Illegal Border Crossings By US Citizens On Rio Grande Continue Despite Border Clampdown

US citizens use ropes cross the Rio Grande from Mexico, on the right, into Texas. It is not a violation of US law to walk into Mexico. Returning here, miles from the nearest legal port of entry, is. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

CANDELARIA, Texas—In a reversal of stereotypes along one rugged stretch of the Rio Grande, it is US citizens who are breaking border laws. It is, of course, illegal to enter the US without passing through an official border crossing. Along one stretch of the Rio Grande, the artery that marks the US border with Mexico, US citizens are doing just that because of a shortage of basic services in rural Texas, such as health care.

Informal, unregulated crossings have been a fixture of life for generations in rural communities on the river. It is a scene that’s been replayed over the generations. Today, however, with the unrelenting focus on border security, this kind of unfettered back and forth by US citizens is rare.

“We’re citizens. We’re US citizens that have to go to get help in Mexico,” said Loraine Tellez, a Candelaria resident. She said the help principally concerns health care.

There are two towns here, hamlets, really, both remote within their own countries, yet a stone’s throw from each other across the Rio Grande — San Antonio del Bravo in Mexico and Candelaria in Texas. Their combined population is estimated by residents to be approximately 150 people. The town was not recorded in the last US Census. If you are in Texas and get sick or have an accident in Candelaria, you can walk across the river to a clinic in San Antonio del Bravo where treatment and medicine is free, paid for by the Mexican gov’t even if you’re a US citizen. In the US, the nearest hospital is a long drive away in Alpine, Texas.

“A ten minute walk versus three hours to the hospital,” Tellez said detailing her options.

It’s not a violation of US law to walk into Mexico. However returning back to Texas here, where’s there’s no port of entry, is. With walls being strengthened and expanded, along with a crackdown on illegal immigration up and down the border, we asked a senior border patrol agent for his take on these kinds of crossings. Mike Shelton is the US Border Patrol Agent in Charge for Candelaria and a group of tiny river towns in the area.

US Border Patrol Agent Mike Shelton is in charge of operations in and around Candelaria. Shelton said agents are told to use discretion with US citizens in Candelaria. “It’s about being human,” he said. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“The Border Patrol doesn’t want to admit that things like this are going on, but the reality of the situation is it does,” Shelton explained. He said agents are trained to use their judgement on a case by case basis. “We want these agents to reason for themselves. ‘Is what I’m about to do going to further the interests of the gov’t and society?’

“Just because we can take enforcement action doesn’t necessarily mean we should,” Shelton continued. We don’t want agents to put people’s lives at risk simply because they’re (the agents) blindly following the letter of the law. It’s about being human.”

All this back and forth has created a kind of unspoken but clearly understood relationship between residents and the US Border Patrol. Human and drug smugglers also use this area. It’s a well trodden corridor for both. Residents said they’ll tell agents if there are any misgivings about faces residents don’t recognize.

Mexico as seen from the Texas side on a ribbon of the Rio Grande at Candelaria, Texas. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“That’s our way of helping them in order for them to help us,” said Evelyn Lozano, 18, who said she has seen human smugglers passing through the region on multiple occasions. Lozano is a US citizen but effectively lives in both towns with school in Texas during the week and weekends with family in San Antonio de Bravo. As if to underscore Candelaria’s isolation, Lozano must travel three hours each weekday to attend school to in the border city of Presidio, Texas because Candelaria does not have a school. Nor does it have a grocery store or gas station.

Walking into Mexico is not a violation of US law. Crossing back into Texas here is. The nearest legal crossing is in Presidio.

“They know that we are crossing illegally,” Lozano said of US Border Patrol agents working in in the area from a small base in Candelaria. “But they do understand the fact that we do need to cross sometimes in order to get help, in order for us to get food, in order for us to to survive. So that’s why we go to Mexico because we don’t get that help here in Texas.”

The help is reciprocal. Some Mexicans receive their mail in Candelaria because there’s no postal service in San Antonio del Bravo. Their American relatives bring the mail across.

As for Loraine Tellez, she acknowledged that what is happening here flies in the face of border enforcement.

Loraine Tellez looks into Mexico from Candelaria, Texas. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“Down deep in my heart it does make me  feel guilty but I have to do it sometimes.” However not openly.

Residents said they don’t flaunt what they’re doing. They said they understand that the Border Patrol has a job to do. That almost certainly means the delicate dance between otherwise law-abiding US citizens and border agents will continue on this isolated section of the Rio Grande.

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