“My mom’s story is like a fairytale,” the boy said before he fell asleep on the living room sofa. His mother calls him her little angel. They live together in an unpainted shack at the back of a dirt cul-de-sac among trailers and birds of paradise on the outskirts of Houston. Sunshine filtered through the window. The light was at once welcome and bitter, because the rain had only just lifted after Hurricane Harvey in September and much of the city was still flooded.
Water had not forced them out of the house, and the boy’s mother, a 42-year-old undocumented woman who requested anonymity for fear of being deported, thanked God aloud; had the floods come, she didn’t know where they would have gone. She had already been deported to Honduras once before and lost her asylum case upon returning to Houston three years ago. Every time she sees someone in uniform she says she thinks she might never see her son again. “Recently a cop stopped me, and I felt the life leaving me,” she said. “I cried, I cried.” The officer let her go without inspection. Her husband, from Veracruz, Mexico, is also undocumented. He was out working on waterlogged houses.
“I take the car only to work and return it to the house,” the woman said. “Sometimes if my husband’s not here, I go for food. But I don’t drive to just go outside. Because if they catch me, they will deport me again.” Five nights a week, she cleans a daycare center. In the mornings, she cleans a beauty supply outlet. She spends much of the rest of her time by the window in the living room. The sofa where her son, a U.S. citizen, was sleeping faced a painting of the Virgin Mary and a framed “Perfect Attendance” certificate. The window looked out at a brick wall.
The woman first came to the United States in 2004, fleeing an abusive husband and her home state of Copán, a narco-heavy passageway to Guatemala known as the “Corridor of Death.” After ten years of relative quiet in Houston, where she gave birth to a son and opened a taquería, she was pulled over for driving under the influence. She was deported a month later, and almost immediately upon her return to Honduras, facing the same dangers she had escaped a decade earlier, she fled again, this time with her teenaged daughter who had been living in Honduras. That year, the Central American country had more murders than any country not at war, though as the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written, violence in Central America “makes nonsense of the words war and peace.” The woman crossed Mexico and the border back to Texas and turned herself into Border Patrol to seek asylum. She was held in a privatized detention center in south Texas with her daughter for four and a half months alongside hundreds of other asylum-seeking mothers and their children.
But now, after her release on bond, the undocumented woman’s life in Texas has been different than it was before she was deported. Since a series of immigration raids last February, she hasn't felt free to walk in the streets. “Because policemen catch you walking in the street,” she told me.
She has reason to be worried. Wall aside, President Donald Trump has ordered an immigration crackdown that is as harsh and widespread as his campaign rhetoric suggested it would be, spreading angst and uncertainty among millions of people like this Texas woman. Days into his presidency, Trump signed two executive orders that made nearly all undocumented immigrants living in the United States targets for arrest, detention and deportation, revoking a policy during President Barack Obama’s final term that focused on immigrants who had committed crimes or who were recent border-crossers. Last year, the average monthly arrests of undocumented immigrants in the interior was up 40 percent from the last two years of the Obama administration. Arrests of undocumented immigrants never convicted of any crime have nearly tripled. As Trump has begun sending hundreds of National Guard troops to the border and warned on Twitter of “caravans” of more than 1,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras, approaching the U.S.-Mexico border, the message is clear: The border is under attack, and extraordinary measures are warranted.
The official border zone, as defined by a 1953 Department of Justice rule, doesn’t end at the Rio Grande. Effectively, it is a hundred miles deep, stretching inward from the border in states from Maine to Florida to California to Washington. Within this zone, immigration agents can search and interrogate, without warrant, anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally. In Texas, the undocumented typically reside in a section of the border zone before the checkpoints begin that is sometimes called la jaula, the cage, or la isla, the island.
This widespread feeling of paranoia—that the threat of arrest and deportation lurks around the corner—has long been a common feature of life within the border zone in states like Texas, but under Trump, that fear is traveling toward the center of the country.
Stoking anxiety is, in fact, part of the plan. “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at a congressional hearing last June. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
The administration is seeking to expand the ranks of ICE in the interior and open more detention space for immigrants who will be arrested in the expanding enforcement dragnet. Making the rest of the country look more like the border is the administration’s stated agenda. “We used to distinguish between border security and interior enforcement; now we’re lumping it all under border security,” said Elaine Duke, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, at a conference in San Antonio for surveillance technology vendors, law enforcement and administration officials earlier this year.
Texas is this creeping border’s first frontier. Amid stepped-up enforcement and promises for a border wall, in May 2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4, the nation’s harshest state immigration law, which bans sanctuary policies and forces local law enforcement officers–from college-campus police to sheriffs–to cooperate with ICE, turning cops into de facto immigration officers. After months in limbo in federal courts, S.B. 4 was deemed constitutional in its near entirety in mid-March.
Meanwhile, in conservative suburbs outside Texas’ sanctuary cities and in rural counties across the state, local law enforcement serves on the front lines of Trump’s deportation force. Twenty-five local law enforcement agencies, more than any other state and up from just two before Trump’s presidential victory, have entered into special partnerships with ICE. This relationship gives some police officers direct access to federal records to check the status of people they’ve arrested whom they suspect are in the country illegally—and transfer them to ICE if they are. The Texas Highway Patrol, under orders from the Department of Public Safety, routinely hands over undocumented drivers and passengers to immigration officers, as reported by the Intercept.
Undocumented immigrants have taken note. After Abbott signed the anti-sanctuary bill into law, some families in Texas packed their lives into cars and moved to states less hostile toward immigrants. Others have stockpiled rations at home. During Hurricane Harvey, I got calls from immigrants in flooded houses in Houston who refused go to shelters. The city of Houston tweeted in English and Spanish: “WE WILL NOT ASK FOR IMMIGRATION STATUS OR PAPERS AT ANY SHELTER.”
With Trump in the White House and national politicians taking his lead on immigration politics, especially on the right, the future might look like more and more like Texas. Laws similar to S.B. 4 were introduced in at least 33 state legislatures last year.
The 100-mile border zone exists along all edges of the U.S., but nowhere is the border as tense as it is in Texas. It’s the only state in the country to maintain its own security force on the border. In recent legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers budgeted more than $2 billion for the effort. Meanwhile, the number of federal Border Patrol agents in Texas between 2000 and 2015 has already more than doubled. Their trucks are parked off highways and backroads, the agents scanning the brush that’s a few shades lighter than their green uniforms. Last summer, a Border Patrol agent took me to a stretch of the river to see the hulking black gun boats manned by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Two vessels marked “Texas Highway Patrol” were docked, both armed with four machine guns. When we were walking back to his truck, the Border Patrol agent said, “We’d like to see the same go to the interior.”
There is little traffic on Interstate 35 from San Antonio past the string of privatized immigration detention centers that dot the road south to the border like an archipelago. On this road, stretching from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota, you could once trace where the tension in the landscape gave way to the relative safety of the interior. Now, it’s the road on which that tension is creeping northward.
In February 2017, a Facebook Live video shot a few minutes from the Austin Department of Public Safety, in front of a Whataburger, 130 miles away from the end of the official border zone in south Texas, went viral. A Hispanic man kneeled on the pavement as an officer in a “POLICE ICE” bullet-proof vest stood above him. The man looked like he was begging. Two more trucks arrived, followed by a van, two more men and another van. The video ends abruptly.
The video was shot on the second morning of a national operation Homeland Security called “Operation Cross Check,” which would net more than 680 immigrants across the country. Later that day, the Mexican Consulate in Austin announced that 44 Mexican immigrants were detained by ICE. The typical daily average had been four. “There was panic in my district,” Greg Casar, an Austin City Council Member who represents the district most heavily affected by the raids, said. Thirty percent of his constituents, he estimates, are undocumented. “I know people who had their doors knocked on,” Casar said. “I was recounted stories of people’s friends and family being followed and pulled over by ICE after dropping off their kids at schools or after leaving the supermarket.”
“This wasn’t behind closed doors in the middle of the night. This was very much in the community, out in front, for anyone to see,” Sofia Casini, a coordinator at the Austin non-profit Grassroots Leadership, told me. The organization directs a hotline for immigrant families. Before the February raids, the hotline got a couple calls a day; during the operation, she says, it received more than 1,000 calls. “The vast majority of callers were asking if their kids would be taken away, where they could go and not go, if they should pick their kids up from school,” Cassini said.
ICE maintains that there was nothing aberrant about the raids and its targets. “The focus of these enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations teams on a daily basis,” then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a public statement after Operation Cross Check had concluded.
The following January, ICE data obtained by the Texas Observer through a public information request showed 132 undocumented immigrants were arrested in the San Antonio sector, which includes Austin, between February 9 and February 12, 2017. ICE had originally reported that they had arrested just 51 on February 9 and 10. Records obtained by the Austin-American Statesman showed that Austin ranked first in non-criminal arrests during the nationwide operation. Fifty-five percent of those initially thought to have been arrested in the area had no criminal convictions, compared with 34 percent in Atlanta, 30 percent in Chicago, 6 percent in Los Angeles and 5 percent in New York.
An ICE spokeswoman said, in an email to Politico Magazine, that the raids were part of business as usual. “Rumors and reports that recent ICE operations are specifically targeting Travis County (Texas), apart from normal operations, are inaccurate,” she wrote. “However, more ICE operational activity is required to conduct at-large arrests in any law enforcement jurisdiction that fails to honor ICE immigration detainers”—requests that law enforcement hold onto undocumented immigrants for an additional 48 hours, long enough for ICE to reach the jail.
This soft confirmation came after already-widespread rumors that the raids in Austin had been in retaliation for the Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s sanctuary policy.
“Sanctuary” has no legal definition; what it means varies in practice. Hernandez, a Democratic constable in Austin, ran to be sheriff of Travis County with the promise not to transfer inmates to ICE custody for the sole purposes of deportation. She would honor federal immigration detainer requests only for people charged with very serious crimes, including capital murder, first-degree murder, aggravated sexual assault or human smuggling. To do otherwise, she said, would erode trust in law enforcement and compromise public safety. Hernandez, whom her opponent called “Sanctuary Sally,” was elected with 60 percent of the vote in November 2016.
After the election, and a month after the raids that had already upended the immigrant community, ICE seemed to move quickly to make an example of Sherriff Hernandez—and the immigrants who might think that law enforcement would protect them under her policies.
In March 2017, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, a 27-year-old Mexican father of two from Guanajuato, was released the same day Travis County’s new policy went into effect, a month after Hernandez took office. Coronilla-Guerrero had been charged with minor marijuana possession and family violence. (He and his wife both contended that the latter was a misunderstanding by the arresting officers.)
A few weeks after he was released, Coronilla-Guerrero went to the Travis County criminal courthouse to clear his record. By going to court, Daniel Betts, his criminal attorney, told me, “His primary goal was to not fall back into the clutches of immigration.” Coronilla-Guerrero had been deported to Mexico once before, in 2008, after an arrest for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He crossed the border without detection and returned to his family in Austin. He confided in Betts that he would be in danger if he were deported to Mexico again.
At the courthouse that day, Betts received a text from a colleague, an immigration lawyer, who noticed two men whom he recognized to be ICE agents, in plain clothes, lingering outside the courtroom where Coronilla-Guerrero was appearing. Afterward, the two agents rode in the elevator downstairs with Betts and his client. When they got to the first-floor lobby, the agents cornered Coronilla-Guerrero and asked, “Are you Juan Coronilla-Guerrero?” They had a warrant for his arrest—he was being charged with illegal reentry to the United States, a felony. It was the first known immigration arrest from the courthouse.
The ICE agents who arrested Coronilla-Guerrero later appeared at his preliminary hearing in Austin.
“There’s been questions about whether Austin’s being targeted,” a federal magistrate judge asked them during the hearing. “Your immediate supervisor, I guess … came and briefed me … at the very end of January that we could expect a big operation, agents coming in from out of town.
“There was going to be a specific operation and it was at least related to us in that meeting that it was a result of the Sheriff's new policy that this was going to happen. Are you aware of that?”
One agent replied, “Yes, your Honor.”
The judge went on. “And that's the one we heard about where 50-some-odd people were arrested?”
He repeated, “Yes, your Honor.”
Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, a housecleaner in Austin, warned an immigration judge that her husband would likely be killed if he were deported.
If you or your family were undocumented in Texas, you were watching the raids and cases like Coronilla-Guerrero’s, and you were almost certainly taking note. Austin was, in name, a “sanctuary city,” but it didn’t matter for people like Coronilla-Guerrero. ICE still reigned supreme.
A week after the election where Hernandez won, Charles Perry, a Republican state senator from Lubbock, filed Senate Bill 4. Earlier versions of the bill had failed to make it out of the Texas legislature in 2011 and 2015; however, with a new president who had vilified sanctuary policies throughout this campaign, the outcome was expected to be different.
Abbott classified S.B. 4 an “emergency” priority for state’s legislative session, and the bill passed the Texas Senate along party lines on February 8, 2017, including amendments that would penalize noncooperation with ICE. Department heads, like Hernandez, could be subject to criminal prosecution of a Class A misdemeanor and local agencies could be fined at least $1,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent violation of the bill.
At 3 o’clock in the morning on April 27, the Texas House voted on S.B. 4. During sixteen hours of debate, there had been shouting, crying and pleading. Mary González, a House member from El Paso, told the chamber that she was a survivor of sexual assault and begged Republicans not to vote for the bill. “Women and children who are survivors of sexual assault, rape, human traffickers,” she said before the House, are “the people who will feel the disconnect from law enforcement—the people who are supposed to make them safe.” The final bill passed along party lines and was harsher than the one that had initially passed the Senate. An amendment tacked on late in the night allowed local law enforcement officers to ask people about their immigration status during an arrest or a lawful detention, such as a traffic stop. S.B. 4 was slated to go into effect on September 1.
The small border town of El Cenizo, near Laredo, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Maverick County, also on the border, filed a suit against the state of Texas, soon joined by San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Houston, Dallas, El Paso and civil rights organizations. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton pre-emptively sued Austin, Travis County and its sheriff, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in anticipation of legal action, asking a federal judge to uphold S.B. 4’s constitutionality. (The judge threw out the case.) Police chiefs from around Texas signed on to a public letter opposing the law as “political pandering that will make our communities more dangerous.” The chiefs also noted in the letter that legal immigrants were starting to avoid contact with the police for fear that undocumented family members or friends would be subject to immigration enforcement.
In the first three months of 2017, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo reported that his police department had already seen a 43 percent decrease from the same period in 2016 in the number of Hispanic victims reporting rape, and a 13 percent drop in people reporting other violent crimes. (Rapes reported by non-Hispanics increased by 8 percent and other violent crimes reported by non-Hispanics rose by about 12 percent.) S.B. 4 hadn’t even yet made it out of the state house.
Two nights before the September 1 deadline, Orlando Garcia, a federal judge in San Antonio, temporarily halted implementation of most parts of SB 4. He deemed the law “unconstitutionally vague” and blocked the parts requiring jail officials to honor all detainers—the mandate to hold onto undocumented immigrants for as long as 48 hours so they can be turned over to ICE. The state immediately appealed the case and moved for an emergency stay of the order. Just weeks later, a panel in the 5th Circuit issued a ruling that allowed the detainer portion of the law to take effect while the rest of the case moved forward.
Sheriff Hernandez started honoring detainers, reneging on her campaign promise. “I’m not going to violate the law. I know that’s exactly what Governor Abbott and the lieutenant governor would like to see,” she said at a town hall meeting when pressed on her reversal, “because it would lessen my credibility.” Hernandez appeared optimistic. “SB 4 continues to move through the courts. This is not over by a long shot.”
There was a full hearing on the merits of the case in the 5th Circuit in November. In mid-March, a three-judge panel almost entirely reversed Judge Garcia’s August ruling that temporarily blocked Texas officials from enforcing the bulk of S.B.4. (The only part of the law the panel rejected was a clause prohibiting local officials from publicly endorsing policies that limited immigration enforcement.) The plaintiffs requested a review of the case by the full 5th Circuit—the next step in the appeal process and the continuation of what will likely be a lengthy legal battle.
Advocates worry that the damage has been done, regardless of what the courts rule. “The crux of the S.B. 4 issue is part of the strategy of messaging panic,” Denise Gilman, the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, said. “I think it was even more than reprisal for a political decision, it is a reminder that anyone was vulnerable. The enforcement has not been to get the greatest number of people, but to send the most fear.”
The banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, are silty, and the brush along the water is thick and low to the ground. Small houses dot both sides of the river—some of them are puntos, houses where migrants are kept before they cross.
“The river ran deep in that area,” a man, identified in a criminal complaint filed in the Western District of Texas as J.M.M.-J, told detectives at a hospital in San Antonio at the end of July. He is identified as a migrant from Aguascalientes, nine hours south of the river. The migrants the man crossed with paid $80 for the use of a raft. Then they had to pay $600 to “people linked to the Zetas”—the drug cartel based in Nuevo Laredo, in the northeastern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas—for “protection.” J.M.M.-J.’s destination was San Antonio, and he would pay $5,500 to his smugglers once he got there.
Attorneys and researchers on both sides of the border say that the rhetoric from the state of Texas and the Trump administration is a boon to smugglers and traffickers. “They take complete advantage of the increased climate of fear,” said Stacie Jonas, the managing attorney for the Human Trafficking Team at Texas Rio Grande Valley Legal Aid. “So many of them use threatened abuse of the legal process, threats of deportation, threats to report people to law enforcement on phony allegations, like threatening to accuse them of theft, or threats to have their kids taken away from them as a big part of their scheme to coerce someone to work.”
The conditions for smuggling have also changed. “Before, we might have seen 30 people in the compartment of a trailer, and now we’re seeing 100 people,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University and the author of Los Zetas Inc., a history of the cartel. “Because the fear, the way it has become covered by the media, strengthens the sense of this very dangerous journey and a very impossible one to make,” The tractor-trailers are considered first-class transport. “As uncomfortable as it is and as inhumane as it looks,” Correa-Cabrera says, “that is the VIP treatment. You are invisible.” As immigration enforcement intensifies across the country, it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of smuggling incidents that Texas has witnessed traveling north of the state and deeper into the interior.
After J.M.M.-J. and the 28 migrants traveling with him paid the Zetas affiliates, the group crossed the river in three trips. The sun was setting.
Once they were across, the migrants walked. The sun rose and they kept walking. A Silver Chevrolet Silverado pulled up next to them and took them to another vehicle: a 1999 Peterbilt tractor hooked up to a 2004 Great Dane trailer with Iowa plates. J.M.M.-J. estimated that about 70 people were already inside. The door closed shut. It was pitch black inside. The heat was overwhelming.
Outside, the temperature would pass 100 degrees that day. Hours went by, the tractor-trailer sitting stationary in the mid-day heat. People made noise to get somebody’s attention, J.M.M.-J. told the detectives, because the heat was intensifying and there was no food or water. Nobody came. Then at 9 p.m., a man opened the door. They would be leaving soon, to drive up I-35 to San Antonio, 150 miles north. Different colors of tape were distributed—corresponding to the smugglers who were waiting for them at the destination. The man said the vehicle had refrigeration and not to worry.
If all went well, the tractor-trailer would be in San Antonio in less than three hours. The hurdle was to make it past the Border Patrol checkpoint 29 miles north of the river. It is the busiest checkpoint in the country. The tractor-trailer passed the checkpoint without secondary inspection.
Illuminated signs at the checkpoint warn: “It Is Illegal to Smuggle Illegal Aliens.” Border Patrol cars are parked on both sides with their lights off. The vegetation slowly grows taller as the road drives into the interior. There was no ventilation inside the tractor-trailer. “The driver never stopped,” the criminal complaint reads. “People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing through the hole.”
The vehicle pulled into the parking lot of a Walmart Super Center behind a Church’s Chicken on the very southern edge of San Antonio. The driver slammed the breaks and the passengers, those who hadn’t yet fainted or died, fell over. He parked next to the pharmacy drive-through. It was around midnight. The door opened. Several dozen migrants ran out and piled into six black SUVs that were waiting in the parking lot. J.M.M.-J said that the cars drove away as soon as they were loaded up. 39 people remained.
Eight people were already dead when first responders arrived. Two more passengers would die imminently. The bodies “were just lying on the floor like meat,” the driver, James M. Bradley, Jr. told the police. “Spanish people,” he called them. He claimed to have not known there were people in his vehicle. The fire department noted that the bodies were very hot to the touch. At least 18 of the survivors were transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals in downtown San Antonio, not far from the Alamo. They were being held as material witnesses in the case against Bradley, who was being held in the same facility.
Bradley later pleaded guilty to human smuggling charges. At the end of last year, at the back of the Walmart parking lot off I-35, there were ten fake red roses taped to the trunk of a small tree.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the State Senate, responded to the incident via Facebook: “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels.”
In early September, the same day that Jeff Sessions announced the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the material witnesses in the tractor-trailer case were transferred to ICE custody and their depositions were cancelled. They went southbound on the same stretch of I-35 that had brought them to Walmart from Laredo.
A week after the San Antonio incident, Mexican authorities found an abandoned tractor-trailer containing 178 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in the state of Veracruz, 400 miles south of the Rio Grande.
As the highway homes in on the border, the views are wide and the brush gets thicker and lower to the ground. It feels like a no man’s land. Then warehouses and industrial lots appear, followed by strip malls, motels and the historic downtown of Laredo. There’s a church steeple at the end of I-35, and a set of bridges leading across the river. One bridge is for pedestrians. The others are for cars and trucks, though one of the vehicular bridges has a private walking path. If you look closely, you can make out the shapes of men and women walking from Texas to Mexico. “That’s how you can tell someone is being deported,” Father Giovanni Bizzotto, an Italian Catholic priest who was until recently the director of Casa del Migrante Nazareth, a shelter in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, told me. (He has since moved to a Catholic church in Chicago.)
Nazareth sits on a hill in Nuevo Laredo above the river, about ten minutes from the bridge to Texas and the entrance to I-35. The border city received 24,010 deportees last year, more than anywhere else in Mexico except for Tijuana. One of the people waiting in the shelter’s lobby said he was a deportee. Another was a Salvadoran mother seeking asylum in the United States with her two young sons. She said she was stuck in Nuevo Laredo after being turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the pedestrian bridge.
In Nuevo Laredo, violence, increasingly the reason so many flee to the United States, is just over your shoulder and within earshot. No matter how far the border expands into the interior, this is where the deportation pipeline ends.
Last spring, Bizzotto told me about the kidnapping he had witnessed the day before, of about 10 people at a bus station near the bridge. Several men appeared quietly and surrounded a bus that was arriving. Bizzotto wondered aloud how many of the people on board were deportees. He was getting more and more deportees at his shelter every week, up to 100 a day. “It was something unbelievable, how these people work.” The kidnappers called out to see if the passengers had the clave, the code provided to migrants if they came over with the right smugglers—that is, smugglers who are affiliated with this cartel. Bizzotto snapped his fingers. They didn’t, so they were led away and into a different vehicle. He shrugged at the worst parts of the stories he shared, as though anesthetizing the dread.
“The people not from here are the first target, they realize right away,” he said. Deportees and migrants. “Immediately, the halcones” —hawks, or informants, for the cartels—open the door to the taxi, ask them where are you going, where are you from.” The strategy, Bizzotto said, “is to put them inside their own car, take them to a hotel or to a desert area, and they threaten them, ‘Give the phone number, give the phone number.’” (The number to family members in the United Sates.) “If you don’t give it, they start to beat you up. They put the gun in your mouth.” He sighed and shrugged. “Eh, the usual,” he said.
The other day, Bizzotto said, someone arrived at Casa Nazareth from Dallas; the police had called ICE on him. Another person had been sent from Houston, where he had been picked up from the kitchen of a restaurant, and another from a factory in south Texas. In the last two months, he’d seen six or seven cases of people who’d missed a check-in with ICE and were deported. Others had been deported from check-ins. He was also receiving more and more deportees from states north of Texas.
The deportations can be startlingly quick. “That morning, you’re dropping your kids at school. And that evening, you’re in Mexico,” Clara Long, a researcher in the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, said. “There’s an extreme level of disorientation.” A 39-year-old mother whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in Nuevo Laredo had been stopped by Border Patrol agents as she got off a city bus in Laredo in mid-July. It was 3 a.m., and she was on her way home from a shift at Denny’s. Border Patrol called ICE, who sent her to a detention center. She was walked across the border ten days later. Her 9-year-old son is staying in a children’s shelter alone in Laredo. Her plan was for him to visit her on weekends on the other side.
There were more than 29,000 murders last year in Mexico, the most since the government started keeping track in 1997. Some nights, you can hear gunfire across the river. The Mexican states with the highest levels of disappearances are along the U.S. border; and a new State Department travel warning for U.S. citizens ranks Tamaulipas, along with four other Mexican states on the Pacific coast, at Level 4, the same as countries like as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. “Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common,” the advisory reads. “Gang activity, including gun battles, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.”
The sun was starting to set and Father Giovanni drove me to the pedestrian bridge. As he sped through the streets of Nuevo Laredo, he pointed out different people whom he suspected were halcones lingering at street corners and store fronts. The shelter and comings and goings of the migrants it served were being surveilled, too. “The area close to the river is monitored, all across.” He explained how the surveillance system worked; Bizzotto worried that if I published the details of it, the cartel would retaliate against him or the shelter. Twenty-one Catholic priests in Mexico have been killed over the last five years.
Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas’ base of operations, has long been considered “the crown jewel in the drug trafficking world,” Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera writes in Los Zetas Inc., in large part because of access to Interstate 35. With four bridges leading to the interstate and a railroad crossing, Laredo is the largest inland port in United States and the busiest commercial crossing on the Texas-Mexico border. The smuggling tax for migrants is one of the most important revenue sources for cartels—and one of the bloodiest.
In 2010, in a barn down a long dirt road in the town of San Fernando, 250 miles south of Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas gunned down 72 migrants, most of them Central American, traveling north toward the border on buses. The next year, 193 corpses—again mostly Central American migrants—were found in mass graves on a ranch in San Fernando. They also had been kidnapped off buses driving north.
The next time I saw Bizzotto, at an Olive Garden off I-35 at a Laredo outlet mall in July, the day before the tractor-trailer of migrants was found in San Antonio, I asked him how he could fulfill his mission of protecting migrants under conditions that were dangerous for him, too. “I try to play very safely,” he said. “I can’t talk about things.”
Around the block from Casa Nazareth the following week, nine corpses were piled on top of each other, bodies bloodied and clothes torn. Another body was found mutilated inside a home. There had been infighting for months between an old faction of the Zetas and a younger generation. They were vying for control of the territory that led to I-35. Newspapers and websites published pictures of the scene. Over the pile of corpses there was a white sheet of paper, with a narco-mensaje: “This is not a game, nephew.”
In June, Bizzotto got a call from an immigrant rights organization in San Antonio to tell him that Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, the man whom ICE arrested in March of last year at the Travis County Courthouse, was going to be deported to Nuevo Laredo. He never showed up at Casa Nazareth. Three months later, Coronilla-Guerrero was kidnapped from his in-laws’ house in central Mexico and shot to death. His body was found on the side of a road forty minutes away. The cartel left a note: They were “taking out the trash.”
Coronilla-Guerrero’s widow returned to Mexico for her husband’s funeral. Now she waits on the other side with her children, weighing the risks of return.