KINGSVILLE — King Ranch is so iconic that it gets regular nods from the television hit “Yellowstone.”
“Look at the King Ranch down in Texas …” patriarch John Dutton says in one episode. “They made such a name for themselves you can buy a damn truck with their brand on the seat.”
And that’s true; the King Ranch line of Ford trucks are some of the company’s best sellers. The Running W brand lends Western authenticity to any number of products.
But King Ranch is in trouble, and it’s not from drought or cattle prices. The sprawling South Texas ranch is being overrun with migrants traveling up from the U.S. border to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and other points north. If King Ranch is in trouble, Texas is in trouble.
On a recent tour of the Rio Grande Valley, the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Border Security Coalition learned of the sprawling ranch’s new challenges. They range from migrants traveling through the property on foot—often with fatal consequences, in a land that was once known as the Wild Horse Desert for its inhospitality, to cars, trucks and vans attempting to evade law enforcement by driving through fences, gates and even bar ditches. Sometimes, the heat from their catalytic converters causes brush fires—fires that can quickly spread.
Then there are the bailouts, as they’re known—the men and women who wreck their vehicles in their flight or get bogged down in the brush, cacti and nearly impassible mesquite trees. If they’re able, they attempt to flee on foot. They don’t get far—if they’re lucky. Being found quickly by King Ranch security or any local constable or sheriff personnel at least means they stand a chance of surviving. Far too many are recovered only after they’ve succumbed to the heat. King Ranch workers—who are still known, as they were in the 1830s, as los kineños—regularly find corpses, though sometimes they’re merely skeletons.
One division of the ranch is almost entirely within Brooks County—the South Texas county with the highest number of migrant deaths. Last November, Sheriff Benny Martinez reported 108 corpses had been found in Brooks County scrublands in 2021 alone—not including 10 migrants who died in a car wreck.
Mr. Martinez says that human traffickers push migrants beyond their physical limits; when they fall behind, they’re simply left.
“They get left behind because they get injured, etc. and they just they perish out there by themselves,” the sheriff explained. “You know you’re dying. You’re dying by yourself.”
This aspect of the border crisis gets far too little attention. Too often our focus is on the huge number of migrants who arrive with clear instructions on how to cross the border and turn themselves in, and make a claim for asylum. These are the family units, and often the unaccompanied minors, who are quickly processed and then sent into the interior of the U.S.
And that inattention is the point, really. Mexican drug cartels send waves of fake asylum seekers across the border, usually near checkpoints and known concentrations of border patrol agents, in an effort to tie up CBP resources. The swamped agents have no time to patrol the arid and bereft regions of the Rio Grande Valley. So that’s where the cartels move drugs, weapons, cash and criminals. This is where they intersect—often disastrously—with King Ranch.
Because major north-south roadways such as U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 bisect the massive ranch, migrants and their smugglers treat it as a thoroughfare. That explains the high-speed chases, the gate-crashing and the other damage to property.
Ranch managers are already bracing for the repeal of Title 42, one of the few measures in place at the border that helps stem the tide of illegal immigration. Even growing ranks of Democratic lawmakers are challenging the Biden administration’s plan for repeal, which is expected to cause a massive spike in border crossings.
On the Paramount network’s “Yellowstone,” the Dutton family faces increasing threats to their fictional ranch—and their iconic way of life. That’s true of the factual King Ranch, as well. Since its founding in 1852, the Texas icon has weathered droughts, wars, booms and busts.
This new threat, however, is of a different sort entirely. Like most in the Rio Grande Valley, King Ranch workers don’t see migrants as the villains in the piece; they’re victims, too. It’s the ruthless Mexican drug cartels—and the Biden administration’s feckless border policies—that are causing all the trouble. Until those are cleaned up, the King Ranch and the rest of South Texas will just have to persevere—as it has for more than a century and a half.
• Ken Oliver is Senior Director of Engagement and Right on Immigration for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.