The Rio Grande takes a wide southern detour when it hits West Texas, as if unwilling to draw too straight a line between the U.S. and Mexico. Locals along this remote stretch of shallow river share the feeling.
People living on both sides of the Big Bend, as the curve is known, are glad to be mostly skipped over by plans for 700 miles of new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border—even if their unspoiled desert boundary risks drawing more illegal traffic as the rest of the line is sealed off.
New walls are doubling up existing barriers in California, closing wide desert valleys in Arizona and New Mexico and fencing off more populated areas of the South Texas riverbank. The new construction will leave some 630 miles along the Big Bend as the longest unfenced piece of southern U.S. frontier.
Here the Rio Grande cuts an elegantly simple border, splitting the two countries into cane-choked banks or towering limestone cliffs. The wet line in the sand means nothing to the desert’s circling buzzards and migrating black bears, but it complicates life for the two-nation families and isolated local economies that need both halves of this desert to survive.
Local residents crossed freely with the Border Patrol’s tacit permission until 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, agents declared the crossing closed and blockaded its bank with a few small boulders.
With only 373 agents to cover 510 miles of river, the Border Patrol’s Marfa Sector tends to play its defense well behind the line, focusing on highway checkpoints between the border and Interstate 10, a hundred miles or more to the north. Agents also patrol back roads through mountain ranges stretching as much as 5,000 feet above both sides of the river. They visit traditional crossings like Redford as time permits.
“Nature has kindly fenced a lot of this area for us,” says Chief Patrol Agent John Smietana. “We’re not able to cover, or even get to, the river in a lot of places on a regular basis. So it is possible to cross the river very easily in some of those places. The hard part is then getting from the river up to one of the roads to get away.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests more migrants and smugglers may be willing to try.
Trend-spotting is difficult in the Big Bend since its relatively small enforcement numbers can be tipped by one big bust. But marijuana seizures are up 16 percent this year while the Border Patrol has rescued 11 stranded migrants—more saved than any year on record, though still a trickle compared to the hundreds rescued each year farther west in Arizona.