MCALLEN, TEX. — A dispatcher’s voice crackled over the scanner, and Raquel Medina turned up the sound. Traffic north of the river. An agent had spotted footprints in the dirt.
Medina gunned the engine of her green and white U.S. Border Patrol truck, drove down a dirt road, pulled over and plunged into the mesquite brush. It was 106 degrees.
She darted through spiny bushes that reached above her 5-foot-8-inch frame. A branch caught her frizzy brown hair, coiled in a bun. Those could be families up ahead, in which case there would be no need for the handcuffs dangling from her right hip. Or children traveling alone. They could be men smuggling drugs or inked with teardrop tattoos, meaning they had killed someone or had done time.
The chase unfolding in broad daylight by the Rio Grande river has become more and more common along the busiest stretch of the U.S. border with Mexico.
The river valley became a conduit two years ago for a wave of men, women and children fleeing gang and drug violence in Central America. It has not let up since. The Border Patrol apprehended 186,855 migrants here this fiscal year, when crossings crept up after a year-long drop.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, promises to build a “big, beautiful” wall to seal the country off from Mexican immigrants he has classified as “rapists.” In a testy exchange over illegal immigration at last week’s debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump called many migrants “bad hombres” who should not be here. Clinton opposes a wall. Instead, she emphasizes bringing undocumented immigrants who are already here “out from the shadows.”
For Medina and the 17,500 agents on the front lines who comprise the human wall, the reality is personal — terrifying, heart-rending, defeating all at the same time.
She is a woman in a mostly male profession, a native of the border whose choice of work reflects both a sympathy for and a skepticism of those coming across. Through her eyes, the challenges of the border have been blurred — and made more vivid — by politics this year.
When she reached a clearing on a late-September afternoon, Medina joined another agent and a German shepherd whose job is to follow the migrants’ scent. They spotted seven men running in a field ahead, a barbed wire fence between them. Medina was the first one over.
She frisked the men for weapons — they had none — and commanded them to empty their pockets and take off their shoelaces.
“Do you have drugs?” Medina asked in Spanish. They all shook their heads.
The men had hitchhiked from Central America and met in Mexico. Each had paid a smuggler about $10 to cross the river. One had lived, undetected, for nine years in New Jersey before running a stop sign and getting deported.
“A lot of people don’t know what goes on at the border,” Medina often says. “They’re clueless.”
“I was clueless.”
‘Every night you go out there you’re scared’
A descendant of Mexican immigrants, Medina, 40, had spent her whole life 12 hours northwest in El Paso, another border town, when she became an agent. Growing up in the 1980s, migrants used to pass her parents’ house, and her mother always left a bell on the front porch. When they rang, she greeted them with burritos, water and extra clothes for their trip north.
Back then, America was not at war over illegal immigration.
Her own history had always made Medina wonder about the people who left these footsteps she tracks through the brush. “I thought, ‘Where are they going? What are their stories?'”
Six years ago, she was managing a Nike store when she saw a recruiting poster for the Border Patrol at the airport. As an anthropology major at Texas State University, Medina developed a fascination with other cultures and loved to travel. After her divorce, she wanted a more stable career. In South Texas, a federal job is a good job.
Her parents were anxious. The border was more dangerous than ever, and their daughter would be working alone. Her mother begged her to teach high school instead, but when the Border Patrol made an offer three years later, she joined.
It was late 2013, just as hundreds of women and children a day had started streaming across the Texas border to the Rio Grande Valley, seeking asylum amid escalating violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. By summer 2014, the Border Patrol had apprehended 50,000 unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley. The agency was looking to hire people just like Medina: Latinas who spoke Spanish and could put children and women at ease.
To this day, she has neither drawn her gun nor fired it. But she is always fearful. “I mean, every night you go out there you’re scared.”
When she got her first assignment to the valley, she felt she had to prove herself to the male agents, show that she had their backs. To the migrants, too, she knew that being a woman had the potential to make her look weak.
She sees things differently today than she did as a girl. “Now I understand that not everyone comes across to work here,” she said. “There are definitely some bad people.”
Some migrants are carrying knives and rucksacks stuffed with marijuana when she apprehends them. After a shift like that, Medina said, she feels as though she has made a difference.© Matt McLain/The Washington Post An apprehension in Hachita, N.M.
A day at the border
She began her shift as she always does, with a 5 a.m. alarm and a fruit smoothie in her small apartment 15 minutes from the McAllen station. After 6 a.m. muster, she pulled her gun belt, Camelbak water bottle and green bullet-proof vest from her locker, where a photo of her cat, Toby, and her family are taped to the door.
Medina sprayed herself with sunblock and slid a bottle of Repel 100 for mosquitoes into the pocket of her green uniform before getting into her SUV. She checked the siren and drove into the pre-dawn darkness.
Through the windshield of her Chevy Suburban passed the ranch lands and sugar cane fields of the valley. Two Border Patrol trucks drove on the other side of the road, heading in from the midnight shift.
Medina looked up at bumper-to-bumper trucks crossing the Anzalduas International Bridge to Mexico, carrying produce and farm and building supplies for this growing region driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement. It’s a place built by Latino immigrants. At the local Stripes convenience store, where she often stops for breakfast, everyone orders in Spanish.© Matt McClain/The Washington Post The U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, N.M., east of El Paso
She drove toward the river, arriving at a levee flanked by the border fence built after the 9/11 attacks. It’s the closest thing that exists to Trump’s wall.The reddish metal barrier is 18-feet in some places, just three-feet in others. Sometimes it disappears altogether.
Just one-third of the southern border is guarded by fencing. In the Rio Grande Valley, it’s one-fifth.
A Border Patrol truck was parked in a gap in the fence, watching. Medina rolled down her window. “Anything going on?” she asked.
The agent told her about a wall breach at sensor 216 earlier that morning, resulting in two “gotaways.” The migrants had scaled the fence, probably with a rope ladder.
“A fence and a wall are not going to stop them,” Medina said.
What does stop them? Agents like her, patrolling in her SUV, watching for footprints. Overhead surveillance blimps like the silver one that hovered nearby, which used to be deployed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Sensors buried in the ground. Helicopters. Dogs.
Now the river came into view: the muddy brown Rio Grande, snaking 316 miles through impassable brush.
The lights of the homes, warehouses and fast-food restaurants of the valley began to glow. On the scanner came word that a group of UAMs — unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol speak — had turned up north of the river.
Medina headed that way. She likes to be there when children are apprehended. She tries to imagine what they’ve gone through to get here, and hopes she can provide some kind of comfort in a bad situation.
As she pulled up, she saw three teenage girls with long brown hair wearing skinny jeans and a tall boy with an Elvis Presley haircut. The girls were all 13, sisters and their cousin, who wore a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt.
They had been told to pull their identity cards from their pockets and remove their shoelaces and belts. An agent wrote down their names and where they came from on a clipboard.
At this spot the morning before, 43 people who had slipped through were caught.
The teenagers’ meager possessions, which included four uneaten Snickers bars, went into a clear plastic bag with “Department of Homeland Security” printed in black letters on the front. Medina told them in Spanish to eat the candy before it got thrown away.
The girls had survived on sandwiches for 13 days on multiple bus rides from El Salvador and were trying to get to Miami, where the cousin’s mother lived. The boy, 15, came from Guatemala, hoping to find his brother in Boston. Gangs were threatening them at school, they all said.
They had turned themselves in as soon as they saw the Border Patrol, instructed by the coyote they paid to bring them here that this was how to get asylum in the United States.
“I think their goal is just to land on U.S. soil,” Medina said.
The girls were smoothing their hair. “No se preocupe. Se ve bien,” Medina told them gently. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. You look good.”
“They always worry how their hair is going to look,” she said.
The boy and girls were escorted in a van to the station, where they would be fingerprinted and interviewed. Probably, because they were minors, they would get to stay in the United States.
Searching for footprints
On the radio in her SUV, Medina heard the agent monitoring the surveillance blimp announce that two groups of migrants were amassing on the Mexican side of the river.
“As soon as he calls that they’re crossing, we’ll go help them out,” Medina said.
It might take hours, as the smugglers waited to collect enough people to try crossing over.
With things quiet now, she started sign-cutting — a painstaking way of detecting whether the migrants left marks in the grass or dirt. She crept along at 12 miles per hour, her driver’s side door open, scanning for fresh footprints or matted-down grass.
Tire marks and old footprints cluttered the road. So Medina found four tractor tires left by an agent on the previous shift and attached them with a heavy chain to the rear bumper of her SUV. The Suburban dragged them, clearing the old footprints.
Now the road would be smooth for the next agent.
‘They think we can catch everybody’
By 2:30 p.m., Medina heard on the scanner that the groups amassing at the border were now crossing the river. She drove south to meet a team of agents waiting to apprehend them. The groups’ rafts made landfall, but immediately turned back, probably sensing danger.
“I think a lot of people, they think we can catch everybody,” Medina said.
It was time to head back to the station, where she washed off the dust and mud that built up on her SUV. She filled the gas tank, and returned her gun belt and vest to her locker.
At home, leftover chicken waited in the fridge, and the novel she was reading, “White Oleander,” the story of a child who is separated from her mother and learns to survive in the foster home system, waited on her nightstand.
Over the past 24-hours the Border Patrol had apprehended 651 migrants in the Rio Grande Valley.
Now, it was time for sleep. Her 6 a.m. shift was just hours away.© Matt McClain/The Washington Post Border Patrol agent Lorena Apodaca walks to her truck in Deming, N.M.