Welcome to the start of our Seventh Season of Full Measure. I am Sharyl Attkisson. This could be the worst year in American history for illegal border crossings. It already hit the top 5 with two months left to go in the fiscal year. Border agents have encountered more than (1.3) million illegal border crossers so far. We were at Ground Zero for the border crisis as it hit a new peak and found record numbers amid a virus pandemic has created a perfect storm of chaos.
Somewhere in this tall brush, about a mile north of the Mexico border, another group of illegal border crossers has scattered. They’re being tracked by Border Patrol agents following trails of trampled grass. We began the ride-along with Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas two hours before sunrise. In a matter of minutes, the first call. Nine people had just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico. This woman tells us her two children came months ago and are waiting for her in Boston.
Roderick Kise/U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Her Children came across by themselves, and one is eleven, and one is fourteen.
Border Patrol never closes, sleeps or stops. And the Rio Grande Valley sector is the busiest in America during a record-setting year. Making matters far worse than ever before: the pandemic. Just before our visit, one in five illegal border crossers in some groups were reportedly infected with Covid-19.
Sharyl: How common is it that your agents screen somebody and they do seem to be sick?
Jesse Moreno/Border Patrol: It does happen quite often. But we just encountered a group this morning of five individuals. One of the females let one of our agents know that she has Covid.
Sharyl (On-Camera): American citizens who leave the country can’t get back in the U.S. without showing a negative Covid-19 test. But for non-citizens crossing illegally by the thousands there are no such requirement and the feds aren’t testing them before releasing them in to the U.S.
The dysfunctional arrangement has left border communities and nonprofits scrambling to help the immigrants while protecting U.S. citizens from Covid.
Sister Norma Pimentel: We immediately found out that they were not tested for the virus.
Sister Norma Pimentel heads up Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, which operates a giant relief warehouse in McAllen. She says her group was initially placing Covid-positive families at local hotels but got quickly overwhelmed.
Pimental: So that operation continued and grew as more peoples arrived here in greater numbers of course, we were getting so much more people with Covid positive. The percentage overall it had always been about 7% overall of Covid positives, but with high numbers, that was a lot of people.
Sharyl: You saw that Covid numbers go up or just the overall numbers?
Pimentel: The overall numbers were going up so the Covid numbers were high as well. And so I said "After today, if numbers continue as they are we will not be able to have hold them inside."
Just before our arrival, local officials closed off a public park near the border eight miles away and set up a tent city to test immigrants and try to isolate the ones with Covid.
Sharyl: Do you know about how many people are there?
Pimentel: Right now it has already gone to 1,300 plus. Yeah, it's growing really quickly.
Pimental says the families at the McAllen center are negative for Covid. Here, they connect with family members already in the U.S. and are sent on their way to destinations across America.
Pimentel: I would say we process close to between 6,000 to maybe a little bit more these last two weeks, in one week.
Sharyl: 6,000 a week?
Pimentel: Maybe more, yeah.
That’s just a fraction of the total releases. Border Patrol is so overwhelmed, it’s taking immigrants to other cities and spreading the crisis state to places like Laredo, Texas, a three hour drive from McAllen.
Mayor Pete Saenz: We should be embarrassed, frankly, as Americans to have a system that is in chaos.
Mayor Pete Saenz says Laredo got inundated by the release of hundreds of immigrants a day. The city is suing the Biden administration to try to stop it. A week before our arrival, they began working under a temporary agreement where Border Patrol releases the immigrants at a central staging area.
Mayor Saenz: So they actually transport these migrants, a few blocks from their border patrol station, which is convenient for everyone. And they drop them off. And then they quickly board the buses. These are air-conditioned buses. And as soon as a bus is filled, then we're transporting them. Primarily we began with Dallas and Austin and Houston.
Sharyl: Wait, wait, let me get this straight. They're coming in to the McAllen area. They're being bused or taken here to Laredo. And then you are busing or taking them to Austin, Dallas and Houston?
Mayor Saenz: Correct. Correct. At a cost of between $8,000 to $10,000 a day. Not because we don't want to treat them, it's because we can't, it's an impossibility at this point, simply because of the hospital, you know, very limited hospital capacity that we have.
Sharyl: Americans who aren't down here on the border, they hear complaints and they don't know what to believe. What would you tell them about that down here?
Mayor Saenz: I, as a mayor, just look at my city. I don't care if you're a Republican or Democrat. What is working for my city? What is in the best interest of my city? Whatever system is now in place, it's not working. It's truly not working. Because we at the border are experiencing that risk, that danger, the burden. The federal government, if that's your policy then that's fine, but implement it, package it, organize it, operate it for us and finance it. But I haven't seen any of that.
We asked for interviews with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, but none agreed to talk with us.
In announcing the record number of illegal border crossings for July, Mayorkas blamed poor conditions in Central America, Covid-19 and President Trump.
Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security Secretary (August 12, 2021): Tragically, former President Trump slashed our international assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, slashed the resources that we were contributing to address the root causes of irregular migration.
The Biden Administration plan of action includes a major focus on more U.S. tax money for Central America. That includes $280 million to fight crime and corruption, and for job opportunities, election participation, small businesses, and gender equality.
Back in the field, agents are searching for a dozen illegal immigrants who bailed out of a vehicle and ran into a neighborhood. These men say they’re from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil and Mexico.
This man tells me he worked in financial services in Honduras and has a wife and daughter who came first waiting for him in Denver. To get here, he says he agreed to pay the cartels $8,200.
Which raises another hard reality. The spike in illegal immigration is making the violent criminal cartels — called Transnational Criminal Organizations or TCOs — even more prosperous.
Sharyl: So every person who's caught here represents cash in the pocket of cartels?
Moreno: Correct. All the individuals that cross have to have paid somebody in order to come into the U.S. illegally in that manner.
This woman says she paid the equivalent of more than 6-thousand dollars from Guatemala. She’s headed to Ohio where she says her husband is already waiting for her.
Pimentel: She said, "I just want to share that it was very difficult to journey here. I suffered a lot. There was no food".
Martin Cuellar is Sheriff in Webb County, which includes the city of Laredo.
Sheriff Martin Cuellar: Before you cross that river behind us here, you have to pay the cartels. And then when you pay them and you get here, then you have to cross the border patrol checkpoints, and you have to pay also. We are making, all this is making the cartels richer.
Just counting the illegal border crossers agents have encountered this year represents and estimated $9 billion dollars cash for the cartels.
This woman says her dad, already in New York, paid for her. She and her three year old daughter were in a large group turning themselves in at a baseball park in La Joya, Texas. The second bus full of the day here and it’s still just morning.