The Open Border


In mid-December I revisited Sarita, a place in the open, flat range country on Texas Route 77, where the only building is a wooden shed—a long converted trailer that houses the US Border Patrol. The Rio Grande and Mexico lie about sixty miles south, but the Sarita checkpoint is the last stop on the road out of the Rio Grande Valley. Many Texans, and most illegal aliens, consider it the real border of the United States.

When I was there last summer the shack seemed to shimmer in the tropical heat, but now a frigid wind howls across the road, rattling the cars and trucks that have been impounded in the parking lot for having transported aliens and drugs. At the door of the shed, a border patrol agent politely asks each motorist passing through, “Are you a US citizen?” He waves most on, but he also opens trunks, taps the sides of doors, climbs inside trailer trucks to inspect the cargo.

Night falls. Whenever the agent orders a vehicle to park, more agents emerge from the shed with flashlights to examine the trunks and trailers for contraband. Usually a dog helps them, but the dog is sick tonight, so the agents themselves crouch and sniff over the cargo and over the opened luggage racks of buses.

The agents, wearing olive drab and stocking caps against the cold, are mostly bilingual Mexican-Americans: they have a tough manner and much experience with the drug trade. A sixth sense seems to tell them when something is amiss, and they are trained to detect the signs of stress—breathless speech, sweating palms, twitching muscles—that betray the smuggler.

Tonight’s catch is like most others. Between sunset and midnight, three drug traffickers, all handcuffed, are taken inside the shed—a Mexican-American truck driver; a black bus passenger; and a blond motorist, long-haired, a junkie, his hands brown from pot, his arms full of holes, whom the border patrolmen immediately label “Charles Manson.” The contraband they carried seems to fill the office—nearly $300,000 worth of marijuana, grown in Mexico and tightly packed in bales of plastic. No cocaine is found tonight, but cocaine seizures worth many millions are not uncommon at this checkpoint.

A seismic sensor hidden in the ground miles away beeps on a computer and signals that someone has been trying to bypass the checkpoint. I get into a dilapidated truck with a pair of patrolmen and we ride into open fields beneath a half-moon. We crouch in the sparse vegetation, waiting for the illegal aliens who the agents know are out there somewhere, moving northward on narrow trails, led probably by a coyote, a smuggler whom they pay to lead them around the checkpoint. No luck; they elude us and escape to the north. When the beeper sounds again the agents do better: they find a dozen aliens squatting in the grass, and when the agents seize them they offer no resistance. They are dressed in summer clothes, and carry a bottle of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.