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What another record year for migration looked like in the busy border city of El Paso

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been another record year for migration at the U.S. southern border. According to Customs and Border Protection, more than 2 1/2 million migrants arrived there this year, and that's just through September. Migrants attempt to cross at many stretches along the border, but nowhere is busier year-round than El Paso, Texas. Reporter Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

FIDEL BACA: Ten-four (inaudible).

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: On a late fall evening just before sunset, U.S. Border Patrol agent Fidel Baca prepares for another busy night. We're on a stretch of desert borderland dotted with scrub brush near the Texas-New Mexico state line. A 32-foot steel border fence towers over much of the terrain. Before long, agents spot someone on the structure.

BACA: So there'll be somebody up on top of the fence wanting to get agents' attention. Once agents head that direction, then they'll send the group some - in another place.

KOCHERGA: Some migrants climb over the border barrier. Others scale nearby Mount Cristo Rey, which hugs the border with Mexico. Agent Baca says they're guided by experienced smugglers.

BACA: A lot of these smugglers, they're generational. So they've been out here for many, many years. They've picked up on the way we work. They adapt to our technology and whatever we - the challenges we present to them, so we have to adapt to whatever changes they present as well.

KOCHERGA: This remains one of the busiest areas for border patrol, with nearly 430,000 people attempting to cross in 2023.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: We arrive on the scene as agents take three men into custody. They suspect one is a smuggling guide. He seems to know the drill and quickly takes off his shoelaces before asked. The other two are from other parts of Mexico. I ask how hard it was to cross the border.

MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: "It was further and harder than I thought," says this man, who would only give his first name, Martin. He's from Mexico City and hopes to find work in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

KOCHERGA: Nearly half of those apprehended by Border Patrol on the southwest border were from Mexico and Central America. The rest are from a mix of other countries. While some sneak across the border, others turn themselves in, seeking asylum. The Border Patrol spends a lot of time processing those migrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

KOCHERGA: Afterwards, they're often released to await immigration hearings, like this large group in downtown El Paso in September. This year, again, the vast majority were from Venezuela, like 18-year-old Adrianeli Nava, who arrived with her toddler.

ADRIANELI NAVA: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: She was told the border was open, Nava says, but, when she arrived, was quickly taken into custody by Border Patrol. Following her release, like other migrants, she planned to move on and was trying to get to Chicago, where she has a relative.

All of this has led Texas Governor Greg Abbott to build up his controversial Operation Lone Star border crackdown. He's added miles of razor wire along the Rio Grande in El Paso, a floating barrier made of buoys in Del Rio, and deployed more state troopers.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout acknowledges the increase in migrant crossings strains the county, but the Democrat says repeated Republican claims that the border is wide open and chaotic are simply not true.

DAVID STOUT: We have, in this country, spent billions and billions of dollars in additional boots on the ground, more wall. For somebody to say that we have open borders - it's just ridiculous.

BACA: Well, I saw two groups over there in...

KOCHERGA: Out in the field, Agent Baca points to a variety of tools to keep an eye on the border, including new monitoring technology. There are 24 autonomous surveillance towers in the El Paso region now using artificial intelligence to help identify whether a migrant or an animal is crossing the border.

BACA: So this camera - the more you use it, the smarter it gets. It has a radar attached to it, so it detects movement at a certain radius.

KOCHERGA: This year, Border Patrol agents in El Paso alone rescued nearly 600 people. At least 149 migrants died - nearly half from the sweltering summer heat. Some drowned. On this night, we hear agents at another location with an injured woman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL AGENT #1: Four seven...

KOCHERGA: The woman broke her ankle trying to cross the border at night with a group of migrants.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL AGENT #2: Bleeding has stopped. Oh, heart rate is about 120. Respiration's about 12 to 15.

KOCHERGA: Despite the danger, driven by desperation or hope, migrants keep coming, and border enforcement is once again a top issue heading into a presidential election year.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Angela Kocherga
Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.

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