, pranced off into the brush.