Poignant Paper Trail From the South Texas Border

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The first thing they did after breaking in was call the Border Patrol — they got the phone number from a list of emergency contacts pinned to the bulletin board by the front door. As they waited for the agents, they showered and washed their clothes.

One of the girls removed the pins holding the phone list to the bulletin board. She turned over the piece of notebook paper and wrote a letter to the cabin’s owner. From a foreign stranger to an American one, amid a sweeping and politically charged movement of people across the border, on a slip of torn and creased paper, it was the smallest and simplest of things: an anonymous thank-you note.

“Sorry for entering your ranch but it was out of necessity because we had four days of being lost,” she wrote in Spanish, adding, “Sorry for destroying your door and for having used your belongings. If we had not arrived here we would not have been able to call Immigration. Thank you and a thousand times sorry. God bless you.”

From this vantage point on a South Texas ranch, immigration looks a lot different than it does on the news. The flow of men, women and children across the border ranchlands has been just as desperate, hopeful and horrifying as other mass migrations around the globe. The scale is smaller but no less dramatic and no less tragic.

On their journey through the Texas brush, migrants have succumbed to the heat or the cold and have died. One immigrant who had gotten lost told a 911 dispatcher he was so dehydrated he had been drinking his own urine. Women have been raped. A pregnant migrant gave birth in the bucket of a backhoe on one ranch, then continued hiking, holding her baby.

Billy Griffith, 68, who manages a ranch in South Texas, recalled the day he and a group of hunters heard what sounded like a woman crying.

“She was laying by the fence there at the house, and she was almost out of it,” said Mr. Griffith, who called the Border Patrol. “We gave her something to drink because she was dehydrated, and I got a couple granola bars and gave them to her. By the time they got out here, she had left. She had walked off, and she was gone. Then we found another lady the next day who was holding herself up with a stick.”

Ryan Weatherston, 35, the ranch foreman who looks after the Encino cabin, never learned the names of the three teenage girls who broke in. He said they were between the ages of 16 and 18. He was driving by the lodge that day when he noticed clothes drying on a fence. He turned his truck around as the girls rushed outside. They thought he was with the Border Patrol.

“They were on their way to Houston,” Mr. Weatherston said. “One of them was pregnant and just couldn’t go any farther. They’d already used the house phone to turn themselves in. They were done. They wanted some medical attention for that one girl.”

The Border Patrol agents eventually arrived and took the girls away.

Mr. Weatherston leaves the doors of the cabin unlocked now. Almost four years later, the dent on the door is still there. The bench is still on the patio. And the letter, on the back side of the phone list, is still pinned to the bulletin board.

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