Forbidding terrain and foreboding feelings at remote border crossing
Antelope Wells is 170 miles southwest of El Paso, a three-hour drive through forbidding terrain, where stray dogs and deadly snakes roam and where even the water in wells can prove poisonous. It’s at the southernmost tip of New Mexico known as the Bootheel. Once you leave Interstate 10 for the last half of the drive to Antelope Wells, civilization dwindles.
Last month, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl crossed the border here with her father and a group of migrants after a bus dropped them on a similarly isolated stretch of north Mexican highway. After they turned themselves in to seek asylum, Border Patrol agents were driving them to the closest station eight hours later when Jakelin fell ill. Shortly after being flown from there to an El Paso hospital, about 27 hours after the crossing, Jakelin had a heart attack and died.
Critics of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown say the case illustrates the dangers of funneling migrants toward harsher, more dangerous crossings, and question whether agents were negligent. President Trump has blamed immigration policies shaped by Democrats and also Jakelin’s father for placing her at risk, stoking fears of a border crisis that he repeatedly says necessitates a wall.
A drive down the desolate road Jakelin traveled from this desert crossing makes clear both how harsh the landscape can be, and how fear of a border crisis continues to spread.
The last town before the crossing, Hachita, is 45 miles north of the border, and is little more than a crossroads that doesn’t merit a stop sign, let alone a traffic light. The Old Hachita copper and silver mining settlement from the 1870s is now a ghost town that lures the occasional tourist, but the actual town has a ghostly feeling, too. The railroad came and went, the ties torn up in the 1960s. A saloon, schools, Pearl’s Cafe and even the gray stone St. Catherine of Siena church have been abandoned.
The exception is Hachita Food Mart. The convenience store carries staples for about 50 people who live in town and on surrounding ranches. It also serves Border Patrol agents working the crossing and two nearby substations. Cashier Mike Sims spends his spare time polishing turquoise salvaged from a nearby mine.
There’s about 80 miles of border in the Bootheel, where fewer than 5,000 people live, scattered across more than 3,000 square miles. But last summer, Border Patrol busted a smuggler meeting a contact in the food mart’s dusty parking lot, right in front of the lone gas pump. Migrants haven’t made it to Hachita’s dirt streets, but residents still worry they will, since more have been showing up to the south at the Antelope Wells crossing in recent months.
Here, fear of a border crisis trumps reality.
Tourists from Iowa told Sims that their neighbors worried they were venturing into a war zone. Another tourist blamed Jakelin’s father for putting her at risk. Sims told the man that Border Patrol agents have been trying to provide added medical care to migrants, but that just made the man angrier.
A few months ago, about 40 people attended a meeting with Border Patrol and local officials to address concerns. Many left shaken, even though migrant families who turn themselves in at Antelope Wells are driven by Border Patrol to stations many miles away in Lordsburg, Deming and El Paso.
Turning south from Hachita onto two-lane NM 81, civilization drops away. There are no antelope here — the crossing was named after a ranch — but there’s plenty of other wildlife. A herd of mule deer darts past yucca and flimsy barbed-wire ranch fencing that lines the road. Black cattle graze in the plains beyond, which are ringed by mountains. To the west lie the Little Hatchet Mountains, from which the town of Hachita drew its name, and the Alamo Hueco; to the east is the Animas range and to the south, the Big Hatchet, now covered in snow.
The highway is rough, punctuated by cattle guards and signs warning of cattle and buffalo crossings. There’s even a sign marking the southern end of the continental divide, which makes the highway a popular route for international cyclists and hikers. Now, with temperatures dipping to freezing, there are no visitors in sight. There are no people at all, not even on the pastures of Alamo Hueco Cattle Co. There’s just the wide open blue sky with a few low-hanging clouds above miles of pasture that comprise Hatchet Ranch, Hurt Ranch and Diamond A.
It’s dusk when two Border Patrol SUVs and a gray pickup basted with mud pass, northbound. It’s 4:30 p.m., and the Antelope Wells crossing is only open until 4 p.m. During the federal government shutdown, agents are still considered essential, required to work without pay. Pulling up to the small cluster of buildings a half-hour later, you find the gate closed, no agents outside, although several patrol cars are parked in the lot.
The station was established by President Grant in 1872, staffed since 1928, four years after the Border Patrol was created. In addition to the station, Antelope Wells is home to Camp Bounds, one of about a dozen remote Border Patrol forward operating bases where five to 14 agents stay for a week at a time, sleeping in bunk beds.
Since last summer, the number of migrant families turning themselves in at the crossing has increased steadily. In recent months, groups of 200 to 300 Central American families, mostly Guatemalans, have been showing up at Antelope Wells, steered west of El Paso by Mexican smugglers. Some nights, they see up to 600 migrants arrive, most — like Jakelin and her father — seeking asylum.
When Jakelin arrived Dec. 6, she joined a group of 163 other migrants waiting in a station without space, restrooms or medical care. Border Patrol agents have asked for improved cellphone service, medical training and expanded holding space for migrants here, a union representative said, but that hasn’t changed since Jakelin’s death.
Next to the fenced station is a ranch house, painted red, white and blue and surrounded by two layers of chain-link fence. In front stands a water tank with a sign warning of venomous snakes. A dozen dogs bark inside the fence. Their names — English and Spanish — are carved into wooden planks affixed to the fence. Another salt-and-pepper stray runs up, also barking, but proves friendly, lolling on her back, begging for a belly rub.
U.S. customs officer Tim Balderston has lived here for 17 years, adopting stray Mexican dogs that roam the plains, oblivious to international boundaries. He’s got a television on inside, but there’s no cellphone service here, and no drinkable water. The wells contain Legionella, a deadly bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease. So agents truck water in just to bathe and do laundry.
The nearest Mexican town is Janos, about 50 miles south. Migrants take commercial buses there, but it’s unclear how they get to the crossing, because they arrive on foot, often after dark.
Darkness is now falling, the mountains a blue outline against the deep golden sunset. Balderston warns that it would be wise to start back. Mule deer like to dart into the road, unaccustomed to traffic. So do jackrabbits and quail.
It’s so quiet as you head back to the car that you can hear the wind whistling through the mountains, rattling the U.S. flag pole on Balderston’s water tank and chilling the air. Yours will be the only headlights on the road for miles under a widening blanket of stars.
About halfway to Hachita, a Border Patrol truck appears, parked on the shoulder. The agent tails you at first, then flashes his lights until you stop so he can check your trunk — a border inspection, he calls it. The trunk is empty. Although you pull off separately, his truck quickly swallowed by darkness, your paths will cross again soon after, as they so often do in small towns: when you stop for snacks at the Hachita market for the long drive home.