Bulletin writer Annmarie Timmins is reporting from Eagle Pass, Texas, in collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio, while shadowing the 15 National Guard soldiers sent by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to assist with border patrol. You can find her reporting at New Hampshire Bulletin and NHPR, both on air and online.

New Hampshire National Guard Lt. Ryan Camp looked through the border fence separating Texas and Mexico, and made a mental note of the pickup truck crawling back and forth along the bank of the Rio Grande. He logged the man fishing and the person he could hear but not see walking through the brush below the fence.

Camp’s list of events can grow long by the end of a 10-hour shift.

That’s the kind of vigilance, he said, that left his unit prepared to spot a group of migrants crossing the river in darkness Wednesday night. Soldiers intercepted the foursome after they cut the fence and slipped under.

“You have to pay attention and be observant of what’s happening not only in front of you at the anti-climb barrier, but what’s happening in the river, and what’s happening on the opposite bank,” Camp said during a patrol last week. “Every encounter we have on the border is different, and we have to adapt every night to every scenario.”

Gov. Chris Sununu deployed 15 National Guard soldiers to Eagle Pass, Texas, in early April to help that state stop undocumented migrants and drugs from coming into the country illegally. The New Hampshire soldiers pair with Guard members from Texas and Louisiana, patrolling 1 1/2 miles of Texas’ 1,250-mile border overnight. Camp said they encounter about 50 migrants a night on average, a huge drop from the 5,000 who were arriving in December.

Their orders allow them to do three things: report suspicious or illegal activity to Texas authorities; direct migrants to a legal port of entry; and aid migrants only amid danger to their “life, limb, or eyes.”

They cannot arrest or detain migrants. They cannot even give them water.

Pfc. Dennis Harris, 42, of Freedom, was keeping watch from atop a Humvee last week.

“It’s more of a safety aspect both for the people that are trying to cross and for the people that are here in the States,” he said. “Because, yes, some people that are crossing are obviously family members but there’s also other individuals who are crossing that we probably don’t want living next door.”

Logistically and emotionally challenging

The soldiers’ mission, which will keep them in Texas until early June, is likely more logistically and emotionally complicated than it looks from afar. It can be frustrating, they said, to watch a situation unfold and be so limited in responding.

That includes waiting for a person to cut or climb over a fence before calling in Texas authorities and saying no to someone asking for water.

Some migrants ask the soldiers to admit them because they fear for their safety at home. Some appear with young children. They risk drowning in the Rio Grande to get that far. Some spend hours looking for a spot out of the soldiers’ sight to cut the fence and slip under. Last week a woman and two men slept two nights against the fence, asking the soldiers to let them in. Camp, who like the other New Hampshire soldiers does not speak Spanish, used Google Translate to communicate with them.

“She was saying that she would rather be imprisoned here than in Mexico and that Mexico was dangerous,” Camp, 26, of Brookfield, said.

Camp recounted a man approaching the fence carrying a toddler in his backpack, through coils of wire with sharp barbs that can quickly shred a pack.

Last week, a group of migrants found an opportunity to climb over the fence unnoticed and cleared a second fence about 200 yards away. To protect themselves against the sharp wire, they drape it with clothes or blankets. Sometimes they light the material on fire to melt the wire.

When troops noticed the migrants fleeing, Sgt. Timothy King, 26, of Fremont, said they responded the only way their orders allow them to: call authorities who have the power to take migrants into custody — if they find them.

“I’ve seen instances where (migrants) will sit in the brush for probably up to nine or 10 hours,” King said. “They are determined. They will just go out there and just take a nap and … wait until the search gets called off and they can get through.”

Soldiers from other states have seen individuals leave infants at the fence and return to Mexico, waiting to see if the authorities take the child into the United States. If they don’t, they swim across the river again and collect the child.

Guard members from another state saw a woman give birth at the fence. In that case, soldiers responded because the life of the mother and child were at risk.

“You do everything you can to make sure that if something goes wrong, you can save them,” Camp said. “But until then you have to do your job.”

He said those experiences take a toll on soldiers. The unit was given resources for mental health treatment when they arrived. Camp and another troop leader, Sgt. 1st Class Cameron Holt-Corti of North Berwick, Maine, watch their soldiers for signs they are struggling and help them seek treatment.

“Our job is simple to describe, but there is nothing simple about it,” Camp said.

According to media reports last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said 14 of its agents had died by suicide in 2022, the highest count in a single year since it began tracking suicides in 2007.

There are no days off

At the start of his 7 p.m. shift, Holt-Corti, 34, stepped aside, his cell phone to his ear. He was wishing his three children goodnight.

“You miss them, and it’s rough on them,” he said. “I’ve talked to them every day.”

Each of the 15 Guard members, whose ages range from 19 to 42, left something behind when they volunteered for this mission.

Harris, who also has children, works in construction. Holt-Corti is the director of safety at a welding company. Camp works at Sig Sauer’s testing range and looks after his parents. One soldier is trying to keep up with college courses.

“You have to make sure that you’re talking with your work, you’re talking to your professors,” Camp said. “One of the things that can be hard for people is the world doesn’t stop while you’re gone. So you’ll come back and things are different. And you end up playing catch up.”

They are staying an hour from Eagle Pass, in Base Camp Alpha, in Del Rio, a commute that stretches their 10-hour shift to 12 hours. They’ve got a gym and a chow hall that serves a lot of shrimp. They cannot have alcohol on or off duty. Some have to get around in a minivan because the car rental agency had nothing else.

Soldiers work three nights, followed by three days off. But “off” is a misnomer because they use those days to keep their service pistol in working order and keep up with training.

“That’s the Army as a whole,” Camp said. “When you have a day off, in reality, you don’t really have a day off. You have a calmer day.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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