South Texas Sheriff Rey Rodriguez, who works in Brooks County about 80 miles from the Mexican border, sits behind his desk, gazing over the folder marked illegal immigrant deaths. In his first year of a four-year term, he’s seeing a distrubing trend– immigrants have been dying daily in his county in the hot sun and humid weather of the Coastal Bend.
Just over the last week and half, nine illegal immigrants have turned up dead and several others rescued from the brush of Brooks County. For the year, 32 have died, mostly from heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke or dehydration. That’s ten more than all of last year and it’s only July.
“The thing it’s very hot out here,” said Sheriff Rodriguez. “Going up to about 112 degrees. Very dry. These people are trying to get through. They’re not making it.”
Rodriguez showed us pictures of the dead illegal immigrants either bloated, with maggots around them, skeletal remains or some who just died within hours. Whether a recent death or a body that has been out there for awhile, it bothers him and his staff.
“They get stressed out,” said Sheriff Rodriguez about his officers dealing with all these deaths. “They get down because they’re seeing all these people dead. Why are they doing it? Why here? Why don’t go somewhere else?”
Recent trends reflect the Border Patrol has smaller amount of apprehensions as it has dropped for three years in a row. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics reported that the agents caught 724,000 apprehensions in 2008. That’s down from nearly 1.2 million in 2005.
Even with the a smaller amount of people coming across the border illegally, Sheriff Rodriguez said they’re still seeing many from all over Latin America coming to America in search of a better life.
“Some of them are from Mexico, Honduras, Belize and they’re coming from all over the region to the south of us,” Sheriff Rodriguez said.
A worldwide recession is driving the illegal immigrants north. They’re coming through Matamorros or Reynosa, two cities in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, that borders the Rio Grande Valley.
“They want to work in the United States, said Vanessa Longoria, a Brooks County dispatcher,, who has talked to illegal immigrants when they call for help. “They also have family in Mexico or whereever they are from and they want to help support them. That’s why they come over here.”
Many times, the sheriff said smugglers are dropping off the illegal immigrants in small towns just south of the Falfurrias Checkpoint, located about five miles from the capital city of Brooks County. The immigrants are being asked to walk three to four miles to get around the Border Patrol agents, patrolling the area or working at the checkpoint.
“They drop them too far from any existence,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. “They get lost. The coyote (smuggler) drops them off and tells them I’ll be right back and he never shows up.”
The illegal immigrants don’t know the terrain of the land or directions they are travelling in Brooks County. That leads to problems for those trying to get through the most difficult part of their trip.
“They don’t know when to stop,” said Sheriff Rodriguez. By the time they do, it’s already too late and they’re too weak. They can’t walk anymore. Water out there isn’t good and it’s a long, long walk.”
While many are dying out in the brush, some call the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. Longoria, who has rescued about 35 people during the last year, shared a common story in which illegal immigrants are calling their office, desperate and in need of help.
In this one case, the lost immigrant said they hadn’t drank water or eaten for 30 hours. She was concerned about her 11-year-old child and a pregnant woman travelling with the group.
“She was already crying, scared and didn’t want to lose their son in front of her eyes,” said Longoria. “Being a mother, I understand what she was going through. It’s very hard for them.”
When the immigrants are lost and stressed out, the dispatchers talk to them to find out where they crossed the border illegally to find out if they are on the east or west side of Highway 281, the highway that runs through the center of Brooks County.
“I kept comforting her and told her not to get scared anymore of what was going on because we knew where she was at,” Longoria said.
Cell phone connections are poor in this area because its so remote and there are few towers. If the dispatchers can keep them talking, officers can find the ping and locate them. In this case, that helped out.
“We couldn’t locate them and the phone was cutting off,” said Longoria. “She kept calling us back. I kept telling her to call back. We need to help you and we need to find you.”
When Longoria told the woman she called the Border Patrol to find them, then came an unusual plea.
“She pleaded with me not to call Border Patrol,” said Longoria said. “She wanted me to send an ambulance out there to check him out, but I knew we needed to call them.”
Finally, after two hours of searching and with help from a helicopter, the woman, her child, the pregnant woman and eight others were found.
“It’s a lot of work,” Longoria said. “It’s something hard for me to deal with and it’s stressful, but I know I am doing good by saving their lives.”
Sheriff Rodriguez claims the problem is illegal immigrants are waiting too long because they’re afraid of getting deported back to their homeland.
“They need to call us ahead of time,” said Sheriff Rodriguez. “Give us a good direction or just keep us on the phone until the dispatcher tell us where they’re at and the coordinates on the GPS and we can get to them, but if they don’t make the time, we are not going to get to them on time.”
The sheriff adds literally, they have spent their life savings to cross the border illegally and to make it to their final destination is worth more than getting help for their group.
“They’re saying they spent all the savings I had to get to the United States,” Sheriff Rodriguez said. “The illegals say I get here and I’m going back. My money is all gone. We don’t have anywhere to go.”
It’s all too familiar story for Sheriff Rodriguez and his staff at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department. This has been going on for years and they just wish it would come to an end.
“It’s not worth it to come through the brush of Brooks County,” said Sheriff Rodriguez. “I would tell them that they’re not going to make it on foot.”
As he told us that, he showed us how they are searching for four illegal immigrants, presumed lost in the brush of Brooks County. They’re praying they find them before they became the latest victims of heat of South Texas.