ROMA, Texas — As the rafts arrived, not one U.S. Border Patrol agent was in sight.
Instead, state troopers, Texas Rangers and National Guard members were hoisting the migrants — mostly women and children — to safety past midnight.
“It is a crisis,” said Lt. Christopher Olivarez of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “You see how easy it is for these smugglers to raft these migrants across.”
As the surge of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border grows, local and state law enforcement agencies are ramping up patrols because they say federal resources are tied up processing the spiking number of children. They argue it’s opening up gaps along the border for drug smugglers.
State officials say they’ve referred more than 28,000 migrants to the federal Border Patrol since March. They’ve also seized more than 5,700 pounds of marijuana, almost 100 pounds of cocaine and more than $1 million in currency. Texas’ governor has sent hundreds of extra state troopers and National Guard members to the border.
Following a routine traffic stop this week, a state trooper discovered a stash house. During a ride-along with NBC News, dozens of migrants, mostly young men, could be seen being processed by two Border Patrol agents after they’d been called to the scene by local law enforcement.
Critics argue this isn’t their job and that local and state police shouldn’t enforce federal immigration laws. Historically, immigrant advocates have discouraged local police from being associated with the Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“When local police officers are responsible for arresting immigrants and putting them into detention and deportation proceedings, the result is that immigrant communities become fearful of public institutions,” said Nayna Gupta of the National Immigrant Justice Center.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said much of this surge is seasonal and due in part to poor conditions in Central America and not a change in border policies.
“Migration is a dynamic and evolving challenge,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “The president has a plan, and we’re working on implementing it.”
Recently, there’s been a sharp drop in the backlog of migrant children being processed at Border Patrol facilities. Pictures provided by the government on Tuesday from inside one in Donna, Texas, show much less crowded conditions than a few months ago.
“We have the situation with respect to the unaccompanied children under control,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told MSNBC this week.
But along the Rio Grande, the rafts continued to cross.
Paola Torres from Honduras said she’d paid a smuggler $8,000 to make the treacherous journey.
“We came,” she said, “because we want to give our children a better life.”