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Avoiding big U.S. crossing points, migrants are now going through remote Texas towns

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After about 50 Venezuelan migrants arrived unexpectedly on Martha's Vineyard last week, there's been a lot of talk about who brought them there. Republican governors shipped them and other migrants around the country on planes and buses. Those migrants are part of a broader shift that's happening at the southern border, a shift that has big implications for the entire U.S. NPR's Joel Rose and Marisa Penaloza recently traveled to South Texas, and they're here to tell us about what they learned - good to have you both here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi.

MARISA PENALOZA, BYLINE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Joel, what is this shift at the border, and how does it connect to the buses and planes full of migrants?

ROSE: These migrants are coming from all over the hemisphere, increasingly from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. And where they're crossing is changing, too. A remote stretch of south Texas has become one of the busiest sections of the entire border around the border towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass, Texas. In many cases, it's these migrants who are then being bussed to New York and Washington, D.C., and Chicago. And we also know that some of these migrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard after crossing the border around Eagle Pass because they say so in their lawsuit against Florida officials.

SHAPIRO: All right, well, the two of you went there. You spent time in one of these remote stretches of border near Eagle Pass. Marisa, take us there. What'd you find?

PENALOZA: Sure. So this story begins on a ranch outside Eagle Pass, a border town a little more than two hours from San Antonio. Often, migrants cross here in groups, sometimes hundreds at a time, or sometimes it's just a few families together. So it's pretty unusual when we see migrants crossing alone.

JOSE ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

LUIS VALDERRAMA: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: That is how we meet Jose Albornos (ph) under the blistering sun of South Texas, all alone, dripping wet and muddy on the U.S. side of the river.

VALDERRAMA: (Speaking Spanish).

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: We're on the land of Luis Valderrama. He's a rancher, owns a few hundred acres just outside Eagle Pass. Valderrama is showing us where other migrants cut holes in his fences when suddenly Jose Albornos just appears in the middle of a dirt road.

PENALOZA: Valderrama's a former Border Patrol agent. This is not his first encounter with migrants. He has a gun on his belt. Still, he's cautious approaching this guy traveling alone, who's just turned up on his land with a big bulge under his shirt.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

VALDERRAMA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "What's under your shirt," Valderrama asks. It's a good question. For all he knows, it could be anything - drugs, weapons. Valderrama asks if he's carrying a gun or a knife.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: "Don't be scared," Albornos says. He lifts his black T-shirt and pulls out a plastic garbage bag. Inside, he has a smaller bag holding his passport, a change of clothes and a smartphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLINKING)

ROSE: Valderrama unlocks the gate. Albornos is still breathing heavily after crossing the river. He's not young or skinny like a lot of the migrants we've seen. He stops in the shade to catch his breath.

PENALOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: "Why did he pick Eagle Pass," I ask. Albornos says he heard from other migrants that the journey through Coahuila, Mexico, is safer, less policed. So he just followed in their footsteps, using his smartphone to map out the route as he went.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: My trip was planned by Google, he says, not me. Many of the migrants who wind up on buses or planes to the north now pass through this remote stretch on the Rio Grande. We spoke to dozens of migrants who told us they're choosing to cross here because they've heard from other migrants that the journey is relatively safe.

ROSE: This new wave of migrants is coming largely from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. That's significant because these migrants generally cannot be expelled under the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42. And instead, immigration authorities are releasing them into the U.S., where they can seek asylum.

PENALOZA: This summer, the area around Eagle Pass became the busiest spot on the entire border. Immigrant advocates here had never seen anything like this before, so they had to improvise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: When migrants are released from U.S. custody in Eagle Pass, they come here to a nonprofit called Mission: Border Hope. It's turned an old warehouse on the outskirts of town into a bustling waystation for migrants.

VALERIA WHEELER: Our main purpose is to help them continue their journey.

PENALOZA: Valeria Wheeler is the executive director. She says the group moved into this space back in April after their contacts at the Border Patrol urged them to.

WHEELER: Actually, this place was built because of the anticipation that they had. They told us, Valeria, you will need a bigger place. There's going to be a lot of more people.

ROSE: The Border Patrol was right. Mission: Border Hope is now serving about 500 migrants a day or more. When we are there, many of them are either charging their smartphones or talking into them, trying to sort out their travel plans or get money from friends and relatives to pay for their tickets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: The majority of these migrants are young men. But some are older. There are a few families here, too.

DANNY VELASCO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Danny Velasco (ph) and his wife, Kimberly Gonzalez (ph), are traveling with their two young kids, ages 3 and 10 months. The parents have degrees in business and were working at a car dealership in Venezuela. But they say the economy there has collapsed, and they could barely afford to feed their kids.

KIMBERLY GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: Gonzalez says people they knew told him Eagle Pass was a safe place to cross. Still, she says the journey was dangerous. They had to cross the jungle in Panama and avoid drug cartels in Mexico. When they finally got to the Rio Grande, the river was high. It took them four tries to cross.

VELASCO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Velasco says he sometimes feels guilty for putting his children through this. They never asked if they wanted to come, he says, even though we are doing it for them. Then it's time for the family to get on the bus to San Antonio and on from there to Los Angeles.

PENALOZA: Some of the migrants who come through Eagle Pass wind up on buses to New York and Chicago and Washington paid for by the state of Texas. Very few of them stay at the border for more than a day or two. We spoke with about a dozen residents in downtown Eagle Pass, and most of them feel sympathy for migrants.

ROSE: That includes Gerardo "Jerry" Morales. He's a county commissioner, also owns a local business in Eagle Pass, the Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory. Morales says he'd like to hire some of the migrants if he could.

JERRY MORALES: We've been short-staffed for the past three years, and people in the U.S. don't want to work. And so I see business owners, you know, kind of leaning, man, what's going on? What's broken with our system that we can't get people to work right now? Yet you have this people coming in that want to work.

ROSE: But not everyone around Eagle Pass is happy about this new shift in migration. Many ranchers and pecan farmers outside of town don't like it because often the migrants are crossing on their land. That's why we went to visit rancher Luis Valderrama at his cattle ranch on the banks of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE SPUTTERING)

PENALOZA: Valderrama drove us around his ranch on his ATV. He raises cattle here on 350 acres covered in carrizo cane and blooming purple bushes called cenizo. As the sun is coming down, he takes us to a spot on the banks of the river where big groups of migrants have crossed.

VALDERRAMA: The aliens are walking out. It looks like they're changing here. We see water bottles, clothing, shoes.

ROSE: Valderrama says some of his cows have died after eating trash left behind by migrants. And that's not the only thing that bothers him. A few weeks ago, the Texas State Guard put in a brand-new fence here with razor wire across the top.

VALDERRAMA: I was happy with the idea of a fence because it would keep my cows from getting out even further. But they've already started cutting this fence. You know, that hole is big enough for a little calf to get through.

ROSE: So this fence has been here, like, three weeks.

VALDERRAMA: Three weeks, yeah.

ROSE: When did you notice the hole?

VALDERRAMA: Second day.

ROSE: Valderrama spent 24 years with the Border Patrol, and he does not like what he's seeing today. Valderrama thinks the Biden administration is sending the wrong message by releasing so many migrants into the interior. He thinks that's just encouraging more people to cross illegally.

VALDERRAMA: If the immigrants knew that you weren't going to be released, they would - and they were going to go to a detention camp and wait for a hearing and they'd be in a camp for six months to a year, they would stop coming.

PENALOZA: But Valderrama has some sympathy for migrants, too. He tells us that his mother was born in Mexico and he's got dual citizenship.

VALDERRAMA: I see why they're coming over. If the doors are open, the welcome flag is up. If I was from that side, I'd do the same thing.

PENALOZA: It's just then that our conversation is interrupted when we come across Jose Albornos, the migrant who's still dripping wet from crossing the river and breathing heavily.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Albornos explains that he's been walking since 3 in the morning, trying to avoid trouble from drug cartels or Mexican police.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: "Migrants like me," he says, "are just walking dollar signs. You have to pay everyone for everything along the way." Albornos says he brought $2,000 on the trip and spent all of it.

ROSE: Albornos says he had a job in Venezuela, but he wasn't making enough to support his family. So he left his wife and three daughters back home. And at age 40, he's trying to start over in the U.S.

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: "I understand that the U.S. is helping Venezuelans," he says, "by allowing us to come in and work here so we can help our families there."

ALBORNOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PENALOZA: "It's better to say I tried and failed than not to try," he says. "If I didn't try, I would regret it forever."

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE SPUTTERING)

ROSE: We talked to Albornos for about 20 minutes. Then we all climbed into Valderrama's ATV and drive up the hill toward the main highway. Valderrama takes out his phone and speed dials the Border Patrol.

CAMERAS: Border Patrol - Cameras (ph).

VALDERRAMA: Hey, Cameras. This is Luis Valderrama.

CAMERAS: Sir.

VALDERRAMA: Hey. I bumped into a Venezuelan down there by the river. I'm going to drop him off at the front gate.

ROSE: A few minutes later, a Border Patrol agent pulls up in a pickup truck. He asks Albornos a few questions. Then Albornos climbs in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR SLAMMING)

ROSE: And the truck pulls away.

PENALOZA: Jose Albornos texted us last week. He's in Montana, where he's already lined up a job in construction. I think I'll stay here for a good, long time, he said. Marisa Penaloza.

ROSE: And Joel Rose, NPR News, Eagle Pass, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER SONG, "SEASON COURAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.