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As border crossings surge, a Mexican couple tests Trump’s policies

REYNOSA, Mexico — They agreed to pay the smugglers $12,000 to get to Florida. It was a package deal — with three chances to cross the border.

The first attempt had ended a week earlier, in the headlights of a Border Patrol truck on a South Texas ranch. Now it was time for attempt No. 2.

“Are you ready, love?” he asked.

“I can’t believe we have to try again,” she said.

Socorro was 55. Miguel was 52. They fell in love while pruning flowers in a northern Florida plant nursery 15 years ago, two undocumented immigrants earning minimum wage. Last year, after Donald Trump became president, they returned to Mexico, fearing deportation and the seizure of their $20,000 in savings.

Then, after a year of unemployment in their home state of Guerrero, one of the most violent in Mexico, they got a Facebook message from their American boss. Their jobs were waiting for them, he wrote, if they could make it back to Florida.

More than a year after the inauguration of a president who promised to seal the U.S. border, something surprising is happening: The number of people entering illegally from Mexican territory has jumped. Figures for apprehensions, a widely used barometer for unauthorized traffic, nearly tripled from March through May compared with the same three months in 2017. The government has intensified its crackdown on border crossers — deploying the National Guard, expanding prosecutions, separating migrant parents from children — in an aggressive attempt to stop the influx.

There are a variety of reasons for the surge. But for many migrants crossing the border, like the couple bound for Florida, their attempts are based on close analyses of Trump’s policies. The president who promised a wall, who pledged to make their lives in America impossible, has not managed to shut down the vast smuggling networks that funnel people across the border.

The smugglers have a marketing campaign: Pay a flat fee to cross the Rio Grande, and you get three chances.

They are chances to make it to specific places and specific jobs, the United States’ economic growth spilling over into messages from employers to potential migrants, offering positions on farms and in factories — if they can make it past the Border Patrol.

“We see the same thing over and over. The bosses call their workers in Mexico and say, ‘Come, come, come,’ ” Sister Maria Nidelvia Basulto said.

She runs the Casa del Migrante, a Roman Catholic shelter with high white walls plastered with posters of Jesus in the border city of Reynosa. That is where I interviewed Socorro and Miguel, who agreed to send me updates as they embarked on chance No. 2. They spoke on the condition that only their first names would be used because of concerns about being identified as immigrants crossing illegally.

The husband had broad shoulders, a square jaw, an orange cap pulled low over his forehead. The wife had short, dark hair and pink lipstick. At breakfast, they picked at each other’s omelets and toast and held hands.

They had arrived here on a Saturday morning in mid-April and changed out of the dirty clothes they had been wearing when the Border Patrol caught them three days earlier. They showered and shaved and logged on to Facebook. They called their children back in southern Mexico. They looked up old text messages from their employer in Florida on their phone.

“Your W-2 is ready,” one message said.

“Please come by the office when you’re here,” another said.

Then they called the smuggler. He confirmed: Two chances left.

The next morning, after the 7 o’clock prayer, Miguel was sitting at a plastic picnic table at the Casa del Migrante, sipping coffee served by a nun.

He knew what people on both sides of the border said about smugglers, that they were criminals, preying on the desperate. But they offered the best hope of getting into Texas, and then moving on to Florida. The Border Patrol catches between 55 and 85 percent of border crossers, by its own estimate.

“It’s step by step,” Miguel explained, moving his finger up the table, along an imaginary map of the United States.

For $3,000, the first smuggler would take the couple from a nearby safe house to the Rio Grande. For $4,000 more, the second smuggler would take them from the river to a safe house in McAllen, Tex. For another $3,000, the third smuggler would take them from McAllen to Houston. And for $2,000 on top of that, the fourth smuggler would take them from Houston to Florida.

In total, it was a $12,000 investment — equivalent to what they could earn in Florida in six months, at $9.60 per hour.

The smugglers had increased their fees sharply under Trump but offered multiple opportunities to cross. Socorro and Miguel had been swiftly deported on their first attempt, as was once common practice for Mexicans caught near the border.

Trump is hardly the first president to announce a border crackdown, only to find migrants changing their tactics. President Bill Clinton tightened controls at major crossing points in the mid-1990s; migrants scattered to more remote parts of the border. Under President George W. Bush, Congress approved 700 miles of border fencing; agents started finding ladders and tunnels along the barrier.

“It’s harder to cross now, and that means it’s also more expensive,” Miguel said. “But we know it’s still possible.”

And despite Trump’s policies, many American companies still welcome undocumented workers. The nursery business is among those most in need of labor.

“There’s an absolute dearth of workers, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my career,” said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, a lobbying firm that represents the horticulture industry in Washington.

Thanks to an improving economy, U.S. citizens who might have picked flowers or planted corn now have better options. Farm and nursery owners complain about the red tape and expense of work visa programs.

“You can’t prevent people from coming if you’re still giving them jobs,” said Guadalupe ­Correa-Cabrera, a political-
science professor at George Mason University and an expert on the border.

While Socorro and Miguel waited in their plastic chairs for the next call from the smuggler, the Casa del Migrante was full of commotion. More deportees had arrived from the Texas border, about two miles away, carrying U.S. government-issued plastic bags with their belongings. Other migrants were on their way north, toward the Rio Grande.

“I’m leaving. Good luck,” said a woman heading to an old job at a fast-food restaurant in Mountain View, Calif.

“I’m getting ready,” said a man with plans to resume his job at an auto factory in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Miguel and Socorro would spend another night or two in the single-sex dormitories here, using donated toothbrushes and bars of soap in zip-top bags, smiling at the nuns who hustled around the shelter.

“We never knew too much about their plans,” Sister Edith Garrido would say after the couple had left.

But the nuns did glean bits and pieces about the way border-crossing attempts had evolved.

“They get three opportunities,” said Sister Maria Nidelvia. “That’s the way it works now.”

In the first year of Trump’s presidency, the number of migrants trying to cross the southwest U.S. border hit a 40-year low, a statistic Trump broadcast as proof of his leadership.

“Numbers are way down. Many are not even trying to come in anymore,” he tweeted in March 2017.

The Trump administration wagered that the border was something that could be closed. It was a question of having the right deterrents, the right messaging, the right enforcement.

Then came the surge.

In April, 50,924 people were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many were Central American families and children traveling without parents, but the influx also included people like Socorro and Miguel. The figure was more than double the number of detentions in the same month a year earlier. The 2018 figure would not have been extraordinary under the Obama administration, and it marked a significant decline from the early 2000s.

But for Trump, the border was under siege. As the couple planned their second attempt, his administration boosted its efforts to counter migrants. The president announced the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops. He pledged to repel a caravan of asylum seekers traveling from Central America. And the administration was planning to separate parents from their children at the border, part of a new policy to prosecute all adults crossing illegally.

“Trump sent the army,” Miguel said on Monday afternoon, two days after the couple arrived at the shelter. “The army!”

His wife had slept only two hours the night before. She texted weeping emoji to her daughter. “Andamos con miedo,” she typed. “We’re traveling scared.”

Miguel’s eyes got watery when he tried to comfort her.

The couple had paid the $3,000. They had told their fellow employees in Florida that they were on their way back. Their colleagues had stayed in touch during their year away. “I miss you and poppy,” one co-worker had written on the wife’s Facebook page. “Merry Christmas to a beautiful couple,” wrote another.

On Tuesday morning, hours before the couple left to rejoin the smuggler, Sister Edith led the group of migrants in prayer.

Miguel and Socorro pretended to listen, but there was too much else to think about.

“The coyote told us to meet him this morning in Ciudad Camargo,” Miguel told me after the service, referring to a town about 20 miles away.

He was growing increasingly worried as the appointment with the smuggler drew near.

“He said we’d go a different way this time, a place where there are fewer agents,” Miguel said, sounding far from confident.

That April morning, in Washington, Trump had spoken at a news conference, returning again and again to the narrow river boundary the couple was preparing to cross.

“We are taking strong action to regain control over our borders and over our sovereignty,” Trump said.

At the Casa del Migrante, some of the migrants were already convinced.

“I’ll try under the next president,” said a 34-year-old named Miguel who had lived in Minnesota and was recently deported.

He looked at the couple, a few feet away. “They’re crazy to go now.”

A white van arrived to take the couple to the bus station. From there, the bus to Ciudad Camargo cost about $1. I asked them to stay in touch, though I knew it could be weeks, or more, before I heard from them again.

But three hours later, Socorro logged on to Facebook and wrote me a message. They had reached the smuggler’s safe house. The room was small but comfortable enough, she typed. The smuggler seemed like a decent guy.

“He gave us ham sandwiches,” she wrote.

On two separate nights over the following week, the smuggler drove them to the Rio Grande with their rafts. Each time, before touching ground in Texas, they spotted the Border Patrol and paddled back.

“There’s so, so much vigilance,” Socorro wrote to me in a text on the WhatsApp messaging service.

I asked her whether they still had any of their three chances left. She said they did. Those quick attempts did not count.

When they crossed the river again in early May, the northern bank was clear of the Border Patrol. Their next smuggler was waiting near the river, with a car, Socorro later told me. The couple was driven north, up Route 77, which connects the border to the Houston area and the rest of East Texas. But somewhere south of the town of Sarita, where the Border Patrol maintains a checkpoint sometimes referred to as a “second border,” the smuggler left them in the vast, empty ranchland, she said.

The couple wandered for three days in a stretch of South Texas so remote that dozens of migrants die there each year of dehydration, heatstroke or hypothermia.

Then Socorro pulled out her phone and began sending me a stream of texts and voice messages.

(Video: The Washington Post)

“We don’t know where we are,” she told me in a voice message on WhatsApp. She sounded disoriented.

And then a few minutes later: “Last night, we saw a town. It seemed close. We saw the lights.”

I texted back, asking whether she had any food or water.

She responded: “We don’t have any food.”

I said she could send me her GPS coordinates if she wanted.

“Help us please,” she said.

I knew how dangerous the conditions were in that area. But I texted back that I didn’t know what I could do.

“It’s 30 [kilometers] to the immigration control?” she asked.

I confirmed it was on the highway to the north, with a Border Patrol presence in the vicinity. As I typed, she sent two more voice messages.

“What are the options in the south then?” she asked.

“So there’s not a way to get out of here without being detected?”

I was worried about her and Miguel. But I knew it would be wrong to offer them guidance. I didn’t answer.

“How long does it take to get to Houston?” she asked.

Her voice was getting shaky.

“We’ve already walked so much, and we want to continue. We already spent $7,000, and we can’t turn back.”

I studied the map on my phone. They were about 250 miles from Houston. I told them it was too far to walk.

“I’m going to turn off my phone so the battery doesn’t die,” Socorro said. “I’m going to need it.”

Then I heard nothing more.

Nine days later, Socorro’s daughter, Rocio, called me.

“They’re in jail,” she said. “They were caught.”

Socorro was booked into the federal government’s Brooks County Detention Center as “an alien who had been previously deported.” Miguel was taken to a different detention center.

Socorro was given an orange jumpsuit and assigned a lawyer, Lila Garza. “My first impression was that she was quiet and worried,” Garza said.

A few days after her first court date, in late May, Socorro called me. I asked her what happened.

“The Border Patrol found us on Monday afternoon,” she said.

Then she paused. “I can’t. This call is being recorded.”

The Trump administration intends to prosecute as many border crossers as possible, “until we get to 100 percent,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May — a dramatic shift from past practice in which many were quickly deported without criminal charges.

Garza’s firm of five lawyers received 800 cases of border crossers, including Socorro’s, in just over a week.

“She’s a person who would never have been charged in the past,” Garza said, citing Socorro’s lack of a criminal record.

Socorro pleaded guilty this month to illegal reentry and was sentenced to time served. When she is released, she will be taken by bus to the border and escorted to Mexican territory. She could be back in the Casa del Migrante, or another shelter like it, within days.

I asked Socorro whether her time in detention would be enough to convince her not to try again.

On the phone, I could hear her sobbing.

“I went with all of my courage. I came with all of my faith that I could make it. But I couldn’t get any further. I couldn’t get any further.”

I asked whether that meant she was done trying to cross the border.

There was a pause.

“I don’t know,” she said.

There was so much to figure out. What her husband wanted to do. Whether they could survive in Mexico. I asked whether that third chance still remained with the smuggler, and she said she wasn’t sure.

“We still need jobs,” she said. “I just don’t know what to do.”

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