SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) – Security cameras and two large “keep out” signs guard the home of Sandra, a Sunland Park homeowner. But it is her beloved dogs that most often alert her to undocumented migrants trotting past her property.
“Every day I see them pass by or running,” said the woman who lives less than 1,500 feet from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. “I can say 20 of them pass through here every day. It can be early in the morning but more so at night. That’s when my dogs bark and bark because someone’s there.”
Like Sandra, who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation from smugglers, residents of this small New Mexico town have been flooding their police department’s telephone lines in the past few months because migrants coming over from Mexico jump into their backyards, run across their porches or knock on their doors to beg for water or food.
“Every day I come to work I hear those calls. Yesterday at 6 a.m. there were 10 individuals running around Alto Vista neighborhood. There is a safety concern because all officers on duty had to congregate in that neighborhood and the rest of the city was unattended,” said Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra.
Then there are the other calls – the ones forcing the town’s first responders to come face to face with a crisis. Five times in the past four weeks, Sunland Park police or firefighters have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents at places where migrants died of heat exhaustion or from falls.
“The smugglers just abandon them in the desert or send them over (Mount) Cristo Rey. They’re not familiar with the terrain; they get lost when the temperature reaches triple digits or fall from heights. The other day we recovered (the body of) a woman who fell face down on a rock in Cristo Rey,” Guerra said.
This is happening as illegal immigration into the United States continues at levels not seen in 20 years, with 180,000 migrant encounters reported by federal authorities in May, and more than half a million in the past three months.
Sunland Park-Santa Teresa, a hotspot for illegal immigration
Border Patrol officials say an area that stretches from the mountain in Sunland Park – which lies across the state line from El Paso, Texas — to the Santa Teresa, New Mexico port of entry has become one of the nation’s hotspots for illegal immigration. They blame increased traffic on the Mexican drug cartels growing involvement in migrant smuggling.
“Unlike fiscal year 2019 and 2020, when we were seeing family groups entering and surrendering themselves to Border Patrol agents, we’re now seeing primarily single adults who are evading arrest and not seeking asylum,” said Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Valeria Morales.
The cartels’ fingerprint can be seen on who is coming over. Border Patrol says citizens of Ecuador, who have paid smugglers between $8,000 and $15,000 to get them 3,000 miles from South America to the United States, are now the largest group being apprehended here.
That lack of familiarity with the desert terrain and triple-digit temperatures are a constant source of concern. “Unfortunately, this is something we see on a regular basis and now every day coming into the summer months,” Morales said. “This sector has […] very vast and remote areas. It takes hours to reach the nearest highway. Migrants don’t know how long they will be traveling.”
One of the recent fatalities in Sunland Park involved a migrant who succumbed from the heat very near New Mexico Highway 273. If he had the strength to make it over the sand hill in front of him, he would have seen the highway or a nearby neighborhood.
Beacons of hope
The Border Patrol is talking with local stakeholders to install 16 emergency beacons in remote areas of the El Paso Sector so that migrants in distress can get help.
The beacons – a sort of mobile cellphone tower – are already used in the Big Bend Sector near Presidio and in the El Paso Sector near Deming, N.M.
The mobile towers being used in Big Bend are 20-foot-plus solar power devices with simple drawings and instructions in English and Spanish. Migrants left behind by smugglers can see them from great distances, approach, push a button and get help from Border Patrol and first responders.
Morales said all five rescue beacons in the El Paso Sector are near Deming.
“We do not have any in the Sunland Park-Cristo Rey area. However, because this is of importance to the El Paso Sector, we are … in the developmental stages or erecting 16 beacons sector-wide, and there will be some located here in this specific area,” she said. “This will definitely help the agents in finding a lot of those migrants that are stranded in the desert.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this month said its officers made 7,084 rescues nationwide in May alone. The agency has already conducted 35 percent more rescues in the first eight months of the fiscal year than in all of FY 2020.
Sunland Park residents have mixed feelings on illegal immigration
Sandra, the Sunland Park homeowner living near the border wall, says most of the migrants she’s come across “are probably good people.” However, she’s had some awkward experiences.
“They’ve tried to get into our cars. We told them to leave or we would call the police,” she said. “You feel bad, you would like to be (humane) but there could be consequences if we help them.”
Other neighbors said they don’t like the migrants knocking on their doors asking for food, water or money. “You never know if they’re good people or bad,” said another neighbor who declined to give his name.
The man said he called the police one time when he saw a man in a pickup park in front of his house to pick up two males and a female coming from the border wall.
Police Chief Guerra said smugglers and stash houses go hand in hand with migrant trafficking.
“Smuggling is a federal issue, but we do hear about it. Last month, three juveniles from Las Cruces were detained near Highway 9 smuggling five individuals. The juvies had weapons on them,” he said. “It’s alarming to see that because these organizations target juveniles because it’s cheaper for them.”
Experts have told Border Report smugglers are paying teens, unemployed residents and low-level gang members between $100 to $150 to transport migrants from near the border wall to stash houses.
Guerra said he discourages locals, particularly young people, from agreeing to transport unauthorized migrants. “It’ll hurt your chances for a good life because it’s always going to be on your record,” the police chief said. “Also, these organizations are not going to let you go, they’re going to want you to continue to work for them. Before you know it, instead of transporting people you will be transporting narcotics.”
He also encourages parents to keep tabs on their teenage children, especially in this volatile environment.
“Sometimes the parents think their kids borrowed car to go to the store. Then they get a call from Border Patrol that their son or daughter just got arrested for smuggling aliens,” Guerra said. “They have to go through that and on top sometimes they get their car seized.”
Mayor Javier Perea agrees that the migrant surge is putting a strain on city resources and forcing residents to make difficult choices. He said the city has no plans to bill the federal government for assisting federal agencies, even though this is taxing emergency services budgets.
Also, he draws a distinction between cooperating with fellow public servants and enforcing immigration laws. The city, he says, does not do the latter.
“There is communication with (Border Patrol) when it comes to the safety of our community. The relationship with the federal government is very important,” Perea said. “We provide support for each other to protect our law enforcement (officers). The last thing we went to hear is a Border Patrol agent passing away or a Sunland Park police officers passing away because there was not enough support or personnel.”