Life on the line

In Roma, Texas, residents must choose: Help Border Patrol, or border crossers?

They would never think about trying to hurt people.

The bell over the door at J.C. Ramirez rang on a slow Wednesday afternoon as Border Patrol agents in green uniforms entered the western-wear store looking for an immigrant mother and baby.

Owner Cecilia Benavides let the agents search the plywood dressing rooms, back office, shelves stacked with straw cowboy hats and racks of George Strait Wrangler dress shirts. They left empty-handed.

Moments later, the bell sounded again. In walked an unfamiliar woman, a baby in her arms. Benavides, 75, glanced at her sales clerk, unsure what to do.

In Roma, a major thoroughfare for illegal immigration on the Texas-Mexico border, encountering Border Patrol agents and the immigrants desperate to evade them is an inescapable part of life.

Residents repeatedly face legal and ethical questions: Do you help, and, if so, whom? The immigrants or the Border Patrol? Almost daily, they weigh fear against compassion, resentment against concern.

When a man arrived at Benavides’ shop last year, soaked from the river and stinking after hiding all day in a trash can, she gave him fresh clothes and food in a hat box, so he wouldn’t attract agents’ attention. When Benavides saw the woman with the baby, she didn’t call the Border Patrol either. Instead, she watched for signs of distress.

The woman didn’t appear scared. She spoke Spanish, as do most people in Roma, asking about children’s boots. And she posed another question: Why had Border Patrol agents approached her outside?

Benavides relaxed, explained who the agents were pursuing, and rang up $50 boots. She was spared having to make a decision.

Border Patrol agents once broke a shop window with their batons as they chased an immigrant. In November, a smuggler fleeing agents crashed his car into the store, cracking a wall. No one was injured, but Benavides was stuck with repair bills. She didn’t intervene in either case.

Donato Garza looks on as Border Patrol Agent Ammon S. Blair tracks footprints past his home in colonia De La Cruz. The empty lot next to Garza’s apartment is a main thoroughfare for immigrants crossing over the Rio Grande.

This legal, ethical and moral question of whether to help immigrant or agent is a recurring theme in Roma, as a Times reporter and photographer discovered while living here this year. The pair stayed off and on in a house The Times rented half a block from the Rio Grande from July to October. They found that whether to aid immigrants or agents often triggered debates, sometimes within families.

When Thalia Munoz spotted a group of immigrants camped with three small children in a field opposite her porch, she didn’t immediately call la patrulla fronteriza, as the Border Patrol is known.

“My husband and I were sitting outside debating: Do you call or not call?” said Munoz, 76, a hospital administrator.

She said no. He said yes. Ultimately, he called, concerned about the children’s safety. The Border Patrol detained the group.

Growing up in Roma, Munoz never hesitated to help migrants. It was a town where everyone seemed to have ties, or relatives, in Mexico.

“It used to be they were coming for jobs from the border towns here. As long as I can remember, illegals would end up in your backyard and you fed them and gave them water and they’d leave,” she said. But that was before the rise of international drug cartels and gangs. “Things have changed so much, you’re afraid. You don’t know what their intentions are.”

Roma, population 11,400, is an immigration hot spot in the Rio Grande Valley, which accounted for 41% of those caught crossing the border illegally nationwide for the fiscal year that ended in September. It was here, in the southern tip of Texas, that President Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott deployed the National Guard last spring and hundreds more troops in October to stop a caravan of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico.

Dina Isabel Garcia-Peña often sees migrants stop at her husband’s body shop, where she assembles El Tejano newspaper in a back office. She feels for them. “Most of us are only one or two generations away from being illegal immigrants,” she said.

Garcia-Peña has received death threats after writing articles critical of smugglers, and knows neighbors fear new Central American arrivals. But she also keeps water out for passing immigrants and has let them use her phone. She’s seen the Border Patrol detain families with boys who resemble her 5-year-old son.

“I feel very conflicted,” she said.

A Mexican smuggler leads a group of immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande illegally up the riverbank on the U.S. side, fleeing Border Patrol agents who found them hiding in the reeds.
Border Patrol Agent Robert Trevino leaves after turning immigrants and their guide back from the edge of the river.
Immigrants yell at a Roma police officer after being pursued by Border Patrol agents, who forced them back to Mexico.

Melissa De La Cruz, 39, a third-grade teacher and mother of three, lives a block from the river and is often approached by immigrants, some more insistent than others. Sometimes she alerts the Border Patrol, or la migra. Sometimes she doesn’t.

She sympathizes with immigrants fleeing violence and knows they pay dearly to cross the border. A man she found hiding on her mother’s back porch, a hairdresser from Mexico City, said he paid $10,000 to join his three brothers in Illinois. She didn’t report him.

But when a pregnant immigrant approached De La Cruz outside her house a few years ago and offered $100 for a ride, the teacher panicked.

“I’m not going to risk my certificate for you,” she said.

Instead, she gave the woman water and let her use a cordless phone. The woman left and later called to thank De La Cruz after joining family in the Midwest.

In Roma, the immigrants appear just about anywhere — hiding in carports, trees, church pews, storm drains and the clothes racks at Bealls department store. Recently, the Roma chief of police came home from work to find an immigrant sitting on his front wall. The stranger claimed to be a yard worker, then fled.

A Honduran immigrant mother is detained with her year-old son by Border Patrol agents on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Some immigrants try to pass as locals. Wearing a fresh change of clothes, they slip into Whataburger or by immigration agents parked outside Church’s Chicken. Some try to blend in with joggers on the track at Roma’s park, or the nearby baseball field. Though Roma is more than 99% Latino, according to the most recent census, and Spanish is often spoken more than English, immigrants’ nervousness can betray them. An immigrant spotted at the park recently darted through a Little League game, a Border Patrol agent in pursuit, halting play.

“Right in the middle of first base. Everyone was watching them instead of the game,” recalled De La Cruz, whose son was playing.

Some border crossers die in the attempt. This summer a body was found floating in the river off Roma, and dozens more surfaced farther downstream. A decade ago, Nelson Martinez’s dog Guero brought home a human skull.

He followed the dog to the body, rotting in a field beside his trailer. Martinez, 40, couldn’t understand why the Border Patrol hadn’t found it earlier. The body had been there for days. Authorities managed to identify the man, a 41-year-old named Juan, and reach his relatives in Mexico.

“The family came and thanked me,” Martinez said as he picked his way through tall grass to the cross he erected at the site.

Nelson Martinez walks to a spot in a field near his Roma home where, years ago, his dog found the body of an immigrant who had crossed the border illegally. Officials later identified the man, and Martinez erected a cross on the site with plastic flowers.

Untold numbers of migrants die trying to traverse unforgiving stretches of Rio Grande Valley brushland. Daniel Trevino felt compelled to help immigrants he met while leading a Youth Conservation Corps team in the area for nine years.

“We had to help people with dehydration, me doing CPR. We took two big coolers, and when people requested water, what do you do? You help,” said Trevino, 52.

If he encountered Border Patrol agents who asked whether he had seen immigrants, Trevino would answer truthfully.

Hector Escamilla, the Border Patrol commander for the Roma area, can’t condone smuggling but acknowledged it can be difficult for residents to know what to do when they encounter a migrant.

“It’s up to each individual. If I’m out there, I’m going to do what I feel is right as a person, as a Christian. We’re not going to hold someone accountable for helping someone when it’s a matter of life and limb,” he said. “But when they’re harboring, it’s a question of violating immigration law.”

An immigrant who crossed the border illegally into Roma’s De La Cruz neighborhood chased a driver who attempted to pick her up, then fled. The area is a popular “vanishing point” where migrants can quickly dash from the river to smugglers’ cars.

Some locals do smuggle, largely because of family ties and the lagging local economy, Escamilla said. Central Americans, about 80% of the immigrants his agency is catching, typically pay smugglers several hundred dollars each to sneak them into the U.S. and elude Border Patrol checkpoints spread across the Rio Grande Valley. Would-be border crossers from farther afield — China or India — can pay $10,000 or more.

“Some people make a lucrative living harboring people,” Escamilla said.

Local smugglers are a mix of professionals and novices tempted by a quick buck. Melissa Gonzalez and her husband decided to offer an immigrant a ride after seeing border crossers sprint past their Roma apartment nightly. They knew the risks. Gonzalez’s mother had been caught smuggling and was still on five years’ probation. They had seen migrants pass with face tattoos from the notorious MS-13 gang. But Gonzalez is disabled. Her husband earned a pittance as her caregiver. They needed the money.

In May, Melissa Gonzalez and her husband, Joe, were caught picking up a Mexican immigrant who had crossed the border illegally. They were jailed, and their truck was impounded.

Gonzalez also sympathized with Mexican migrants. Her twin sister, Melinda, had been maimed and killed across the river in Miguel Aleman by drug cartel hit men in 2010.

The couple charged their first customer, a Mexican man, $200. Just as he was climbing into their gray Ford Ranger pickup on May 26, the Border Patrol zoomed up. They were arrested and jailed with migrants, including some pregnant women. When they were released days later, they discovered their 7-year-old truck had been impounded. The cost of getting it back: $3,675. They couldn’t afford to pay, so they lost the truck.

After she returned home from jail, Gonzalez was accosted by three migrant men hiding behind brush in her yard. She had vowed not to smuggle again.

“Don’t call la migra,” one man said, grabbing her upper arm so hard he left marks.

Gonzalez pitied the man.

“I’m not going to call them,” she told him. “God bless you.”

In early September, one Roma resident said a friend called for help after an immigrant appeared at her house, claiming to have been abandoned by his smuggler. The resident called a neighbor she suspected of smuggling, but he said he couldn’t help — the man was beyond his territory.

“I think he ended up calling Border Patrol to pick him up,” she said.

Other Roma residents who have never smuggled say Border Patrol agents treat them with unfounded suspicion.

After an immigrant was discovered inside the Ceballos family’s gray SUV in June, the Border Patrol impounded the vehicle. Javier Ceballos, a Roma firefighter and medical equipment deliveryman, said the immigrant broke in and used the back seat as a hiding place.

No one in the Ceballos family was charged, but they still had to pay $1,900 to get the SUV back, only to find a toolbox missing. He said the Border Patrol refused to replace it. An agency spokesman would not comment on his case but said the Border Patrol followed the law on seized property.

Ceballos, 41, said he has aided immigrants in the past, and that it’s only human to want to help, especially women and children. But he insists he’s not a smuggler.

“Sometimes they ask for water and I give it to them. There are people who say, ‘No, I don’t want to get involved, go on.’ But I do it,” he said. “If they ask for a ride, that’s something different.”

Now he’s less likely to help the Border Patrol, he said, because agents “take advantage of the uniform,” intimidating residents, treating them like suspects.

“If you’re rude, I’m not going to help,” he said in Spanish. “I was born in the United States. I also have rights.… There must be mutual respect. They do not have the right to humiliate me.”

Distrust between agents and Roma residents is often mutual. The Border Patrol in Roma includes agents from the Rio Grande Valley, other parts of Texas and out of state. Most agents in Roma are men, many are Latino, but the force includes a mix of backgrounds.

Agents are careful about where they eat, worried that cooks will spit in their food. Some won’t go to bars or gyms because they fear being spied on.

Border Patrol commanders assign agents as community liaisons to visit neighborhoods, schools and officials. They created a Citizens Academy and Operation Detour, a program that warns residents about the dangers of smuggling. In 2012, they stationed an agent in a trailer in Roma to hear from residents. Few came.

“If their neighbor’s a smuggler, they might not want to be seen talking to us,” said Supervisory Agent Albert Olivares, because the smuggler “might think they’re ratting them out.”

Residents are leery of local police too. Roma officers spend so much time chasing immigrants that other agencies in the Rio Grande Valley refer to them as “Roma Border Patrol.”

Roma Police officers help Border Patrol agents search for an immigrant who crossed the border illegally and hid underneath a mobile home in Roma’s riverfront De La Cruz neighborhood.

Roma Police Chief Jose Garcia said his officers are simply responding to residents. “Sometimes we might feel like Border Patrol because we get so many of those calls,” he said, noting the National Council for Home Safety ranked Roma among the state’s 50 safest cities this year, which he credits to the presence of local, state and federal patrols.

Some residents fear that law enforcement is in league with cartels or smugglers. Jose Armando Loera — no relation to cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, he noted — lives on Roma’s riverfront. He recalled that several sheriffs in surrounding Starr County and elsewhere in south Texas have been ousted for colluding with smugglers.

“If the law comes and asks you what’s happening and you say something, they could tell someone on the other side” of the border, said Loera, 58.

In Roma’s historic downtown, Father Paul Wilhelm and his parishioners walk a delicate line helping those in distress at the aptly named Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church.

“Father Pablo,” as he is known, is a grandfatherly figure: white beard with a silver cross necklace. Wilhelm, 77, walks around barefoot and in worn jeans, gardening outside the downtown church. When young Central Americans dash past at night, they sometimes pause to request a blessing. He obliges.

Two years ago, when migrant families were packing the area, the priest negotiated with the Border Patrol and state troopers to stop chasing migrants up a saltcedar tree onto the church roof. But he said he does not shelter immigrants.

When parishioners restarted the rosary society this year, Wilhelm had one rule should they encounter migrants at the church: Call me, not the Border Patrol. In the past, a woman arriving early was startled by a migrant sleeping on a pew and called authorities, who detained him.

Left, Father Paul Wilhelm, known as “Father Pablo,” prepares for mass at Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church. Right, worshipers gather for church on Sunday.
Worshipers gather for Sunday service at Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church.
Left, Father Paul Wilhelm, known as “Father Pablo,” prepares for Sunday service at Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church. Right, worshipers gather for Sunday service.

Parishioners now want to leave the church unlocked during the day for prayers, but the priest is resisting. He worries the church will become a hiding place again. Lately, he’s noticed wet clothes discarded behind the church.

“I would love to have the church open, but those days are over,” he said.

When Wilhelm spots injured immigrants, he often contacts Thalia Munoz, who runs the county hospital and can arrange treatment without alerting the Border Patrol. But that’s not always easy.

One night a couple of years ago, a severely dehydrated Central American immigrant appeared on her porch. He said he had been lost for two days after a smuggler abandoned him.

“Where are you going?” Munoz asked.

“Why, here — Houston,” he said, unaware the city was nearly 400 miles north.

Munoz checked his pulse. It was racing. As her daughter fetched a Gatorade, sandwich and cookies, the man begged them not to call la migra.

“I’ll get better,” he promised.

Munoz considered.

“Do you know how to pray?” she asked. Yes, he said, crossing himself.

As they recited the Our Father and Hail Mary, Munoz prayed “to make the right decision.”

Afterward, she asked: “Don’t you think you need to go to the hospital? You’ll go in the ambulance. We never call immigration.”

The man agreed. Munoz alerted the hospital, assuming she had bypassed 911. But someone told police, who contacted the Border Patrol. Agents picked up the man at the hospital.

“At least he ended up getting help and he didn’t die,” Munoz said.

Most evenings, residents in one Roma riverside subdivision watch green-and-white Border Patrol trucks pass without a second glance. Retired healthcare aide Selima Cavazos blows them kisses from her patio, flirting across the chain-link fence with the clean-cut Latino and African American agents.

Mis muñecos,” she said, my dolls. “My candies, caramels and chocolates!”

Selima Cavazos waves to a passing Border Patrol agent from her front porch in Roma’s De La Cruz neighborhood.

Cavazos, 58, said she understands why Mexicans flee the homeland. She grew up a few miles across the border in Ciudad Mier, where her mother still lives, plagued by cartel shootings.

But Cavazos is also afraid of migrants. In July, agents came to her street looking for an MS-13 member. In June, she called 911, frightened, after a man knocked on her door at 3 a.m.

In August, as Cavazos sat smoking on her patio, a man dashed by toting a plastic bag and a phone. She watched him slip into an apartment complex locals believe is a stash house, a first stop for immigrants who cross the river. The Border Patrol was nowhere to be seen. Cavazos dismissed the idea of calling them. After all, she recalled, it was just one.

Special correspondent Verónica G. Cárdenas in Roma contributed to this report.

@mollyhf

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@rgaut999

robert.gauthier@latimes.com

What would you do? Tell us how you would handle the dilemma residents in Roma, Texas, face.

Credits: Produced by Sean Greene. Video by Rob Gauthier and Verónica G. Cárdenas. Video editing by Yadira Flores and Rob Gauthier. Audio: Father Paul “Pablo” Wilhelm discusses his parishioners’ willingness to help migrants.