Joseph Miller is flying a helicopter above West Texas – from Presidio to Alpine – when a radio operator tells him to be on the lookout for a man and a woman who are walking in and out of the bushes onto a paved road.
Miller, a Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations interdiction agent, tilts the chopper in the direction of a farm-to-market road and starts an aerial sweep of the area.
Both sides of the road are lined with enough brush for a person to hide in. Miller has to circle several times. Finding nothing, he brings down the aircraft so low that jackrabbits take off running across the vast expanse between the river and the mountains. After several minutes, he continues on his original route.
“What we’re doing is: We deny them movement enough for the ground units to catch up. If they’re here, they’ll find them,” the former Army Apache gunship pilot says.
With Alpine already visible in the distance, the radio operator again calls on Miller. This time, he’s told to be on the lookout for a silver SUV or extended-cab pickup with a tinted window that just picked up migrants along a known smuggling corridor.
Miller spots a truck possibly matching the description and follows it into the city. The driver apparently gets nervous and gets off the main road, drives in the same direction for a quarter-mile, then gets back on the road. Finally, the SUV parks near Sul Ross State University.
Miller radios ground units with agents, who close in on the truck. Within a few minutes, the operator is running the license plate of the truck and tells agents that the vehicle is registered to a man in El Paso who crossed the Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, a few days earlier.
A few minutes later, the helicopter is cleared to go back to base after the agents on the ground reported that the driver was alone and apparently not the man they sought.
“Another chopper is about to take off. We’ll leave that to them,” Miller says.
He proceeds to land the helicopter on a tiny platform in a restricted area of the Alpine airport.
“With Big Bend being as vast at it is, it’s critical to be able to cover the area effectively to apprehend those that are crossing the border illegally, those … bringing narcotics into the country and also defend our borders against terrorism. These aircraft are essential for us to cover those areas,” said David Fraembs, supervisory air interdiction agent for the Alpine Unit of AMO.
The unit makes between eight to 10 flights per week over Big Bend National Park and all the land north of a 100-mile stretch of the Rio Grande bordering the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. The Big Bend Sector of the Border Patrol is 165,000 square miles. The land is rugged and hot, becoming nearly unbearably humid after a summer rains.
The helicopters and a Cessna airplane operated by the unit help the Border Patrol track down groups of migrants who try to make a trip lasting several days on foot past highway checkpoints north of Presidio and south of Marfa in Texas. Sometimes, a police action becomes a rescue.
“When we encounter people that are crossing illegally, we apprehend them and are responsible for their welfare. We take that very seriously. We provide food and water and take them to a processing facility, where they are able to get the basic needs. … If it’s a medical need, they’re taken to a doctor or a hospital. We take their health very seriously and I don’t think that’s something that gets reported very often,” Fraembs said.
The air unit also backs up federal and local law enforcement when it comes to surveillance, public safety threats or the apprehension of fugitives. The unit’s pilots have taken off in the past in search of people who break into area ranches and steal firearms, which raises concerns that those weapons may be used in the U.S. or taken south across the border.
The helicopters and airplanes are a valuable tool to keep American border communities safe and stop the flow of drugs and migrants into the country, but they’re not a magic bullet against smugglers, federal officials say.
To get a helicopter from Alpine to the banks of the Rio Grande, for instance, takes nearly an hour. That’s why officials stress the need to always have sufficient Border Patrol agents on the ground and to be backed by the technology provided by electronic sensors and closed-circuit cameras along the border.
Roberto Dominguez, the Border Patrol agent in charge of the Big Bend Sector, said the terrain in this part of the U.S.-Mexico border is a big obstacle for smugglers. It includes sheer cliffs and stretches of land that require 12 to 14 hours on foot to cross – or more if the migrant or smuggler doesn’t know the terrain.
“When you talk about the border wall, you’re really talking about three things: the barrier, boots on the ground and the technology. You need all those three things,” Miller said.