Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2021
When ranch manager Cole Hill saw the back door of a house he was supposed to be guarding kicked in last Saturday, he suspected migrants had broken in.
It was a pattern he was getting used to. Hill had responded to a burglary at another residence earlier that day. And two days before that, migrants broke into a house at the 8,000-acre Gun Hill Ranch about 100 miles west of San Antonio. Hill spotted the migrants inside and guessed they might have discovered the guns. He drew his 9 mm handgun and entered.
Several migrant men fled ahead of him out another door, dropping a rifle and shotgun and scattering ammunition. The men were caught the next day by the Border Patrol, he said, armed with knives stolen from the house. Hill pressed charges against them for trespassing under a new order issued by the Texas governor in response to what he has called a border crisis of the Biden administration’s making.
A father of three small children, Hill has never seen so many migrants stream through the West Texas outpost, hundreds trying to skirt a nearby U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint.
“We’ve been abandoned by this administration,” Hill said as he stood on the ranch this week beside his pickup, its bed full of migrant trash he’d gathered. “I don’t want to have to defend myself out here.”
Local ranchers accustomed to raising cattle, deer and exotic game on remote spreads north of the border have been alarmed to see migrants approach their homes for the first time, walking up to children as they play outside. They’re seeing authorities pull migrants from cargo trains and grain elevators — some living, some dead.
Sixty-four remains have been found so far this year, compared with 20 last year, according to the Border Patrol. Migrants are appearing on ranchers’ security cameras, breaking into homes and stealing cars.
The uptick has rattled the Del Rio area and conservatives nationwide, who have made it their battleground for border policy just as residents prepare for hunting season, when they fear shootings may erupt.
Gov. Greg Abbott has called a special session of the state Legislature starting Saturday to address, among other things, border security, including “enhancing criminal laws or providing funding from unappropriated available revenues to support law-enforcement agencies, counties, and other strategies as part of Texas’ comprehensive border security plan.”
Last month, Abbott — who has devoted state money to finishing former President Trump’s border wall — issued executive orders allowing residents to press charges against migrants for trespassing and against those who transport them, but the latter has so far been blocked by the federal government in court.
When Vice President Kamala Harris visited the border earlier this year, Abbott excoriated her for skipping Del Rio in favor of El Paso, a much larger city farther west that has seen a fraction of the migrant traffic.
Abbott held a border summit with Texas sheriffs in Del Rio, met with border lawmakers and residents and declared the area a federal disaster necessitating government aid.
He sent scores of state troopers there for “Operation Lone Star” to supplement the Border Patrol, summoned National Guard troops and added law enforcement from Texas, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio. They were still camped this week in military-style tents at the county fairgrounds.
More than 120 migrants have been charged with trespassing in the county surrounding Del Rio since the governor’s order, according to County Attorney David Martinez. The migrants were being held at a state prison and, if convicted, face up to a year in jail, Martinez said.
Later this month, local ranchers will start rounding up livestock from remote grazing areas, where they’re likely to encounter migrants trying to evade capture. Next month, dove hunting season begins, followed by duck, quail and deer, big business on local ranches that draw more than 100,000 people, many armed and unaccustomed to stumbling across migrants.
“With hunting season, things are going to get ugly,” said John Sewell, 56, who runs a hunting ranch about 50 miles north of the border near Uvalde. “We’re on edge.”
Sewell has lost countless miles of fencing to migrant damage, which costs $25,000 a mile to replace, and complains that the foreign nationals have more rights than landowners. Sitting on his porch with him and his hounds this week overlooking a field where whitetail deer grazed, neighbor Larry Smith, a retired petroleum engineer, agreed.
Many of the migrants crossing now turn themselves in to the Border Patrol, the men noted. Their identification cards and other paperwork were strewn across the banks of the Rio Grande this week, shed as they arrived. But others try to evade capture. Those are the groups ranchers said they encounter in the brush who sometimes turn aggressive.
“That’s going to get somebody killed,” said Smith, 72, a .45 handgun at his side as it always is these days. “That’s the question for all of us: Once confronted, what do we do?”
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin Jr., a conservative Republican, said that the state deployment has helped catch smugglers and reduce the number of high-speed chases, but that smugglers caught recently were all armed. “In southwest Texas along the border it’s become the wild, wild west again. There is no rule of law,” he said.