Welcome to my world...
Eastern Washington especially those areas west of Spokane have a large population of illegal immigrants. Most people have little idea of the life and death risks many of these immigrants took to pursue the American Dream.
Most of us are insulated from death as much as possible, we will see a fatal car accident on the road and look hard just to get a glimpse or stand outside of a violent crime scene yet on the border, death is an almost daily occurrence and sadly, almost accepted as fate by those who are involved.
Death on the southern border is all too common for those would-be immigrants trying to cross the border into the United States. Not only does the border itself have numerous obstacles including a treacherous river and callous bandits but once successfully across that line, the immigrants face numerous other life threatening situations.
As a twenty two year old college graduate I accepted the job of a Border Patrol Agent completely naïve of the job. Stationed in Uvalde, Texas, some seventy miles from the U.S./Mexican Border, I was stunned at how close life and death is for illegal immigrants crossing through this area.
In Uvalde, two of the many Border Patrol operations conducted include sign cutting and freight train checks. These two duties bring the agents up close and personal to the illegal immigrants' plight and to death which seems to hover over those crossing through the hot, unforgiving area.
It wasn't long before I came face to face with immigrants who paid the ultimate price in attempting to better their fate in life, their own death. South Texas can be desperately hot and humid; causing those who migrate through its brushy country to need to increase their water intake dramatically. While sign-cutting groups it was rare to come across the body of an immigrant who died along the path, but sadly not that rare.
The South Texas area surrounding Uvalde is livestock grazing area and to successfully stock this inhospitable land with livestock, small windmills are haphazardly placed across the terrain to generate the energy to pull water out of their associated wells. Large tanks accompany these windmills with a fresh supply of water being produced.
Literally thousands of groups of illegal immigrants have traversed through this country and they leave markers for the next group, have drawn maps for their successors or have orally passed on the landmarks to watch for and follow. The windmills are integral parts of many of these routes and enable the travelers to walk another day without running out of the most precious cargo, water.
But during the hottest days or when some unforeseen factor affects a group, their travels easily become nightmarish. Over the dozen years I was stationed in Uvalde, our station's personnel came across groups often whose members became lost and dehydrated, with blistered feet and on the verge of heat exhaustion. Once in great while one of their members would be left behind, unable to travel anymore.
Numerous factors contribute to a would-be immigrant's death. One of the most common is drinking water obtained from bacteria infested sources, causing illness which combined with walking for hours on end in the hot and humid Texas terrain can lead to dehydration and heat exhaustion and sometimes death more rapidly than it would in a healthy traveler.
Often the survivors of a group will intentionally come out of the brush looking for Border Patrol Agents to tell them of their friend, relative or sometimes, just traveling companion they left behind.
A sense of dread always overcame me when I heard these stories as the stragglers could easily be dead and sadly, on occasion, this is the case.
Freight Trains: A deadly transportation choice.
Freight train checks are one of the most dangerous operations a Border Patrol Agent can perform and sadly many agents are hurt and some killed while performing these checks. The trains are also extremely unforgiving for would-be immigrants. One false move, one slip and sometimes one incorrect belief about these iron horses can lead to serious injury and death.
Many of the illegal immigrants crossing through this area have limited education and believe in superstitions and rumors. One of these beliefs that kills many illegals along the railroad tracks is that rattlesnakes will not cross the tracks. Therefore a would-be immigrant sleeping between the tracks would be safe from rattlesnakes crawling into their camp.
The would-be immigrants often believe they will wake up easily if a train is coming. Sadly, this was not always the case and many died or were severely mutilated because the train was quieter than they hoped. The saddest case of this was just west of my station in Brackettville where half a dozen would-be immigrants didn't awake in time and then were mutilated by the train. The way the Border Patrol could tell how many people were killed was by counting the pairs of blood-stained shoes.
Aliens falling off of trains or getting injured and killed trying to get on them was far too common.
Once, during a freight train check we were performing in Knippa, a small community ten miles east of Uvalde, the helicopter spotted a pair of would-be immigrants. These two knew they were spotted and were prepping to jump, run and hide in an attempt to escape.
The train, slowing to a stop at the Knippa siding, allowing for the two to successfully jump, the first step in their escape plan. The man and woman did just that without a problem. Then the man reached to grab a bag he had tossed off of the train. The bag, too close to the now very slowly moving train, caused him to lean into the path of a heavy metal object sticking from the train which struck him in the head.
I remember this shift well as the would-be immigrant's skull was shattered and he lay on the siding flopping like a fish thrown onto shore from a lake. This subject, along with his female companion, was life-flighted to a San Antonio hospital. We did not follow up on the case as in those days it was a Border Patrol policy that an injured subject's alienage was never probed.
Freight trains have a myriad of places for aliens to hide in order to avoid detection by the sharp eyes of the Border Patrol yet many of these places, such as grain cars, hold invisible and deadly dangers. Grain transported in these cars is often treated with poisons to keep rodents out.
Too many times, we looked into the bowels of the grain cars to find would-be immigrants dead or dying from eating the treated grains and breathing the toxic fumes.
The most shocking part of the many deaths I encountered during my dozen years on the border was the almost nonchalant attitude of the companions of those who had died. It was almost as if they accepted the deaths of their relatives and traveling companions as a sad but unavoidable aspect of crossing the border. This attitude, I hate to admit, was present in many of the law enforcement officers I worked with too as they developed callouses to deal with the many tragic incidents they would encounter.
THE BORDER PATROL CAREER: DEATH OF IMMIGRANTS