U.S. Soldier Saves Abandoned Immigrant Child from Drowning in Rio Grande

A U.S. soldier helped rescue a young girl who was struggling with the current in the Rio Grande River on Monday after suspected human smugglers left her on the U.S. side of the waterway.

The soldier, whom authorities have not yet publicly identified, was among a group from U.S. Army North, U.S. Northern Command sent to assist Laredo Sector Border Patrol agents in Texas amid the recent influx of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Reports from the rescue site said the girl was "a little dazed and shook up" after she was pulled from the water, according to Laredo Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak.

"The fortunate—but also unfortunate—reality is, I don't think she totally realized the gravity of the situation that she was in," Hudak told Newsweek. "Unfortunately, we do see a lot of fatalities here and in other sectors along the border, particularly from the Rio Grande. It can look at times very peaceful, but there's a lot of water moving, and it can be very dangerous."

One of the Laredo Sector's camera systems was first to pick up on a group of four individuals crossing the river near Zacate Creek shortly before 9 p.m. local time, Hudak said. As soldiers and Border Patrol agents in the area began responding, three of the individuals making the trek across the river—which Hudak said stretches about 70 or 75 yards across at that point—turned around to head back to Mexico.

The Laredo Sector's cameras revealed that the group attempting to cross left one individual behind to cling to the riverbank on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

One soldier who was closer to the riverbank than the nearby Border Patrol agents noticed the individual left behind, a young girl, was struggling.

"When it was apparent that somebody was having trouble in the water, that soldier quickly responded from his location," Hudak told Newsweek.

He made his way down the riverbank, reached across and pulled the girl out of the water.

Photos Hudak shared of the incident on social media showed the water at waist-level. Hudak told Newsweek he visited the area the day after the rescue and noticed the water level was higher and the current speed faster than it had been one week earlier.

"Keep in mind that this was just before 9 p.m., so it was dark at the time that this was happening—which certainly makes it a little more harrowing," Hudak said.

This dangerous situation could have had a deadly outcome. Smugglers abandoned an noncitizen unaccompanied child in the Rio Grande River as they fled back to Mexico. https://t.co/DyntGJwtff pic.twitter.com/SqYrhUhRy4

— Chief Patrol Agent Matthew J. Hudak (@USBPChiefLRT) April 21, 2021

The girl was identified as a 10-year-old from El Salvador, Laredo Sector officials told Newsweek. She was not traveling with a parent or guardian at the time of her rescue and is thus one of thousands of U.S.-bound unaccompanied migrant children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks.

Once rescued, the girl was found to be healthy and did not need any medical help, officials said. Hudak added that she was able to speak with agents at the scene once the initial shock of the experience wore off. She has since been placed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' custody, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The soldier who helped rescue the young girl is one of about 260 soldiers who are currently supporting Laredo Sector agents, Hudak said. The soldiers assist with non-enforcement operations, which Hudak said includes running the camera systems and providing visual observations along the border.

"Generally they're not involved in actually making arrests or having direct contact with the people that we arrest," Hudak told Newsweek. "But in this case, I think we certainly all understand that the soldier, recognizing that there was a life safety need, certainly did a great job responding."

The incident marks the second time U.S. soldiers have assisted Border Patrol agents along the southern border with helping an individual in need of rescue while attempting to cross the Rio Grande, according to the CBP.

Border Patrol in Laredo, Texas
An airboat from the Laredo, Texas, South Border Patrol Station leaves to patrol the Rio Grande River near the Laredo checkpoint on January 13, 2019, next to the International Bridge and border crossing into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

Border crossings have been on the rise since last spring, with the number of encounters between migrants and Border Patrol officials increasing further since President Joe Biden took office in January. Agents' migrant encounters rose 71% from February to March, with more than 172,000 reported attempts to enter the U.S. last month.

The CBP has also reported a "significant increase" in the number of unaccompanied minors trying to cross the border. Like the 10-year-old rescued on Monday, most of those minors traveled to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America, according to the CBP.

The number of undocumented minors who tried to cross the border without the accompaniment of a parent or guardian increased by 100% between February and March, according to the CBP. In Laredo, the number of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border between March 2021 and the start of the 2021 fiscal year increased 27% when compared with the number of encounters reported by the same point of fiscal year 2020, CBP data shows.

Though the nearly 19,000 encounters between Border Patrol agents and undocumented minors in March are dwarfed by the total number of migrant encounters, the CBP said minors represent the largest group of migrants who are currently staying at agency facilities.

"We're seeing a very significant increase of unaccompanied children specifically," Hudak told Newsweek.

While he said the Laredo Sector hasn't seen as large a jump in border crossings as cities like El Paso or Del Rio, human smuggling plays a significant role in his area.

"Nearly all of the crossings that we're dealing with are criminally driven," he said.

Biden administration officials have discouraged migrants from attempting to gain entry to the U.S., but many have continued trying in the hope that the Democrat will be friendlier to their plight than his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

While Biden was quick to do away with Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy that blocked asylum seekers from securing refuge in the U.S., the large number of recent border crossings has added pressure to Biden's team to offer solutions for an immigration conundrum that has simmered for decades.

Rio Grande human smuggling
A smuggler rows Central American families across the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on April 9, 2021 in Roma, Texas. A surge of immigrants crossing into the United States, including record numbers of children, continues along the southern border. John Moore/Getty Images