It had all the makings of an old-fashioned Texas standoff.
Hundreds of state troopers and US Border Patrol agents sat behind the wheels of black SUVs and green-and-white pickups facing the Rio Grande, their eyes fixed on the jade-colored water. A helicopter buzzed low overhead, winding along the bends of the river, while agents in a swamp boat cruised below. Four men, wearing army green uniforms and cowboy hats, rode horses up the shore, guns at the ready.
It was a quiet February morning, and all these law enforcement officers in Eagle Pass, a smalltown about a seven-and-a-half hour drive southeast of El Paso, were waiting for one thing: immigrants.
Across the river, in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, a caravan of about 1,800 Central American immigrants, including families with young children, had arrived at the start of the month -- the first such caravan to make it to the Texas border. They had trekked more than 1,500 miles to ask the United States government for asylum. Most said they were escaping threats of violence and death in their home countries.
"Everyone is leaving because it's dangerous. The gangs have taken over all the neighborhoods," Oeli Zuniga, 26, a Honduran immigrant traveling with her 7-year-old daughter, tells me. "We do this for our kids, so they can be in a country without so much crime and so many ugly things taking place."
In preparation for the caravan's arrival, the US had beefed up border security. Under the direction of President Donald Trump, the Pentagon sent 250 active-duty military troops. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent 500 officers from the Department of Public Safety. And US Customs and Border Protection outfitted its local agents with cement traffic barriers, riot gear and spools of concertina wire. That's in addition to the high-tech cameras, sensors and radar tracking tools already in place to help monitor the 1,200 miles of Texas' border with Mexico.
By the end of March, Trump declared he was cutting all foreign aid, approximately $450 million, to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- collectively known as the Northern Triangle. He also said he'd close the nearly 2,000-mile US southern border if Mexico didn't do something about the migrants heading north. On Sunday, Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, resigned as the president said he wants to go in a "tougher direction" on immigration.
A "colossal surge" of people is entering the US and "overwhelming" the immigration system, Trump said after a visit to a California border town last week. And Customs and Border Protection confirmed it apprehended more than 100,000 immigrants on the southwest border in March, double the number for the same time period last year.
"We can't take you anymore," said Trump, whose grandfather was a 16-year-old German immigrant. "We can't take you. Our country is full."
Then, changing his position on Friday, the president tweeted that he's "giving strong considerations" to placing migrants in mostly Democratic "sanctuary cities," a move Democrats called a politically motivated stunt.
On the one hand, migrants seeking asylum are fleeing extreme violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle, which has the highest murder rates in the world and has been deemed a humanitarian crisis by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Under US law, asylum seekers are considered legal immigrants.
On the other hand, Trump has vowed to halt all immigration at the US-Mexico border.
So where does that leave Texas? The president has made it clear he believes a big part of the solution to stemming immigration is an 18- to 30-foot cement or steel wall. California, Arizona and New Mexico, already have fencing or walls along 60 percent of their borders, but Texas only has around 20 percent because of its natural barrier with Mexico: the Rio Grande.
There's no debate that a wall -- and the government's surveillance tech -- will affect people along the river. So I set out to travel the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border to see firsthand what people think and how tech is helping, or not helping, the situation. Border Patrol already relies on a complex network of cameras, videos, drones and sensors to see at night, into the water and through dense foliage. But agents say it's not enough. What's happening along the Texas border is like nothing seen before, according to more than 30 interviews with people who live here, federal agents, lawyers, humanitarian groups, local law enforcement and immigrants.
The standoff in Eagle Pass marked one of the first times standard border security was paired with military might.
And it could be a signal of what's to come.
The nerve center
On a nondescript street in Laredo, a large border city about 125 miles south of Eagle Pass, there's an unassuming one-story beige building built in 1969 under President Richard Nixon. This is the Border Patrol Sector Headquarters for the Laredo region, which is responsible for 171 miles of the Rio Grande.
Parked out front are a handful of Border Patrol's green-and-white pickups. Inside, the hallways are lined with basic offices.
But behind one door something wholly different is going on.
It's a big, dark, windowless room equipped with a wall of large-format TV monitors. The screens show surveillance camera views of the curves and bends of the Rio Grande and its grassy, weed-choked banks. Some displays are in black-and-white, others are in infrared or color. A screen in the middle plays Trump's favorite network, Fox News.
Sitting in rows of desks in front of the TVs are a mix of about five Border Patrol agents and five National Guard troops (some of the same 5,000 active-duty troops the Pentagon has sent to the border over the last year). They're each tasked with closely monitoring one area of the river. Not only can they control the cameras, but they're also paying attention to inputs from buried seismic ground sensors that can pick up footsteps and vehicle movement. If they see anything suspicious, they immediately radio agents in the field.
"The agents know what looks right and what looks wrong," says Jose A. Martinez, an assistant chief patrol agent with a close-cropped crewcut, green eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor. "Rain, sleet, snow, they're capturing video for us."
It's up to Customs and Border Protection officers to police the US-Mexico ports of entry, but it's up to Border Patrol agents to monitor everything in between. In the Laredo sector, Border Patrol has 34 remote video surveillance systems that focus on the 30 to 40 miles of river with the most activity.
Martinez shows me a couple of these hotspots in person. We hop into his SUV with two other agents and head to a large tree-filled park on the river. People jog on dirt trails that weave around soccer fields and baseball diamonds. Cormorants skim across the water in search of fish, and redwing blackbirds chatter in the bushes. Martinez says people tend to cross the river here because they can run up the bank and easily blend in with park-goers.
Set back a few dozen feet from the river is a steel tower that's about 120 feet tall. Fixed on top is a system of daylight and infrared cameras that face up and down the Rio Grande. The footage from these cameras is what agents back at the nerve center are monitoring. They're looking for people swimming across the river or traversing it in canoes, inflatable rafts or inner tubes.
Border Patrol is increasingly relying on technology to help agents do their jobs. To spot people and vehicles crossing the border, they use everything from the surveillance towers to radar- and laser-equipped drones to a complex system of ground, radio frequency, seismic and imaging sensors.
Martinez says the tech has its drawbacks. In Laredo, the cameras are limited in how far up and down river they can scan. That means people can take advantage of gaps in the system and sneak in without being seen.
"They have the advantage because they can see us, but we can't see them," Martinez says, pointing to thickets of trees and hilly ridges on the Mexican side. And once they get to the US side, people can still evade the cameras. He shows me a steep embankment next to the water. "Someone can just hang off the ledge right there."
It's also difficult for border agents to respond before whoever has crossed the river is gone, Martinez adds. Border Patrol is stretched thin, with only 1,750 agents deployed in the Laredo sector, which covers 110,000 square miles.
"We can have all the technology in the world," Martinez says. "But if we don't have personnel to respond, what are we going to do?"
'They were going to kill me'
When the caravan of Central American immigrants made it to Piedras Negras on Feb. 4, the Mexican authorities were expecting them. Off a highway on the outskirts of town, officials had prepared a former factory with sleeping mats, blankets, food, Wi-Fi and mobile health and dental trucks.
At the entrance, a big red-and-white sign reads "Albergue Migrante, Migrant Hostel." The entire facility is roughly the size of a football field and encircled by a yellow chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Soldiers and police guard the building. Only officials are let in. The migrants aren't allowed to leave.
Up until last summer, asylum seekers could simply show up at a US port of entry to begin their application process. But now, under a new process called "metering" instituted by Customs and Border Protection, only a limited number of asylum requests are allowed per day, depending on the bridge and port of entry. Immigrants are being forced to wait in Mexico indefinitely.
"The so-called crisis is totally manufactured by the fact that they're metering people at the port of entry. It creates dangerous situations for the migrants who are waiting at the foot of the bridge and in the border towns," says Jodi Goodwin, a Texas immigration lawyer. "Those individuals become desperate and have no other option but to cross the river."
In a dusty yard at the facility in Piedras Negras, hundreds wait for their chance to cross the bridge to Eagle Pass. It's a decidedly low-tech affair, with people standing around for hours waiting to be called. The migrants say about 15 people per day are let out.
"So many families are here and single mothers," the Honduran migrant Zuniga tells me through the chain-link fence. Her light brown hair is tied back in a messy ponytail and she's wearing a pilled green fleece over a tight pink T-shirt. "I just want them to let me out and let me go and ask for political asylum with my daughter."
Back in Honduras, Zuniga's neighborhood in the city of San Pedro Sula was ruled by the notorious 18th Street gang. She says she tried to keep a low profile working as a grocery store clerk and raising her young daughter. But all that came to an end in early January. One evening, members of 18th Street gathered in a field near her house. All of a sudden the police arrived, Zuniga says. A shootout ensued, and some of the gang members were killed.
"The gang said it was me who called the police," Zuniga says. "People in the community warned me that the gang members said they were going to kill me."
"With 18th Street, you don't mess around because they kill people. They massacre people," she adds. "I can't return to Honduras."
Zuniga's story isn't unique. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are some of the most dangerous countries on Earth because of the violence perpetrated by 18th Street and rival gang MS-13, according to investigative nonprofit Insight Crime. After Venezuela, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world in 2018. Honduras came in at No. 4 and Guatemala at No. 10.
The gangs first formed on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s and were then exported to Central America in the 1990s when the Clinton administration stepped up deportations of criminals back to their home countries. In that region, then ravaged by civil war and poverty and flooded with weapons, 18th Street and MS-13 not only thrived but became increasingly more brutal. Now, 25 years later, the gangs have become the de facto rulers of the Northern Triangle.
"[The migrants] are fleeing failed governmental systems that aren't able to protect their own population from organized crime, cartels and gangs," says Goodwin. From women, "I hear stories of rape, multiple rapes, gang rapes. … Men often talk about being kidnapped, being beaten, tortured, being hit with two-by-fours, having their feet burned."
At the Albergue Migrante, rows of folding tables and chairs are set up on one side of the yard. Migrants can sit down with Mexican immigration officials and sign up for a humanitarian visa. This would allow them to live, work and travel freely in Mexico for a year. Some people tell me they'll take the visa and stay in Mexico. Others are determined to get to the US.
But the prospects don't look good. Even if they make it across the bridge to apply for asylum, the chance of their case making its way through the courts anytime soon is slim.
Asylum applications have skyrocketed over the last decade, from around 7,000 in 2010 to more than 325,000 in 2018, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. And even though the number of asylum cases is only 6.5 percent of overall immigration cases in the US, there's a backlog of roughly 320,000 claims. The average wait time for an asylum case to be heard is about three years. Once these cases finally do make it to court, they're approved just 21 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, migrants like Zuniga and the hundreds of other people in the caravan are in limbo.
"If you wanna stop people from coming, you have to stop the factors that are pushing them out of their homeland," Goodwin says. "You can put as many troops down here as you want, you can beef up border patrol by 20,000 agents, and that's not gonna solve the systemic issues."
"Boots on the ground, that ain't gonna cut it."
Cat and mouse
As Agent Martinez navigates his SUV along dirt roads next to the Rio Grande in Laredo, the sun sets in flares of orange and red over the river. This is the time when illegal activity picks up, he says.
"It's going to be 11 bodies, possibly more," a voice pipes over his radio, using Border Patrol jargon. It's an agent from the nerve center saying he spotted 11 people about to cross the river on his surveillance camera.
Martinez says they mostly apprehend people from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, although they've seen people from all over the world, including Brazil, Venezuela and Bangladesh. Along with migrants, Border Patrol is also looking for drug smugglers. Laredo agents have seized 14,500 pounds of marijuana, 216 pounds of cocaine and 154 pounds of meth since October.
Laredo is one of the top five border cities where people cross the river illegally. That's mainly because it's an urban center where they can disappear without being noticed.
"Aliens cross here every night," Martinez says. "Why? Because they can come up and run there or there and get lost."
Martinez drives downtown to show me a 4-foot-wide drainage pipe that empties into the Rio Grande. People cross the river and then run into the drainage tunnel. Once inside, they look for a manhole cover to pop off and exit into the city. Border Patrol has covered the pipe with a metal gate and sealed manhole covers, but people still get through with bolt cutters and a hammer.
"When people ask, 'Do we need a wall?' This right here shows you the disadvantage we're at and how a wall will be beneficial to us," Martinez says. "It's a little cat and mouse game."
He says a wall would be a deterrent and give border agents more time to respond. Laredo is on the shortlist to get a wall, but the city's mayor, Pete Saenz, is opposed to the idea. "We don't need a physical wall," Saenz told NPR in an interview. "We have a natural barrier."
As Martinez keeps driving, the nerve center radios saying they see about "10 bodies" aiming to cross the river near us. Martinez flips a U-turn and hits the gas. We race down a busy street, pull into an H-E-B grocery store parking lot, turn off the headlights and sit. It's bustling with kids running around and people pushing shopping carts.
"They have reached the US riverbank," Martinez says as he gets word from the nerve center.
Below the parking lot, the Rio Grande's shore is covered with thick, head-high weeds. The nerve center agents will now rely on signals from the buried ground sensors to figure out which way the crossers are moving. Martinez gets a call that they've found the group about a block away.
In a dark and dusty lot behind a commercial strip, a Border Patrol truck already has two people sitting in the back seat. It's a man and woman, both from Mexico City. Other agents by the river are chasing three more immigrants and their guide. One by one, everyone is caught. They're all from different parts of Mexico.
A young man appears wearing tight black jeans tucked into work boots and a grey sweatshirt. The agents put him up against the truck, pat him down and inventory what's in his pockets. He has a cellphone and charger, a notepad and a wallet with photos of people in small plastic sleeves.
"We have to chase them down. We have to work for these apprehensions," Martinez says. "These agents will drop them off and then come back out here again."
All six people will be transported to the Centralized Processing Unit, where their information will be recorded and officials will decide what to do with them, Martinez says. Most likely they will all be deported back to Mexico.
Braving the river
As the days ticked by at the former factory in Piedras Negras, people in the caravan became increasingly desperate to leave. Reports of families sneaking out and heading to the river became near daily occurrences.
Mexican officials shut down the facility on Feb. 19, about two weeks after it opened. The caravan was split up. Some people stayed at shelters in Piedras Negras, but most were bused to other cities across Northern Mexico.
Throughout February and March, dozens of immigrants attempted to cross the Rio Grande into Eagle Pass. In one event, Border Patrol agents apprehended a group of 56 Hondurans, mostly women and children. At least two dead bodies have been found in the river and several families were rescued from drowning. In three separate incidents, 17 Central Americans were pulled out of the same spot of the river in just one day. A couple days later, a 12-year-old Honduran boy had to be resuscitated.
Given the scope of law enforcement waiting on the US side, it's clear most immigrants trying to cross would get caught. But that was their intention. Once a person sets foot in US territory, they have the right to apply for asylum. By braving the river, migrants can jump the indefinite metering line at the bridge.
When I spoke to Zuniga through that yellow chain-link fence at the Albergue Migrante, I asked her if she'd ford the river if it came to that.
"Crossing the river? No. I came here with the wish to do it right. To cross the bridge calmly and to respect the laws," she said. "I just hope that Donald Trump helps us."
Tall Order: Building the Border Wall is our Texas border series exploring what a wall and tech alternatives might mean to the people, communities and law enforcement agencies living in its shadow. Read the first story here:. And stay tuned for the third article, "Surveillance State and Lost Treasures."
Originally published April 11.
Update, April 12: Adds President Trump's statement on placing migrants in "sanctuary cities."