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The Runaround

The Cruel Chaos of Greg Abbott’s Border Battle

The Texas National Guard has deployed lies, fire, and razor wire in what’s been a largely inept attempt to deter asylum-seekers.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande river into the U.S. through Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Herika Martinez/Getty Images
Migrants cross the Rio Grande into the United States through Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on January 2.

Rodrigo has spent the last three days lying to his family about his absence. Nights spent on buses heading north, bribes paid to slide through checkpoints, his few belongings left behind or discarded—it was all to reach this moment. The teenager in ripped jeans and tennis shoes mounts the dirt plateau that marks the edge of Ciudad Juárez, nearly 2,000 miles away from his home in San Marcos, Guatemala. A current of wind catches the corner of his jacket, blowing dust down to the riverbank and clouding the thin chain of migrants below. They are huddled, ever-moving shapes, the pinks, reds, and yellows of their clothing fluorescent against the beige landscape. Beyond them, the wind touches the shiny white pickup trucks, the soldiers motionless in their camouflage fatigues, the wall. Beyond the wall is El Paso, Texas.

Nearby, two Colombian men who have arrived at this place—both consequential and cursed—carry large backpacks and an extra pair of shoes to change into after crossing the Rio Bravo. But Rodrigo has only the contents of his pockets. He is just one of the more than a million people, mostly from Central and South America, who have arrived at the border in the past year to be “processed” by Border Patrol and ask the U.S. government for asylum. 

Just as he’s in sight of the border, a van stamped with the logo of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, or INM, zooms along the plateau. Rodrigo has successfully avoided la migra until this point, but here, they lie in wait. Marker 36 is where migrants turn themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol for asylum screenings. Some of them will be traveling without the documents necessary to legally pass through Mexican territory. The empty van has enough seats for at least a dozen arrests. 

When the INM agent, a woman twice his size, asks his age with a deceptive, comforting tone, Rodrigo says 16, but this may be a lie. (Later, when I asked for his name, he said, “My real one?”) Both boy and agent know he does not have official permission to be in Mexico, but he stays silent, avoiding that question. 

“We’re going to have to take you into the office, so you can get your papers sorted, so you can be here with integrity,” she says. Rodrigo starts walking down the slope, but the agent steps in front of his path, caging him in. Rodrigo’s eyes stay fixed on the horizon, his gaze already touching the looming wall. 

This is his first test: Avoid la migra and make it to the soft dust of the riverbank. The river, at this time of year, is a dark, greenish stream between knee and chest height. Shoes stay on, because the bottom might be covered in sharp objects. 

The midpoint of the river is the legal border between Mexico and the United States. The open strip of dirt on the U.S. side, between the riverbank and the wall, is the playground of the Texas National Guard. Emboldened by Governor Greg Abbott’s defiance of the federal government, they have decided to take “border security” into their own hands. At the riverbank, they have placed nests of razor wire, which form a fence of tangled silver ringlets, several feet wide. Every so often, a large, disorderly thicket of wire spills down into the river. The migrants must figure out a way to climb over or through the razor wire, preferably while the patrolling guardsmen are engaged elsewhere. 

A handful of National Guard soldiers are tasked with doing whatever they can to prevent migrants—most of whom are refugees fleeing violence, political instability, or economic ruin—from making it through the several-meter stretch from the river to the wall. At the door in the wall, Customs and Border Patrol takes over and the asylum process begins. Once the migrants touch the red, metal slats of the wall, they know the Texas National Guard is no longer a threat: They’ve made it. 

On the plateau, the Mexican immigration agent has cornered Rodrigo and is directing him toward the van. They’ll drive him far from the river, to a detention center where he’ll wait as the Mexican government attempts to contact his family, so they can take him back to Guatemala. Should he be so unfortunate as to be sent back, a grim fate likely awaits him: A criminal group that began extorting him several months ago may kill him. 

On the U.S. side of the river, a young migrant man scoops handfuls of dust and drops them onto a dying fire the Texas National Guard has set amid the snarls of razor wire. He is joined by a family with two small children, and the group of five salvages several half-burned scraps of blankets, making a bed across the spikes, and pushing aside the loops of wire to spring free and begin the final sprint to the wall. 

A Texas National Guard pickup truck throttles backward to the spot where the migrant family has just broken free of the wire. The woman, carrying her toddler, face-plants into the dirt, and the truck nearly runs her over. She scrambles to her feet, just as the guardsman reaches her partner, who has the other child, a boy of 6 or 7, by the hand. The guardsman grabs the migrant man by the arm, dragging him back toward the ashen mess of wire. The woman begins to scream, but the guardsman maintains an arm on the man, holding him bent toward the ground, while he and the woman argue in Spanish. Finally, the agent must let the man go—he cannot forcibly push him back into the river, at least not while he has an audience. 

This is Rodrigo’s moment. While all attention has turned to the altercation happening across the river, he runs past the Mexican immigration official, full speed to the riverbank. Less than 15 minutes later, he is in Texas, speaking with a Border Patrol agent. 

If Rodrigo had left his home a year ago, he might have encountered a comparatively calm border. The area would have been eerily empty, just one strand of wire the migrants could easily brush aside, and then wait, seated in clumps on the dirt, for Border Patrol to arrive periodically and pick up large groups for processing. 

That all changed last July, when the Texas National Guard began installing 17 miles of concertina razor wire between the riverbank and the wall. Migrants started showing up at El Paso shelters with stripes cutting through their hands, feet, and backs. “It’s a kind of pain that’s hard to describe, because it’s both deep and at the surface, like someone is stabbing you,” said Lianka Eudedi Lopez Flores, a Venezuelan migrant who forfeited the flesh on his palms, thighs, and back to make a tunnel in the wire for his family to pass through to El Paso on February 4. 

The installation of the wire was part of Operation Lone Star, a collection of laws and initiatives launched in 2021, aimed at slowing migration to Texas. The effects of the $12 billion plan “put both migrants and residents of border towns at risk,” according to Human Rights Watch, with “no evidence” of success in its goal.  

Over the past several years, Texas has periodically battled the federal government over command of the border territory—and which barbed objects can be placed in the middle of the river as well as on the banks. In mid-January, the Texas National Guard blocked federal Border Patrol agents from accessing a 2.5-mile stretch in Eagle Pass, a struggle that climbed quickly to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that federal agents could cut down razor wire placed by Texas guardsmen, but Texas officials have still not allowed them to enter the area. In El Paso, Border Patrol agents remain perched by the wall and do not interfere with the spike-riddled territory below. 

In recent weeks, the National Guard’s obstructive tactics have escalated at the same time as a crackdown by the Mexican government (at the request of the Biden administration) has led to many migrants suffering extortion at the hands of Mexican migration officials and choosing more dangerous methods of traveling through Mexico to avoid their patrols. Carlos Quinonez, who registers migrants at the Rescue Mission of El Paso, has noted that the migrants who have arrived recently bring with them a particular emotional fatigue and fragility. “We were going to split the men and women into different rooms, as we usually do, but they all said no, no we’re all going to sleep together in one room, be together,” he said. 

Those who choose to cross in Juárez must overcome the many creative obstacles the National Guard uses to deter them, beginning with a simple-to-construct barrier: the telling of lies. A guardsman will approach a group once they reach mid-river and begin shouting to them, most often saying that crossing the border in this way—“illegally,” in their telling—will lead to criminal charges or tarnish a migrant’s record. Immigration lawyer Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the National Immigration Council, clarified this lie, saying, “They could in theory arrest thousands of people on misdemeanor trespassing charges, but they understand that how the system looks on paper isn’t how it operates in practice.” 

When asked how seeking asylum—a legal right under both national and international law—could be illegal to access in practice, a guardsman responds, “You don’t know anything. This is Texas.”

“Go back to your countries, go to the U.S. consulate, and do this the right way,” the guardsman says, in Spanish, as if the migrants, now waist-deep in floating trash, would have never considered that option. Other lies include that migrants should cross at an official port of entry (where they will most definitely be turned away), that their children will be separated from them, and that they’ll be deported—unlikely possibilities, but not truths. None of these lies are effective: Not a single migrant sits in a Juarez shelter after changing their mind at the riverbank and deciding to do things “the right way.” 

After the lies comes the violence. Whenever a group of migrants succeeds in breaching the razor-wire barrier, usually when the guardsmen have moved on to a different area, they run to the wall, gripping their small children to their chests, while the guardsmen jump in their pickups and push up billows of dirt, darting to the spot to catch them. They rarely arrive in time. Then gasoline is poured on the cascade of blankets and jackets used to climb through the razor-wire, and fire eats at the fabrics, limiting the supply and making it more likely the migrants will cut themselves. Sometimes, extra razor wire is added to plug a hole. 

When they do catch a migrant, the guardsmen may attempt to push them back toward the river, as happened on February 16, when National Guard soldiers at the El Paso border pushed a migrant family, including a 1-year-old child, into the razor wire in an attempt to force them back into the river. When they realized Mexican journalists from El Diario de Juárez were filming them, the soldiers attempted to intimidate them by pointing green lasers across the river, as if preparing for a sniper attack. “The only thing we’re not doing is shooting people,” Governor Greg Abbott said in a radio interview on January 5.

Every once in a while, guardsmen throw small water bottles down to the migrants while unspooling more razor wire from the back of their trucks. “Look, we do nice things for them!” a guardsman says. 

To watch this unspool up close is to observe a game of cat and mouse, in which the Texas National Guard and the asylum-seekers crossing the river dart around a dirt arena—one side trying to dodge, the other attempting to catch. Over the course of five or six hours, the 100 or so migrants who cross the border always manage to make it through, albeit scraped up pretty badly, wet, and exhausted. Meanwhile, the guardsmen spend the hours in growing exasperation, their actions never altering the outcome of the situation, beyond the introduction of potential injury. Once the asylees are in the custody of Border Patrol, those with open wounds from the razor wire are given medical treatment. The concertina wire is constructed in such a way that from whichever direction you touch it, you are filleted. 

In theory, the behavior of the Texas National Guard at the border is supposed to be the final obstacle for migrants in a system based on theories of “prevention by deterrence”—the idea being  that if they can make it more dangerous and unpleasant for people to seek asylum, they will stop coming. In reality, the desperate and dangerous situations from which most of these migrants are fleeing are so dire that the hope of escape nearly always overwhelms the fear of the obstacles strewn in their way. So people continue to make the calculated decision to migrate, no matter how many horror stories they hear. More obstacles simply push migrants into more dangerous situations.

Exymar Díaz’s story is one such case. When she reached the Guatemala-Mexico border, the 22-year-old Venezuelan was told she would need to wait months to gain permission from the Mexican government to travel through the country and, after that, months to wait for an appointment on the CBP One app, the Border Patrol’s latest attempt to streamline the asylum system. But the money she had saved would be gone in just a few weeks. 

Díaz and her partner decided to hop a freight train north, known in Mexico as “La Bestia” (The Beast), so they could get to the border without encountering Mexican officials. As she jumped into the moving train car, Díaz opened a gash in her finger. Several days later, on January 30, she crossed the river at Marker 36, and her finger began to swell. Now she is in the hospital in El Paso with a full-scale blood infection. 

“Texas is finding out right now what the Border Patrol found out 25 years ago when they decided to go hard on the deterrence idea. That people will in fact put their lives at risk and literally crawl through barbed wire for the benefit of getting to the United States and the possibility of safety,” Reichlin-Melnick said. 

On February 7, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked Annunciation House, the oldest migrant shelter in El Paso, to hand over numerous records. The Attorney General’s Office made it clear the ultimate goal was to shut down the Catholic institution that has provided shelter for hundreds of thousands of refugees, on political grounds. “The chaos at the southern border has created an environment where NGOs, funded with taxpayer money from the Biden Administration, facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling,” Paxton said in a statement. Evidence submitted in the case makes it clear “human smuggling,” in the state’s opinion, refers to any help given to migrants, most notably any assistance translating or filing asylum documents, a service many migrant shelters provide. Should a court side with the state, the ruling could have implications for hundreds of migrant shelters along the border with nonprofit and religious designations.

“If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal, so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks,” the shelter said in a statement. 

In March, a new Texas law will go into effect that will require members of the National Guard to arrest migrants for crossing between ports—the rarely used misdemeanor trespassing charge—with penalties of up to a year in prison (though the state will not have the necessary infrastructure to hold everyone who crosses the border in jail). This means migrants will often be put in the confusing position of having different and conflicting standings with the state and federal systems. The federal government has sued Texas, and now a judge must decide whether the law will stand. 

Perhaps more importantly, the law will allow the state of Texas to send migrants back into Mexico, pending Mexican government approval. Under a purely federal system, the government has removed 400,000 migrants from the country, either through deportation or release into Mexico, just in the past nine months. The new law is expected to push migrants into the hands of smugglers, who will promise to help them avoid a potential arrest and who will provide a clear voice of authority as the Border Patrol and Texas guardsmen diverge in their assertions of how the system will work. By making a deal with a smuggler, migrants risk kidnapping for ransom, assault, injury, and death. But for the next month, the guardsmen will have to make do with just the wire as deterrence. 

“We don’t want them to cross this way, where there’s wire,” said a Texas guardsman who did not want to share his name, as if he had not placed the wire there himself. “They might get stuck in it, they might get hurt.”