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The Border Job No One Wants: Eagle Pass Firefighters Respond to Migrant Deaths in the Rio Grande


Eagle Pass, TX–The tiny town of Eagle Pass has become a top destination for border crossers in the last several years. In December 2023, the numbers peaked, with Border Patrol arresting more than 70,000 in its Del Rio, Texas sector which includes Eagle Pass. Local authorities report a lull at the start of 2024 but anticipate that crossings could easily surge again in the spring and summer months. 

For this community of just 30,000, the tens of thousands of migrants crossing from Mexico into the US each month have sapped resources, including lengthening hospital waits and squeezing the local economy with bridge delays. It's also lost Shelby Park, a city recreational area, now controlled by Gov. Abbott's Lone Star operation. 

Most residents of Eagle Pass have been affected in some way but the city's firefighters have experienced the deadly nature of the border crisis and it has taken a toll. 

For these first responders, the border crisis is ever-present, and calls to help migrants have spiked in the last year. 

In 2023, Eagle Pass firefighters transported hundreds of migrants to the local hospital and rescued or recovered them, often daily, in the Rio Grande River. 

These calls in turn drained the department's budget by up to $20,000 a day. 

These firefighters are the ones who take the call when there's been a drowning and they're the ones that have witnessed firsthand just how deadly the Rio Grande can be for migrants who attempt to make it across.

"This river is very treacherous. The water is very swift," Chief Manuel Mello told CBN News during a recent interview.

Firefighters told CBN News they're surprised at how many migrant families choose to cross the dangerous waters with their children. 

For the firefighters, the worst part is recovering the bodies of infants and young children. 

"One image that doesn't go away that I got to see is a two-month-old with eyes half open, his face, his mouth, his ears full of mud," said Mello.

"Over this last year alone, we've encountered close to a drowning every shift," said firefighter Omar Amezcua.

"We're tired, the community is tired. Crime has gone up. Death is something that we're seeing every day and it's very easy to watch something and make an opinion but I'm telling you right now, it's been pretty bad for all of us," he said.

Mello drove CBN News to a river spot heavily used by migrants coming over. 

A trail of discarded clothes and antibiotics points to a desperate journey that Mello says includes physical hardship and sexual assault for both children and adults. 

What baffles Mello and the other firefighters is why these migrants choose to cross the river, rather than seek out an official port of entry.

"I think they believe that it's quicker for them to get processed than having to go through the ports of entry and asking for an asylum and waiting maybe a week, maybe two, to get their paperwork and cross over," he said. "They'd rather risk their lives and cross through the river." 

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The fire department has added an ambulance and rescue boat to keep up with the demand. Still, tension grows when migrant and local city calls overlap, forcing, at times, the different stations to cover each other's zones.

Amezcua says he feels the stress. "We're in the river dealing with whatever incident and calls are still happening and this city is depending on us to be there," he said.

Chief Mello is well aware that pulling bodies from the river takes a toll, especially when it's children. It's why he's applying for mental health grants to sustain a workforce that must continue and perhaps be prepared to do more.

"The citizens of Eagle Pass are compassionate in a way, but they're also mad, " he said. "They're mad because we are getting all this negative attention and I guess they all hope like I do that someday soon this will all go away."

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