ROMA, Texas — Shortly after sunset, there are signs of life on an isolated riverbank outside the border town of Roma, Texas. Over on the Mexican shore of the Rio Grande, flickering lights appear through the trees for a moment, then disappear.
There is the sound of muffled voices; of air pumping into an inflatable boat, a soft splash as it hits the water. The “coyotes”— smugglers paid to ferry migrants across the border — whistle and call over to the American side of the river: “Who’s there?”
Last week, a U.S. Border Patrol agent slashed an inflatable boat with a knife as it neared the shore.
The smugglers are skittish. The first group of migrants is ready to cross, briefly visible in the glow of the smugglers’ flashlights as they move out of the trees to the river’s edge. There is a splash of oars, and the boat moves into the swift current. After only a few minutes, the lead coyote jumps from the boat into the neck-deep water and guides it to some rocks on the U.S. side where the migrants can disembark.
Some nights, pastors from a local church are waiting to help the migrants get off the boats, grabbing toddlers and setting them carefully on flat rocks where they cannot fall into the water. On other evenings, the disembarking migrants are surrounded by press photographers and television crews. One night there were 11 journalists huddled together, an unlikely media scrum on an isolated river bank.
The migrant groups vary, though almost all are young families, or unaccompanied teenage boys. Most disembark quickly without a sound, stopping briefly to text family members that they have made it. They rip off the plastic bracelets that the smugglers have put on their wrists to certify payment. Others drop to their knees in prayer and gratitude for the safe end to their journey. They then walk nearly a mile up a winding path to the main road where Border Patrol agents await.
In recent days, they have come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and, in the case of a few, Ecuador. Several migrants said the journey took about a month from the time they left home until they arrived in the United States. Though there is an annual surge of migrants in the springtime, this year has seen the largest number in at least 15 years — more than 172,000 in March, including at least 18,700 unaccompanied children and teenagers, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
After crossing in the early hours on Friday morning, one woman wept, shoulders heaving, her two sons clutched to her neck. A young migrant boy, sensing an opportunity to perform for the cameras, walked up to them and broke wind, then ran away cackling with laughter.
Most nights, Luis Silva, a pastor at Bethel Mission Outreach Center, who keeps a pistol on his belt, gathers up the migrants and escorts them to the Border Patrol agents, who have set up an impromptu processing area in a nondescript neighborhood near the top of a hill. There, they turn themselves in. There are often several hundred people a night crossing the narrow stretch of river, and processing them takes most of the night. Unaccompanied minors and single men are separated from the family groups. The single men will likely be deported immediately; the unaccompanied minors will in most cases be allowed to stay.
Groups of migrants drop to the ground in exhaustion, awaiting their turn to be processed. The children drift off to sleep, and the adults huddle together. Some continuously cough, a possible sign of Covid-19. Border Patrol agents wearing N95 masks speak in courteous but authoritative Spanish as they hand out plastic bags for the migrants to turn over their valuables for safekeeping.
The migrants who huddled in the rain on Friday faced an uncertain path forward. Some would be allowed to make a case for asylum, and some deported. With the arrivals of migrants expected to increase over the next few weeks, and with U.S. migrant facilities already filled beyond capacity, that uncertainty seems a fixture of the foreseeable future.