John Carlin: Recapping On the Frontline coverage from the U.S.-Mexico border

The last entry of a series of blog posts as John covers Virginia troops on the border

EAGLE PASS, TexasGet an inside look at John Carlin’s trip to Eagle Pass as part of 10 News’ On the Frontline coverage.

See John’s photos from the border by clicking here.

Thursday, July 27

There are two sides to the Rio Grande River, but many sides to the arguments and sentiments surrounding the migrants who want to cross from Mexico into the United States along the Texas border.

And as I stood there, watching migrants cross the river, running for their lives and from their previous lives, it is easy to see all the sides. The answers are not so clear.

I can see how the migrants, who tell us they have been beaten and robbed, and sexually assaulted as they made their way across Mexico, want to get into the United States. They have fled terrible conditions in their native Central and South American countries like Honduras and Venezuela.

But they come in such numbers, that I can see how the state of Texas and the federal government need to find a way to control the way they come across the border.

Officials tell me they have to make it difficult, or there would be too many to take in. So authorities make them walk in the Rio Grande River.

A lot of migrants do this. They must believe it is worth it.

Human trafficking is real and it needs to be intercepted. Lone drug dealers are harder to see, but all of the troops we’ve been talking to on the frontlines say they are there, trying to bring fentanyl into the United States, as well as other illegal drugs.

They are often posing as members of seemingly harmless families with young children wading along the river. All of them, innocent and criminal - pushing toward the U.S. with swirls of concertina wire or “c-wire” always to their left as they slog downstream with the current of the stinky Rio Grande which often smells like sewage.

They are looking for a weakness in the defenses built by Texas authorities. Many will cut the wire and sneak through. Others will wrap extra clothing around the sharp parts to shield their bodies as they crawl through the coils.

It’s a constant game of cat and mouse along this roughly 8-mile stretch of river at Eagle Pass, Texas.

Photos from On the Frontline with John Carlin (WSLS)

What we have done and seen

Yesterday we patrolled with the Guard from mid-morning until 10 p.m. We saw a lot. More than 100 migrants trying to cross, under the watchful eyes of the troops.

In the middle of the day, temps reached over 100 degrees. Down here in July, that’s just another day that ends in Y. Yet, it’s been record-breaking heat.

For us, the troops and the migrants, it’s no joke. This weather is dangerous - the summer version of 20 below - and everyone is aware of it.

One group of migrants came up against the C-wire, with national guardsmen on the other side. It was a family. They were hot. Troops tossed them water bottles. But they refused them entry, even though one woman told them she had cancer and seemed to have documentation to prove it. She pushed papers through the wire with tear-filled eyes so the soldiers would take her seriously. They did. To a point.

They said she could come through, but the rest of the family could not.

[MORE: 10 News on the frontline with the Virginia National Guard at the U.S.-Mexico border]

She opted to stay with her family, and they returned to the river.

At dusk on our first day, a group of about three dozen migrants rushed the customs station at Eagle Pass. They hoped to overtake customs and flee into the US. But a massive presence of law enforcement and military personnel turned them back.

They fled into the river. Some at a full run escaping Mexican authorities and some bad actors known as coyotes who threatened to rob them, after promising to bring them safely to the border crossing for what we were told was $100 per person per day.

On the U.S. side of the river, migrants screamed at us in Spanish saying they had been beaten and robbed and the women had been sexually assaulted.

It was terrible to see and hear — but a story almost as common as the heat. The troops watched them walk in the river or on paths beside the water. But the migrants were not allowed to breach the coils.

We followed the group downriver for a while, but they stopped to rest, and we moved on.

It’s likely they eventually waded downstream about 5 miles and were taken by U. S. Border Patrol agents for processing. After that, their path forward becomes a murky story to tell and likely beyond the scope of this assignment.

Photos from On the Frontline with John Carlin (WSLS)

These things are difficult to watch

I heard of other atrocities and real human drama. Problems that are not first-world problems.

But I also saw professional soldiers from the Virginia National Guard and others who were there to assist Texas. Many shared their compassion for the migrants but asserted that their job was to deter them from crossing into the U.S. at random places. To encourage them to go to legal border crossings.

Guardsmen and DPS from Texas were posted every few hundred yards along the river.

4WD vehicles navigate the lone bumpy, dusty road. They often get stuck in the deep sand.

It’s always dusty. The kind that makes the air almost unbreathable for a few seconds every time a vehicle passes. And they pass constantly.

The reservists are in full military uniforms, carrying M-4 rifles, sweating, and telling people, obviously in need of a bit of compassion that they cannot pass into the United States.

My take is that they were not short of empathy, but that they had a job to do and they were doing it.

We didn’t see any violence but heard stories of our patrols having guns waved at them from the river by criminals who don’t want to take no for an answer.

10 News photographer Jeff Perzan and I never felt in danger. But maybe we should have.

Photos from On the Frontline with John Carlin (WSLS)

The many sides

All of this is part of Operation Lone Star, initiated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in March of 2021. His side is that he has the right to control his state’s border. The Biden Administrations’ position is that he does not, and is suing Texas for using floating buoys as a means of discouraging crossing.

Those patrolling the border say the buoys are working and that fewer people have come across since their installation along about 1,000 feet of river, at what was a popular crossing spot.

The Texas side is that people are coming in such large numbers, that there must be a way to control them. Some of those people are drug dealers and human traffickers who must be intercepted whenever possible. Others have criminal records in their native countries for things like murder. They too must be sorted.

The migrants’ side is many versions of the same story. They had to leave their native countries. For bad conditions. Political persecutions. Cartel shakedowns.

They need a place to go, and the United States is their best option. Maybe their only option. It’s not like they arrive in Mexico and decide to stay there. No. They keep coming.

One man told me he would have been executed for political transgressions if he stayed in Venezuela. He brought his family with just the clothes on their backs. They had some money and personal possessions, but they tell me the cartels, coyotes and even the Mexican police robbed them. When I asked if they attacked the women I received immediate responses that, yes they had. The women saying “Si. Si.” and solemnly nodding their heads.

Their side of the story is that they need help. It seems like they should be helped. People who sympathize with their plight use words like inhumane to describe the way Texas is treating them. My reporting has received many comments to the effect that the U.S. must be nicer to these people.

Then there are the people manning the border. They stand in the heat, with their guns in their full combat uniforms including bulletproof plates inside their fatigues.

The Virginia National Guard is there on loan. 100 people for 30 days. Their mission is pretty simple. Stand behind the wire and look tough. Give the Texas troops a bit of a break. They are to deter people from coming across the border anyplace except where border patrol agents can take them in.

These troops are there on a mission. No matter their individual level of compassion, they have their orders. “We’re not monsters” one member of the Texas National Guard told me, as his crew installed new coils of c-wire. “We only want to deter people from trying to cross.”

To do that, they must make it as hard as possible for migrants to climb out of the river and try to penetrate the wire.

Like most people, they miss their day-to-day life back home where they have families and regular jobs. They are anxious to get out of the heat and for the mission to end.

Photos from On the Frontline with John Carlin (WSLS)

All of this is mixed up in politics. In a nutshell, the Republican side is more or less that they want to be tough on the border. Democrats essentially want to be more compassionate and make it easier for migrants to enter.

If you want to see where someone stands, just ask them which party they belong to.

When you get down to it, the two most important sides are Abbott and Biden.

Where there is now a lawsuit over Texas’ right to restrict its border, which also happened to be the U. S. border.

There are all sorts of legal statutes being thrown around on both sides. Now it will be up to the courts to decide who is right.

My job is not to take a side. Using the river as my metaphor, with only two embankments - or sides, there is the swirling current in the middle. Where everything mixes. Where need, politics, power, crime, and compassion create a never-ending series of eddies and cross currents, that make these waters difficult to navigate.

From my perspective in the heat, and among the dusting from passing vehicles, and my eyes on people carrying children in that nasty river, it isn’t easy for anyone.

See more coverage by clicking here.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.