Elias Soto Sanchez’s chief concern as an ambulance carried him north to a hospital in San Antonio was not his broken right foot — it was his wife.
“You cannot go with me,” Blanca Soto recalled her husband saying when he phoned from the ambulance.
The couple has raised three children while living in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, for 13 years since crossing illegally from their native Mexico. They’ve done their best to stay in the Rio Grande Valley near the border and avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint here on the highway north.
But when Soto, 48, fell and broke his foot last Dec. 4, a local doctor said he needed to see a specialist for surgery about 275 miles north in San Antonio, beyond the checkpoint.
“He told the doctors, ‘I don’t have documents.’ They told him he could go. They said nothing would happen to him,” said Blanca Soto, 46. “They said, ‘We will not call immigration.’”
But the ambulance was stopped at the checkpoint, a rural ranching outpost about 75 miles north of the border on Highway 281 leading to San Antonio and Houston. Immigration officials held Soto for questioning before eventually allowing him to proceed, but noted that he would be detained. At the hospital, they stationed a guard at his room and did not allow him to speak to his wife or other relatives.
Those living in the valley without legal status learn to navigate life while keeping a low profile, but medical problems beyond the capabilities of local healthcare providers present a grim choice: forgo treatment or risk deportation.
Seeking treatment is “a risk that many people are not willing to take because it means separation from their families,” said Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, director of the Texas Latina Advocacy Network. “That’s what they tell us — ‘My children are citizens, I’m not and I don’t want to leave them.’ So they live with the pain.
“We hear from women about why they have gone five years, 10 years without a Pap smear,” she said. “A lot of people [outside the Rio Grande Valley] don’t know these checkpoints exist so far inland and that they restrict access. It’s not something that’s widely recognized as a problem.”
There are only two major highways leading north from the valley, and each has a checkpoint — on Highway 281 in Falfurrias and on Highway 77 in Kingsville, about 40 miles northeast.
Of Customs and Border Protection’s 33 immigration checkpoints within 75 miles of the southern border, the Falfurrias outpost is among the busiest. Immigration officials who are expanding the facility say it’s a valuable tool to deter and catch smugglers.
Soto hired an attorney, refused to agree to voluntary deportation and was allowed to leave the hospital about a week later without bond. Due to immigration court backlogs, his case is not scheduled to be heard for a few years. Still, his family worries.
“He is a responsible man, a family man, he never drinks, he has no criminal record,” his wife said. “We depend on him. We are suffering for him.”
His attorney, Francisco Steven Tipton, said it was not unusual for ambulances to be stopped at the checkpoint and families separated.
“We’ve had clients where there’s a child going through in the ambulance with the mother, and they will take the mother out and say she can’t go with them,” Tipton said.
Tipton tells clients seeking non-emergency medical treatment north of the checkpoints to wait until they file petitions for legal status and have the paperwork to show agents at the checkpoint. The tactic works, though “sometimes they will run into an officer who will give them a hard time,” he said.
In the weeks after Soto was stopped, Raul Ortiz, acting chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, walked around the checkpoint as a dozen agents inspected cars, some with help from drug-sniffing German shepherds. A bank of cameras recorded the proceedings.
In Falfurrias there’s usually a steady stream of traffic, but not as much as at checkpoints in California, such as the one on Interstate 5 in San Clemente, making it easier to stop and screen people, he said. It was early morning, and already the agents had detained a woman and found some cocaine.
“Highway 281 is used by human traffickers, money couriers, drug traffickers — all that activity going north,” he said, calling it, “one of the busiest checkpoints in the country — and one of the most productive.”
Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol union spokesman based in the Rio Grande Valley, used to work by the Falfurrias checkpoint for months at a time and called it “a very useful tool.”
“I understand people are afraid to drive through it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s needed. We’re so porous, open, we need a second line of defense.”
Human smugglers try to evade the checkpoint by dropping off migrants south of Falfurrias, with the promise to pick them up just north. The migrants have to walk through unforgiving ranch land to reach the rendezvous. Some have died on the journey; two weeks ago, agents helped sheriff’s deputies recover the remains of a migrant woman found near the Kingsville checkpoint.
Eddie Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center here, responds to calls from relatives of missing migrants and searches for remains with ranchers and local Brooks County sheriff’s deputies. The sheriff’s office handled 23 migrant deaths since October, 390 during the past five years.
“It’s always been a suggestion from the ranch community: ‘Can you put [the checkpoint] somewhere south’ ” of Falfurrias, where the terrain is less treacherous, Canales said. “It certainly would eliminate a lot of people missing and dying trying to circumvent that checkpoint.”
Ortiz said agents were trying to do more to catch migrants and prevent more deaths. And he said they have to stop ambulances because “we get cloned vehicles all the time” — vehicles made to look like ambulances, UPS trucks, telephone company repair trucks and oil tankers, with people stashed in air vents, freezers and latrines.
If someone is being transported for medical treatment, he said, hospitals often call ahead to the checkpoint and agents try to facilitate their passage, but agents still have to stop patients to check their immigration status and potential criminal records.
Construction is underway to expand the checkpoint, doubling its size to 16 lanes during the next two years at a cost of $20 million to $25 million.
Rodriguez, of the Texas Latina Advocacy Network, said that for women in the valley, access to abortion and family planning is another problem. A new Texas law being challenged in a lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court has left the valley with one abortion clinic, which could close if the high court allows the law to stand. The next-nearest clinic is in San Antonio.
She recalled passing the checkpoint with a van of women last year traveling to a New Orleans appeals court hearing in the abortion case.
“It was hard to fill that van because of the checkpoint,” she said. “The first thing you see is the sign saying how many people have been seized, how many drugs. Your cellphone reception goes out. We all have legal status, and we were nervous.”
She said she would like to see the checkpoints shifted further south.
“We’re not so naive to think there’s not public safety threats to be addressed” by checkpoints, she said, but, “it feels like a restriction on our movement that could perhaps be handled better closer to our border.”
For news from the Southwest, follow @mollyhf on Twitter.