In Rural West Texas, Illegal Border Crossings Are Routine For U.S. Citizens | KERA News

In Rural West Texas, Illegal Border Crossings Are Routine For U.S. Citizens

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on May 25, 2019 7:20 am

Along one rugged stretch of the Rio Grande, U.S. citizens routinely cross the border into the United States illegally. A shortage of basic services in rural Texas, such as health care, means U.S. citizens rely on Mexican services and rarely pass through an official port of entry on return.

Informal, unregulated crossings have been a fixture of life for generations in rural communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, however, with the unrelenting focus on border security, this kind of unfettered back-and-forth by U.S. citizens is rare.

"We're citizens. We're U.S. citizens that have to go to get help in Mexico," said Loraine Tellez, a resident of the unincorporated town of Candelaria in West Texas. She said that the help principally involves health care.

There are two towns here, hamlets really, both remote within their own countries yet a stone's throw from each other across the Rio Grande — San Antonio del Bravo in Mexico and Candelaria in Texas. Their combined population is estimated by residents to be approximately 150 people.

If you are in Texas and get sick or have an accident, you can walk across the river — using ropes to cross above the water — to a clinic in San Antonio del Bravo where treatment and medicine are free, paid for by the Mexican government even if you're a U.S. citizen. In the U.S., the nearest hospital is a long drive away in Alpine, Texas.

"A 10-minute walk versus three hours to the hospital," Tellez said, detailing her options.

It's not a violation of U.S. law to walk into Mexico. However, returning back to Candelaria is. The official port of entry is a 90-minute drive away.

All this back-and-forth has created an unspoken but clearly understood relationship between residents and the U.S. Border Patrol. Mike Shelton is the U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge for the region that includes Candelaria and a group of tiny river towns.

Border Patrol agent Mike Shelton. "The Border Patrol doesn't want to admit that things like this are going on," he says, "but the reality of the situation is it does."
Lorne Matalon for NPR

"The Border Patrol doesn't want to admit that things like this are going on, but the reality of the situation is it does," Shelton explained. He said agents are trained to use their judgement on a case-by-case basis. "We want these agents to reason for themselves: 'Is what I'm about to do going to further the interests of the government and society?' "

"Just because we can take enforcement action doesn't necessarily mean we should," Shelton continued. "We don't want agents to put people's lives at risk simply because [the agents] are blindly following the letter of the law. It's about being human."

This area is also a well-trodden corridor for both human and drug smugglers. Residents said they'll tell agents if they have any misgivings about strangers they don't recognize.

"That's our way of helping them in order for them to help us," said Evelyn Lozano, 18, who said she has seen human smugglers passing through the region on multiple occasions.

Lozano is a U.S. citizen but effectively lives in both countries, with school in Texas during the week and weekends with family in San Antonio del Bravo. Lozano must travel three hours round trip each weekday to attend school in the border city of Presidio, Texas, because Candelaria does not have a school. Nor does it have a grocery store or gas station.

"They know that we are crossing illegally," Lozano said of Border Patrol agents working in the area from a small base in Candelaria. "But they do understand the fact that we do need to cross sometimes in order to get help, in order for us to get food, in order for us to survive. So that's why we go to Mexico, because we don't get that help here in Texas."

The help is reciprocal. Some Mexican citizens receive their mail in Candelaria because there's no postal service in San Antonio del Bravo. Their American relatives bring the mail across.

Tellez acknowledged that what is happening here flies in the face of border enforcement.

"Down deep in my heart it does make me feel guilty, but I have to do it sometimes," she said. However, she and other residents said, they don't flaunt what they're doing.

They understand that the Border Patrol has a job to do.

Meanwhile, the delicate dance between otherwise law-abiding U.S. citizens and border agents will continue on this isolated section of the Rio Grande.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's illegal to enter the United States without passing through an official border crossing, but along an isolated stretch of the southern border, U.S. citizens are doing just that every day because of a shortage of basic services on the U.S. side, including health care. Lorne Matalon reports from the town of Candelaria, Texas, on the Rio Grande River.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

LORNE MATALON, BYLINE: What's happening here is a reversal of stereotypes. It's Americans who are breaking border laws.

LORAINE TELLEZ: We're citizens. We're U.S. citizens that have to go and get help in Mexico.

MATALON: That's Candelaria resident Loraine Tellez. There are two towns here - hamlets, really - both remote within their own countries, yet a stone's throw from each other across the Rio Grande - San Antonio del Bravo in Mexico and Candelaria in Texas. If you get sick or have an accident in Candelaria, there's a clinic in San Antonio where treatment and medicine is free, paid for by the Mexican government, even if you're a U.S. citizen. In the U.S., the nearest hospital is a long way away.

So here are her options.

TELLEZ: A 10-minute walk versus three hours to the hospital.

MATALON: With walls being strengthened and expanded, along with a crackdown on illegal immigration up and down the border, how is this happening?

MIKE SHELTON: Here's the situation.

MATALON: Mike Shelton is the U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge for Candelaria and a group of tiny river towns in the area.

SHELTON: The Border Patrol doesn't want to admit that things like this are going on, but the reality of the situation is it does.

MATALON: Shelton says agents don't need to be heavy-handed.

SHELTON: We don't want agents to put people's lives at risk simply because they're blindly following the letter of the law. It's about being human.

MATALON: All this back-and-forth has created a kind of unspoken but clearly understood relationship between residents and the Border Patrol. Because human and drug smugglers also use this area, residents say they'll tell agents if they have misgivings about faces they don't recognize.

EVELYN LOZANO: That's a way of us helping them in order for them to help us.

MATALON: Evelyn Lozano, a U.S. citizen, lives in both towns - school in Texas during the week, weekends with family in Mexico. Walking into Mexico is not a violation of U.S. law. Crossing back into Texas here is. The nearest legal crossing is an hour and a half away.

LOZANO: They know that we are crossing illegally.

MATALON: Lozano says residents have a give-and-take relationship with the Border Patrol.

LOZANO: But they do understand the fact that we need to cross sometimes in order to get help, in order for us to get food, in order for us to survive. So that's why we go to Mexico, because we don't get that help here in Texas.

MATALON: The help is reciprocal. Some Mexicans receive their mail in Candelaria because there's no postal service in San Antonio. Their American relatives bring the mail across. As for Loraine Tellez, she acknowledges what's happening here flies in the face of border enforcement.

TELLEZ: Down deep in my heart, it does make me feel guilty, but I have to do it sometimes.

MATALON: But not openly. Residents say they don't flaunt what they're doing. They say they understand the Border Patrol has a job to do, and that means the delicate dance between otherwise law-abiding U.S. citizens and border agents continues on this stretch of the Rio Grande.

For NPR News, I'm Lorne Matalon in Candelaria, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.