The Watch

The Texas Border Volunteers are working to curb the growing number of illegal immigrant crossings into South Texas.

(Lauren Fox for USN&WR)

The Texas Border Volunteers look to stop immigrants from crossing into the state illegally.

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For some the high price is too much to pay to stay on the ranches. Elizabeth Burns, who owns a 38,000-acre ranch, moved off the land and into McAllen, Texas because the influx was growing too burdensome.

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"We left because I didn't have any confidence. I saw the situation getting worse and I didn't see it getting addressed," Burns says. "I am not going to stay around and fight a transnational gang because you will lose. After five generations, it was not realistic for me to think this was going to be for the next generation.

In the fields, more canned food and trash lay beneath the trees. And more and more, skeletons are turning up in the high grass. Sometimes the dead bodies are still intact, still sitting uprights, swollen from the hot sun when ranchers and cowboys stumble upon them.

Vickers keeps dozens of blown-up photographs of their bodies in his office, which he uses to make presentations about border life.

The bodies are a disturbing yet routine part of life in Brooks County.

Vickers showing photos of people near death.
Vickers showing photos of people near death.

A sheriff deputy keeps a handful of photographs of dead people on his cell phone. As he scrolls through his phone, he stops at a photo of the body of Morales De Beltranena.

Like many immigrants, Beltranena died of exhaustion and was left behind by the man she paid to smuggle her across south Texas. Her brother had gone for help when Beltranena started struggling. By the time the deputy made it to her, she was dead.

"I just don't want these bodies to fall into collateral damage. They fall into deaf ears. All the bodies, the rapes, the property damage. It cannot be collateral damage. We can't have that. It's not acceptable," Martinez says. "This is a humanitarian issue. I know the federal government is looking more at a nationwide issue, rather than a specific issue that Brooks County is going through. After all, we are small in population, our voting is a small percentage and people are not going to get elected with Brooks County, but something has to be done."

Of the 463 bodies found in 2012 along the southwestern border, 129 of them surfaced in Brooks County. In Falfurrias, the largest town in the county, the bodies are buried at the local cemetery in simple wooden boxes under crooked aluminum signs. Waxy fake flowers adorn the graves of the unknown. It's rare for the county to make a positive identification because smugglers often confiscate the ID cards of their cargo. To help reunite the bodies with the families who may be waiting to hear from loved ones, Teams from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis exhumed more than 50 bodies in May and sampled their DNA in hopes of finding more clues about where to return the bodies to.

"They are kind of at ground zero down here," says Kevin Cottrell, who made the journey from Austin to spend the weekend at the Vicker ranch.

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The Texas Border Volunteers are simply back-up for U.S. Border Patrol. The goal of the volunteers is not to engage with the "criminal trespassers," as they call them, but alert border patrol of their findings.

In late June, as a border patrol drone zig-zagged across a ranch and patrollers on the ground searched for crossing immigrants, it was a volunteer who spotted a group of 10 immigrants running across a field. The volunteer called it into headquarters and helped border patrol apprehend five of the 10 immigrants.

"They catch a lot more because of what we do," Cottrell says.

Since 2008, when the volunteers began keeping logs, they have reported 2,142 illegal immigrants on ranch land in Brooks County. U.S. Border Patrol has been able to apprehend 1,180.

The number of immigrants passing through Brooks County is on the rise. The Rio Grande Valley saw a 65 percent increase in apprehensions in 2012. While border crossings appear to be decreasing nationwide, south Texas stands out.

Border patrol says it has dedicated historic levels of personnel, technology and resources to the border, but acknowledges they have seen an uptick in apprehensions in south Texas among immigrants from central America, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.