Trafficking at Border Strains Texas County

Screen grab of the YouTube video | Image by YouTube

A social media boast by alleged human traffickers has put a sparsely populated West Texas county in the spotlight after inadvertently alerting law enforcement to their operation.

The YouTube video in question, framed somewhat like a promotion, reportedly shows unlawful migrants emerging from some bushes roughly five miles north of Sanderson in Terrell County. They get into a pickup truck and later appear inside what looks like a safe house at an undisclosed location.

Terrell County Sheriff Thad Cleveland called the place where the migrants were recovered a “lay-up spot.”

Cleveland spoke with The Dallas Express about the incident and some of the unique challenges his county faces in light of the ongoing crisis at the southern border.

He said the discovery of the lay-up spot was “nothing really unusual” in Terrell County, where he and a handful of deputies are responsible for serving a 2,300-square-mile county of roughly 700 people that shares a 54-mile border with Mexico.

Cleveland, a decades-long veteran U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agent who assumed the duties of Terrell County sheriff after the previous sheriff passed away in March 2022, said that an agent at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Sanderson Station had recognized the lay-up spot on the video.

The sheriff’s office collaborated with USBP agents to effectively stage a sting at the lay-up spot, pulling up in a truck at night and honking to signal to any unlawful migrants hiding in the brush that it was time to get picked up.

Five migrants appeared and hopped into the back of the truck, unknowingly placing themselves in custody.

Cleveland told The Dallas Express that the border situation looks a bit different in Terrell County compared to other border communities, where there are many people from Central America surrendering to border agents claiming asylum, sometimes entire family units.

“Here they want to abscond and cross over undetected. Almost all Mexican. They’re mainly adult men, occasionally women, and some minors, usually accompanied,” he said, noting that many were from Guerrero.

Cleveland explained that the Terrell County border has become a routine crossing point for Mexicans looking to travel to Santa Maria, California, to work in the strawberry fields.

“If you look at a package of strawberries and it says ‘picked in Santa Maria, California,’ the person who picked them probably crossed through Terrell,” Cleveland said.

He went on to say the border crisis has put a strain on his office’s resources since so much time has to be spent managing the high traffic of unlawful migrants.

Cleveland told The Dallas Express about a time when he and a deputy were busy helping USBP agents find a truck-load of unlawful migrants who had absconded from a vehicle.

“There was an event in town where a fight broke out, and we didn’t have anyone available to respond,” he said. An off-duty deputy had to be called at home to get someone to the scene of the brawl.

More recently, a semi-truck got into a wreck within Terrell County, on its eastern border with Val Verde County. No one from Cleveland’s office could respond because they were tied up assisting USBP.

“A Val Verde County deputy, a Border Patrol agent, and a DPS trooper responded until my partner could get back in town and respond,” he said. “These instances happen often. The calls we can’t respond to immediately may not be dire, but they are important to someone and us as well.”

However, Cleveland noted that things had gotten a bit better since he wrote Gov. Greg Abbott, requesting that the state detail additional law enforcement officers to help with border patrol duties in Terrell County under Operation Lone Star.

The governor dispatched troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety and other personnel, which Cleveland said has been a big help, allowing the sheriff and his office to attend to other essential duties.

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