Migrants risk lives as Texas-Mexico border debate heats up before US election

More illegal migrants have crossed the border during Joe Biden's presidency than before, ITV News Washington Correspondent Dan Rivers reports from the Mexico border

The tiny town of Sanderson, in West Texas, was the setting for the book and Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men.

Yet, this is precisely the country the two old men vying for the presidency - US President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump - chose to visit, knowing that immigration is now the number one concern for American voters ahead of the election, according to recent polling.

The crumbling buildings and barren landscape of Sanderson look familiar to those who love Westerns or Cohen Brothers thrillers.

This isn’t remote by Texas standards. But as they say, in the Lone Star state everything is bigger here and that holds for distances too.

Sanderson is surrounded by mile after mile of desolate and beautiful scrub. It’s also within sight of the Mexican border.

Here, frontier politics feel very real.

This tiny community of 694 people is on the frontline of what Trump has likened to a war.

Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland is just one line of defense in the battle to stop illegal crossings.

He showed ITV News around his vast patch and points out where migrants frequently hide, waiting for their smugglers to pick them up and take them north.

He exudes southern charm, adding "sir" to the end of every response. But he is steely in his resolve to catch those trying to enter the United States illegally.

Mr Cleveland is a fan of Trump, recently taking part in the former President’s motorcade during a campaign visit.

He firmly believes that under Biden, border security has been seriously eroded.

President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: AP

Official statistics bear out his disapproval to some degree.

It’s projected that under Biden’s presidency, eight million people will have crossed into the US illegally - far more than under Trump, Obama or Bush.

Democrats point out they are trying to take measures to alleviate the situation, but face Republican resistance.

Besides, some argue America desperately needs migrants to bolster the workforce as the economy continues to recover.

Republicans in Texas - mostly vocally the state’s governor Gregg Abbott - claim that policy changes implemented by Biden, have made it much harder to expel those crossing without a visa.

The so-called Title 42 powers were ended, which allowed the US authorities to turn around migrants during the pandemic, because of the presence of a communicable disease.

So too were Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced those seeking asylum to stay in Mexico.

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Republicans also claim other policies were cut like Asylum Cooperative Agreements with countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

These policies forced asylum seekers to go back to their country of origin to claim asylum in the US.

The arguments about the cruelty of these policies still range, but there is a consensus emerging that the current situation on the US border is untenable.

Democrats point out they had thrashed out a bipartisan deal in the Senate, to funnel extra cash for border security to key agencies, but this was torpedoed by Trump, who they claim wants to perpetuate the border chaos.

They accuse him and his House of Representatives Leader Mike Johnson of deliberately killing off the plan for cynical political motives, hoping to continue the crisis until the eve of the election.

Caught in the middle of all this maneuvering, are the genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing violence or repression in their home countries.

We met some at a migrant reception centre in the border town of Eagle Pass.

Rolando Penafiel had walked with his wife and two children thousands of miles from Ecuador to escape cartel death squads.

The gangs had already sprayed his home with bullets after he refused to hand over profits from his construction business.

His daughter’s feet were covered in angry-looking blisters, her legs lacerated with scratches from miles of traipsing through the cactus-filled desert.

The razor wire they had to scramble over after wading through the Rio Grande had also left its marks.

Donald Trump talks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on February 29, 2024. Credit: AP

I got a rare perspective on those defences during a canoe trip down the river with local guide Jesse Fuentes.

He told me he had witnessed horrendous scenes on the river, including one haunting moment when a mother and baby were drowning as they tried to reach America.

He had frequently seen the bodies of those who hadn’t made it.

Most asylum seekers battle to reach their promised land only a hundred yards away, but for too many this swirling river was a final obstacle they couldn’t overcome.

We saw migrants who had swum the waters stranded in no man’s land beneath rows of razor wire.

One group, including a little girl, said they had come from Honduras and had been stuck on the river bank for days.

Elsewhere, we saw a man who had just swum over, looking for a way through the fence.

These were pitiful scenes. All striving for a better life, all risking their lives to get it.

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