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For Illegal Immigrants, Journey To U.S. Soil Cut Short


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


I'm David Greene. And let's hear more from Steve Inskeep now. He's been traveling the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, he brings us a story of geography, natural and man-made.


We started moving along the border from east to west searching for tales of crossing, personal stories of people, goods and culture that cross the border, as two nations influence each other. The federal government wants to be sure that only those who are authorized can cross. So it has altered the landscape, as we saw when our car reached Hidalgo, in South Texas.

Hey, are you Scott?


INSKEEP: Hey, Steve Inskeep.

NICOL: Good to meet you.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming over to meet us, I appreciate it.

Scott Nicol lives around here. He's a trim man with his hair tied back in a ponytail. He led the way to a section of U.S. border fence. No matter how much you hear about the wall, it's an education to see it and put your hands on a locked gate.


INSKEEP: There's a gate kind of a wire mesh - a heavy, heavy mesh. And there's quite a bit of land on the other side. I don't even see the Rio Grande on the other side of this fence.

Is that the United States, this land on the far side?

NICOL: Officially, yeah. On the other side that is part of the lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, so it's set aside for the preservation of endangered animals like endangered ocelots and other species.

INSKEEP: The border walls cannot always follow the exact course of the border, which is the twisting channel of the Rio Grande. Sometimes considerable chunks of the United States are left between the river and the wall, like this wildlife refuge. This stretch of wall interests Scott Nicol because he volunteers for the Sierra Club. He contends the barrier blocks the path of wildlife fleeing floods. That's the Sierra Club's concern.

But as we visited, another issue became apparent. We noticed something that had been left on the ground.

This looks like a homemade wooden ladder. What are we looking at here?

NICOL: This is how you defeat a $12 million a mile wall.

INSKEEP: A $12-million a mile wall and you just do a homemade ladder and climb over when no one is looking.

NICOL: Exactly, and then when the Border Patrol finds them, they gather them up and they dump them over here. There's two over here right now. I've been out here when there's 15 or 20.

INSKEEP: We decided to look at the wall from the side that migrants first see as they prepare to scale it. So we strolled along a parapet atop the wall, toward a place where we could descend below it.


INSKEEP: So, on the one side we've got the wall and this wildlife refuge. And here, on the other side of the wall, we've got a neighborhood...

NICOL: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...some trailers and simple houses, and more affluent neighborhoods as we go a little bit farther away.

The concrete slab ended after about a mile.

The wall is not continuous through South Texas, is it?

NICOL: No. We'll go a mile, it'll stop. It won't pick up for another 20-something miles.

INSKEEP: The Border Patrol says the barriers block the most appealing routes for crossing the river. This nature preserve is such a place. It offers a pathway into heavily settled areas, which are far safer to cross than remote deserts. People who try to scale the wall have left behind many signs of their presence, as we can see from the parapet.

NICOL: Life jacket over there - somebody swam over with their kids. You find inner tubes on the banks of the river all the time.

INSKEEP: Here's what migrants do. They cross the curving Rio Grande. So they're within the United States, inside that nature preserve, but they're still outside that wall. And the wall is being watched.


INSKEEP: Can I just mention as we're walking along here, to kind of go to the end of this stretch of wall, there are several Border Patrol vehicles, or what look like Border Patrol vehicles, green and white parked in front of us here?

NICOL: Yeah. Yeah, that's because that's the end of the wall.

INSKEEP: The Border Patrol agents offered a polite word of caution as we passed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Just fair warning, once the sun goes down, you know, you might see quite a few illegal families going right up that main road, that's right there. So just be careful, but...

INSKEEP: But they didn't prevent us from walking below the wall. We looked up at the vertical concrete slab. We looked out through the woods.

Following a gravel path, Scott Nicol pointed out more signs of migrants who apparently had stood just where we did.


NICOL: And walking down here you see, you know, lots of shoelaces and belts and other stuff.


INSKEEP: Things the Border Patrol makes people remove when they're caught. We were still walking when several Border Patrol vehicles approached and rolled past us. One of the agents asked us to remain where we were.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Excuse me, do you guys want to hang out over here for a minutes?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, something we got to go do real quick over here.

INSKEEP: There's something you have to do.




INSKEEP: They raced down a path in the woods, chasing someone they'd detected in there. We lingered a moment. And the longer we stood, the more we discovered items that had been dropped over time by migrants who were arrested.

There's a yellow toothbrush right here on this path.

NICOL: Yeah, I mean that would indicate that, you know, somebody had to empty their pockets before being loaded up into a van and taken off to a detention center somewhere.

INSKEEP: What is this?

NICOL: Looks like somebody's shirt.

INSKEEP: Lovely shade of blue. Oh, it's a small child's shirt. The shirt was torn. Maybe my four-year-old could've worn it.

GREENE: The border patrol has been capturing thousands of children who try the journey north. Many are not traveling with their parents. Many are seeking relatives in the United States; some may even have been kidnapped. Twenty-four thousand unaccompanied minors were picked up in 2012 alone.

INSKEEP: We were still thinking about this when the border patrol vehicles reemerged from the woods and stopped in to check on us.

Did you find what you were looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. We wanted to make sure everything was safe with you guys.

INSKEEP: How many?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's we have roughly about 18.

INSKEEP: Eighteen people are in that van right there?



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: About 10 people and around 14 people right there, we got 14 here and we got four here. Four is going up here.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, four people in back.


INSKEEP: Buenas tardes. A youthful face looked out from the wire mesh in the back seat. Then the vehicles rolled out of this no-man's land, taking the detainees away. We returned to the top of the border fence, to the American side of it. And we got a good look at the people who'd been captured.

On the windswept parapet atop the wall, the green-uniformed agents were questioning them. The detainees were all under 30: men, women, and several children.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Birthday. (foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: One gave his birth date as 2003. Another migrant was a toddler and the party was held up while border patrol agents awaiting a child safety seat. One by one the people were loaded into vans and the agents loaded their belongings into plastic bags. Other agents continued searching the woods.

Here's even more people, now we're looking, you can hear the echo of my voice on these steel bollards, we've just looked through and they've found another family.

Two agents walked a mother and a baby out of the woods, and added them to the group being questioned on the wall.

It's worth mentioning how obedient these folks are. Everyone is sitting on the ground. No one's been handcuffed. No one's tried to run away. Quietly answering the questions as asked by the border patrol.

They were especially calm, given the enormity of the journey now ending. Questioned by the agents, some of the migrants said they were from Mexico - others from farther away - Guatemala, Honduras. Some may have traveled for weeks or months. They got their feet on United States soil. Now they likely face a journey back to where they came.

We left the border wall the way we came, walking back along that mile of parapet. And as we left, we heard a faint sound in the distance. It might have been an animal in the nature preserve or maybe a baby's cry.


INSKEEP: Our stop in Hidalgo, Texas was part of our journey along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. We're telling stories of people, goods, and culture that cross the frontier.

Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, we'll hear from people who are watching the frontier, including a rancher on the border who had detain migrants he's found on his property or on the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's not in us to steal a penny or turn a blind eye, it's just not in our way.

INSKEEP: Or just ignore it, let it happen let it happen...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's not in our way.

INSKEEP: And our road trip continues on Monday, when we hear from people who crossed the border and also tried to cross to a higher social class in the borderland.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.