Since January, a scene plays out night after night: when the sun goes down in Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, on the southern banks of the river, rafts fill with silhouettes. The boats set out across the Río Bravo — the river that forms the border here between Mexico and the United States, where it’s known as the Rio Grande — and unload on the other side, in Roma, Texas. Each night, hundreds of Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans — entire families, mothers with children, teenagers, children travelling alone — step foot on U.S. soil and walk along the river to present themselves at the temporary processing stations set up by the U.S. Border Patrol on the streets of Roma. 

The scene here is no longer one of agents chasing migrants, but one of large groups of Central Americans walking together to turn themselves in and request asylum. On occasion, Border Patrol agents yell over to the smugglers on the other side, imploring them to stop bringing people across, but the coyotes keep pushing off on their inflatable rafts, responding to the agents with jeers and taunts. On average, every night in March around 500 asylum seekers entered the town of Roma, just one of hundreds of crossing points along the 2,500-mile U.S.-Mexican border.

*This article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).

 

In the afternoon on Saturday, March 28, a large group of undocumented Central Americans attempted to cross the Rio Grande on the outskirts of Miguel Alemán, a border town in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The coyotes spotted Border Patrol agents keeping watch on the U.S. side of the river and retreated. There were about 15 people waiting to cross the 102-meter-wide river channel, hoping to reach U.S. soil before Border Patrol boats could intercept them and arrest the coyotes piloting the rafts.
 
In the afternoon on Saturday, March 28, a large group of undocumented Central Americans attempted to cross the Rio Grande on the outskirts of Miguel Alemán, a border town in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The coyotes spotted Border Patrol agents keeping watch on the U.S. side of the river and retreated. There were about 15 people waiting to cross the 102-meter-wide river channel, hoping to reach U.S. soil before Border Patrol boats could intercept them and arrest the coyotes piloting the rafts.

 

 

“You can’t cross today. The Texas Rangers are in the area and they’ll arrest you,” two Border Patrol agents yelled in Spanish to the smugglers inflating rafts on the other side of the river. “Don’t do it today. Wait until tomorrow,” they shouted. The agents left a few minutes later, and the migrants disappeared into the hills along the riverbank, perhaps to try at another spot.
 
“You can’t cross today. The Texas Rangers are in the area and they’ll arrest you,” two Border Patrol agents yelled in Spanish to the smugglers inflating rafts on the other side of the river. “Don’t do it today. Wait until tomorrow,” they shouted. The agents left a few minutes later, and the migrants disappeared into the hills along the riverbank, perhaps to try at another spot.

 

 

On the Mexican side, a coyote yells back to the agents: “I’m not in a hurry to cross. I’ll just sit back and smoke this blunt while I wait.” Everyone laughs at the joke. In these first three scenes, where agents and smugglers talk back and forth across the river, migration seems more like an arrangement between coyotes and Border Patrol than a conflict. This particular exchange happened an hour before the rafts started crowding the river, overwhelming Border Patrol’s ability to stop them from dropping people off on the U.S. side.
 
On the Mexican side, a coyote yells back to the agents: “I’m not in a hurry to cross. I’ll just sit back and smoke this blunt while I wait.” Everyone laughs at the joke. In these first three scenes, where agents and smugglers talk back and forth across the river, migration seems more like an arrangement between coyotes and Border Patrol than a conflict. This particular exchange happened an hour before the rafts started crowding the river, overwhelming Border Patrol’s ability to stop them from dropping people off on the U.S. side.

 

 

After crossing the river and landing on the northern banks of the Rio Grande, asylum seekers walk for more than a mile to reach the improvised Border Patrol stations in Roma, Texas. As night falls, animals come out and startle the walkers. One group surprised a wild boar, sending it scuttling off into the brush.
 
After crossing the river and landing on the northern banks of the Rio Grande, asylum seekers walk for more than a mile to reach the improvised Border Patrol stations in Roma, Texas. As night falls, animals come out and startle the walkers. One group surprised a wild boar, sending it scuttling off into the brush.

 

 

Along the road is also a reminder that women, too, are making the crossing. Every day, women with families, women alone with their children, and underage and unaccompanied girls arrive here to cross the river and request asylum.
 
Along the road is also a reminder that women, too, are making the crossing. Every day, women with families, women alone with their children, and underage and unaccompanied girls arrive here to cross the river and request asylum.

 

 

Once they reach the U.S. side and step off the rafts, most people remove their multicolored wristbands. The color-coded bracelets are used by smuggling groups to record who paid which coyote for the crossing. For decades, the smuggling business on the Mexican border has been dominated by organized crime groups, cartels, or organizations that pay for and operate under the protection of such groups.
 
Once they reach the U.S. side and step off the rafts, most people remove their multicolored wristbands. The color-coded bracelets are used by smuggling groups to record who paid which coyote for the crossing. For decades, the smuggling business on the Mexican border has been dominated by organized crime groups, cartels, or organizations that pay for and operate under the protection of such groups.

 

 

Families leave behind clothing and other items that got wet during the crossing: lipstick, underwear, shirts, diapers.
 
Families leave behind clothing and other items that got wet during the crossing: lipstick, underwear, shirts, diapers.

 

 

Mothers and fathers travel with their children, many only a few months old. Parents hold their little ones in their arms as they make the crossing in hopes of requesting asylum.
 
Mothers and fathers travel with their children, many only a few months old. Parents hold their little ones in their arms as they make the crossing in hopes of requesting asylum.

 

 

From across the Rio Grande, you can hear the confused voices and the sound of motors, used to inflate the rafts, coming from the Mexican side.
 
From across the Rio Grande, you can hear the confused voices and the sound of motors, used to inflate the rafts, coming from the Mexican side.

 

 

“Lift the kids up, hold them up! Don't squeeze them too hard! What’s wrong with you! Lift the kid up. Get off! Get off the boat, man!,” one of the coyotes shouts at a mother and her newborn baby, who cried during the whole crossing. The raft cuts its way through the darkness of the river, carrying two families and two unaccompanied minors.
 
“Lift the kids up, hold them up! Don't squeeze them too hard! What’s wrong with you! Lift the kid up. Get off! Get off the boat, man!,” one of the coyotes shouts at a mother and her newborn baby, who cried during the whole crossing. The raft cuts its way through the darkness of the river, carrying two families and two unaccompanied minors.

 

 

Joan José Diego (left), 17, spent 12 days traveling from Zacapa, Guatemala to the U.S. border. He crossed the river alone, hoping to rejoin his mother in Miami. Standing next to him is Óscar Riquelme Hurtado, 12, who had been travelling alone since February 26. Óscar left his home in Nuevo Progreso, a municipality in San Marcos, Guatemala, and traveled to the border with the help of a coyote hired by his uncle in Los Angeles. His uncle had hired the smuggler to bring Óscar’s mother across, but she decided to send the boy alone.
 
Joan José Diego (left), 17, spent 12 days traveling from Zacapa, Guatemala to the U.S. border. He crossed the river alone, hoping to rejoin his mother in Miami. Standing next to him is Óscar Riquelme Hurtado, 12, who had been travelling alone since February 26. Óscar left his home in Nuevo Progreso, a municipality in San Marcos, Guatemala, and traveled to the border with the help of a coyote hired by his uncle in Los Angeles. His uncle had hired the smuggler to bring Óscar’s mother across, but she decided to send the boy alone.

 

 

Heydi Aguilar, 20, steps off the raft carrying her two-year-old son. She walks across the rocky shore and steps foot on U.S. soil. Heydi was the last to get off this boat. She and her son left San Marcos, Guatemala on February 28.
 
Heydi Aguilar, 20, steps off the raft carrying her two-year-old son. She walks across the rocky shore and steps foot on U.S. soil. Heydi was the last to get off this boat. She and her son left San Marcos, Guatemala on February 28.

 

 

Three families crossed the river together. On the left are Beili Cinto and Ubilder Navarro, both 25 years old. On January 15 they fled the village of Champollap in San Marcos, Guatemala with their two children amid a conflict with Ubilder’s brothers over the inheritance of a plot of land. His brothers burned down his house and threatened to kill him. In the middle are Fátima Pacheco, 29, and José Francisco, 22, a couple who fled their home in Olancho, Honduras. Carrying their 5-month-old son, Diego, they travelled to the border without hiring a coyote. On the right, Enna Turcio is crying and holding her daughter. With her are a couple, Jenny Menjívar and Marlon Córdova, who are also travelling with a child. Together, the group left the municipality of Marcovia, in Choluteca, Honduras, on February 1. They had managed to enter the United States days earlier, but border authorities expelled them back to Ciudad Juárez, many hundreds of miles from where they had now returned to cross again. In Mexico, they were kidnapped and held for 15 days by a criminal group that extorted their families for ransom. Once the ransom was paid, the same criminals who had kidnapped them brought them back to the river to make another attempt at entering the United States. “We don’t ever want to go back to that nightmare,” Enna says. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us.”
 
Three families crossed the river together. On the left are Beili Cinto and Ubilder Navarro, both 25 years old. On January 15 they fled the village of Champollap in San Marcos, Guatemala with their two children amid a conflict with Ubilder’s brothers over the inheritance of a plot of land. His brothers burned down his house and threatened to kill him. In the middle are Fátima Pacheco, 29, and José Francisco, 22, a couple who fled their home in Olancho, Honduras. Carrying their 5-month-old son, Diego, they travelled to the border without hiring a coyote. On the right, Enna Turcio is crying and holding her daughter. With her are a couple, Jenny Menjívar and Marlon Córdova, who are also travelling with a child. Together, the group left the municipality of Marcovia, in Choluteca, Honduras, on February 1. They had managed to enter the United States days earlier, but border authorities expelled them back to Ciudad Juárez, many hundreds of miles from where they had now returned to cross again. In Mexico, they were kidnapped and held for 15 days by a criminal group that extorted their families for ransom. Once the ransom was paid, the same criminals who had kidnapped them brought them back to the river to make another attempt at entering the United States. “We don’t ever want to go back to that nightmare,” Enna says. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us.”

 

 

*Translated by Max Granger.