US Border Patrol agents grapple with sudden surge of Central American migrants

MCALLEN, Texas — Seconds after the radio crackled and the government SUVs sped into the darkness, Border Patrol agents sprinted through the brush and toward the border in an all-too-familiar pursuit of drug smugglers.

"They dropped their bundles of narcotics and went back into Mexico," said agent Marlene Castro, sounding disappointed after racing through a pitch-black clearing outside Rio Grande City. Still, on this recent night, agents would recover 66 pounds of marijuana with a street value of roughly $53,000.

But chasing drug smugglers wasn't the only thing keeping them busy.

During two days that NBC News spent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, it became clear that Castro and her colleagues were dealing with a sudden surge of families from Central America who are running toward those officials — not from them.

Scenes from the U.S.-Mexico border:

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Touching scenes from the US-Mexico border
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Touching scenes from the US-Mexico border

Martha Morales and Juan Manuel Gonzalez Camacho hug their grandaughter Aileen Gonalez and son Adrian Gonalez Morales as they are allowed to meet after a door is opened along the United States-Mexico Border wall during Opening the Door Of Hope/Abriendo La Puerta De La Esparana at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California on Saturday, November 19, 2016.

(SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Border patrol agents stand at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico border to allow Adrian Gonzalez-Morales and his daughter Aileen hug his parents Juan and Martha, as part of Universal Children's Day at the Border Field State Park, California, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

U.S. Border patrol agents stand at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico border to allow Luis Eduardo Hernandez-Bautista hug Ty'Jahnae Williams and his father Eduardo Hernandez (not in view), as part of Universal Children's Day at the Border Field State Park, California, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Family members hug during a U.S. Border Patrol sponsored visit at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The U.S. Border Patrol, in coordination with immigrant rights groups, opened the metal gate so that previously selected families could visit for several minutes.

(Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A woman in Friendship Park in San Diego, California, U.S. speaks with children across a fence separating Mexico and the United States, November 12, 2016. Picture taken from Tijuana, Mexico.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

U.S. Border patrol agents stand at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico border to allow Edith Hernandez and her daughter Yvette hug Maria Plata-Colin, as part of Universal Children's Day at Border Field State Park, California, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

People in Friendship Park in San Diego, California, U.S. are seen behind a fence separating Mexico and the United States, November 12, 2016. Picture taken from Tijuana, Mexico.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

Relatives separated by immigration hug at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico and U.S border on Universal Children's Day in Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

Relatives separated by immigration hug at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico and U.S border on Universal Children's Day in Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

Luis Hernandez hugs his Father Eduardo as they are allowed to meet after a door is opened along the United States - Mexico Border wall during Opening the Door Of Hope / Abriendo La Puerta De La Esparana at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California on Saturday, November 19, 2016.

(SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of the Gonzalez family hug each other and react as they encounter at the gate of the U.S.- Mexico border fence opened for a few minutes on November 19, 2016 in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. The door opening was organized by pro-migrants NGOs and local authorities in coordination with the United States Border Patrol.

(GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives separated by immigration hug at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico and U.S border on Universal Children's Day in Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

A U.S. Border patrol agent stands at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico border to allow Laura Avila and her daughter Laura Vera Martinez hug Maria Socorro Martinez Lopez, as part of Universal Children's Day at the Border Field State Park, California, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)

A young boy joins his family members as they hug during a U.S. Border Patrol sponsored visit at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The U.S. Border Patrol, in coordination with immigrant rights groups, opened the metal gate so that previously selected families could visit for several minutes.

(Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Relatives separated by immigration hug at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico and U.S border on Universal Children's Day in Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

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Many of the families are eager to be caught so they can apply for asylum or temporary protected status as they try to escape the violence back home.

Apprehensions on the Southwest border, along the Rio Grande, are rising. There were 46,195 in October — that was almost 20,000 more than the same month two years ago and the largest spike since the massive surge of unaccompanied minors during the summer of 2014.

Castro said the biggest difference this time around is that the Border Patrol is better equipped to deal with the influx. A new processing center has the capacity to hold 1,000 migrants at a time. In November, the federal government even sent 150 more border patrol agents to the McAllen area in the southern tip of Texas.

Wall already built along the border:

30 PHOTOS
Where the wall already exists along the US-Mexico border
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Where the wall already exists along the US-Mexico border
A gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence is seen outside Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
U.S. customs and border patrol officers inspect a vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
U.S. customs and border patrol officers inspect a vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Men talk on a street in the town of Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A U.S. customs and border patrol officer stands at a border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Recent arrivals from Mexico wait to board a greyhound bus in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Highway 82 towards Douglas, Arizona is seen near Sonoita, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Clouds float above the border towns of Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A sign warning drivers that firearms and ammunition are prohibited in Mexico is seen at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Buildings in Nogales, Mexico (R) are separated by a border fence from Nogales, Arizona, United Sates, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An abandoned car sits off the side of a road near Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A worker makes his way through the water after setting up an irrigation system on an agricultural field, near Calexico, California, U.S. October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An abandoned car sits off the side of a road near Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A church at the Museum of History in Granite is seen in Felicity, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A man drives a tractor plowing a field at sunrise near Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Residential homes are seen next to the fence that borders Mexico, in Douglas, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Pedestrians wait to cross the street in Calexico, California, Unites States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The town of Bisbee is seen in Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Pedestrians make their way into the the United States from Mexico at the pedestrian border in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A roadside collection of alien dolls and toy UFO saucers is seen next to a roadside residence neat Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A road abruptly ends next to a sign for a cattle ranch near Douglas, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A boy rides an all-terrain vehicle next Mexican border along the Buttercup San Dunes in California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An old refurbished gas station is seen in Lowell, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A man rides a tricycle past a grocery store in a town that borders Mexico, in San Luis Butter, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A U.S. customs and border patrol truck drives past the fence that marks the border between U.S. and Mexico, in Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A truck drives west towards California along highway 8 near Gila Bend, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Electronic items are displayed in a shop window in Calexico, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A residential home is seen in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A fence separates the border towns of Nogales, Mexico (R) and Nogales, Arizona, United Sates, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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"Some people sell everything they own to make the trip over here," Castro said. "They run the risk — the women, of getting raped; the men, of being robbed — and they still come over here."

And if the flow seems never-ending, so does the debate over how best to secure the border.

Related: Most Americans Don't Want Undocumented Immigrants to Leave, Poll Says

During the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Donald Trump promised to build a "big, beautiful" wall to stop the flow of immigrants crossing the border illegally.

He referred to some of the Mexicans coming into the country as "rapists" and in a testy exchange during one presidential debate, he called some of the migrants "bad hombres" who should not be here.

Since winning the election, Trump has said he would begin to tackle the issue bydeporting 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records, although he has not offered specifics on how that would happen.

In Texas, spending over border security has become increasingly controversial. Extra troopers who assist the Border Patrol are reportedly costing taxpayers $800 million during the current two-year budget, and the Texas Department of Public Safety is asking for another $1.1 billion to expand the border security effort.

Scenes from the northern border:

19 PHOTOS
US-Canadian border and border patrol
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US-Canadian border and border patrol
NIAGARA FALLS, NY - JUNE 04: The Rainbow Bridge crosses from the United States (L), into Canada near the Niagara Falls on June 4, 2013 at Niagara Falls, New York. The falls, which have a combined highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, straddle the U.S.-Canada border, on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The falls, visited by millions of tourists on each side of the border, are also a major source of hydroelectric power for the region. The aerial view was seen from a helicopter flown by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, (OAM), which monitors and patrols the U.S. northern border with Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
LAKE METIGOSHE, ND - SEPTEMBER 8: A sign warns about the potential consequences of illegal entry into the United States or Canada on September 8, 2006 at Lake Metigoshe, North Dakota. The lake lies on the border between the two nations. (Photo by: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
COLUMBIA VALLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - JUNE 18: Obelisks mark the border between the United States and Canada in Columbia Valley, British Columbia, Canada, on June 18, 2006. (Photo by: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
BLACK ROCK, NY - JUNE 04: U.S. Border Patrol agent John Stanko walks along a rail bridge connecting the U.S. with Canada on June 4, 2013 near Black Rock, New York. U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor the bridge for undocumented immigrants trying to cross either into or out of the United States illegally on the bridge. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
August 1, 2008 - CHAMPLAIN, NEW YORK - The fence which marks the property line, and the property line of a house on the Canadian side, also represents the international border. The Canada-US border where New York and Vermont meet with Quebec, is part of the northern frontier for US Border Patrol agents. Increased staffing and increased budgets have led to better enforcement across the region. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: U.S. Border Patrol agents check passenger identifications aboard an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York City on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks passenger identifications aboard an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York City on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: U.S. Border Patrol agents check passenger identifications at a train station on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross border traffic along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
August 1, 2008 - CHAMPLAIN, NEW YORK - The Bush Road (must check proper name), looking back to the US from the Canadian side of the fence. Formerly a valid entry point to the US, with an agricultural inspection centre, it is no longer in use and monitored. The Canada-US border where New York and Vermont meet with Quebec, is part of the northern frontier for US Border Patrol agents. Increased staffing and increased budgets have led to better enforcement across the region. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LEWISTON, NY - JUNE 04: The Niagara River emerges from the Niagara Gorge on June 4, 2013 at Lewiston, New York. The river forms the border between the United States (L), and Canada and drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The river is a major source of hydroelectric power for the region. The aerial view was seen from a helicopter flown by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, (OAM), which monitors and patrols the U.S. northern border with Canana. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
SWEETGRASS, MONTANA-March 3, 2005-This border marker sits on a gravel road that goes between Montana and Alberta, Canada. It is between the border crossing of Sweetgrass, MT to Coutts, Alberta and Whitlash, MT. to Aden, Alberta, Canada (THE DENVER POST PHOTO BY LYN ALWEIS) NOTE: WE MAY NOT WANT TO TELL WHERE THESE ROADS ARE (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 03: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks over Lake Erie near the U.S.-Canada border on June 3, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, monitors the 5,525 mile long border, including Alaska, forming the longest international border between two countries in the world. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Oroville, Washington-March 2, 2005- Richard M. Graham, Jr. steps out of his truck on the U.S. side of the border. The Border Patrol know that people have entered the U.S. in this area because they can see footprints in the snow. The border betweeen the U.S. and Canada can be seen behind him as a rancher's fence caught snow and held it there on the Canadian side. (THE DENVER POST PHOTO BY LYN ALWEIS) Yes, that is the border up on those hills. (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NORTON, VT - MARCH 22: U.S. Border Patrol Agents Paul Mulcahy (L) and Andrew Mayer ride snowmobiles as they look for signs of illegal aliens as they cross a frozen lake that is split between the Canadian territory to the right and the U.S. March 22, 2006 near Norton, Vermont. As American politicians continue to debate immigration reform, Border Patrol agents work the northern border to prevent illegal entry. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
BEECHER FALLS, VT - MARCH 23: A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands along the boundary marker cut into the forest marking the line between Canadian territory on the right and the United States March 23, 2006 near Beecher Falls, Vermont. As American politicians continue to debate immigration reform, Border Patrol agents work the northern border to prevent illegal entry. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SUMAS, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - JUNE 18: Canada is on the left side of the ditch and the United States is on the right near Sumas, British Columbia, Canada, on June 18, 2006. The road is under video surveillance and Border Patrol agents make frequent passes on the roadway. The amount of traffic on the Canadian roadway is much greater. (Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
NIAGARA FALLS, NY - OCTOBER 18: On a windy day, mist partially obscures the huge waterfalls and creates a rainbow, on October 18, 2013 in Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the United States. The combined falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, with a vertical drop of more than 165 feet. The falls are renowned both for their beauty - drawing tourists from around the world - and as a valuable source of hydroelectric power. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
BLACK ROCK, NY - JUNE 03: A U.S. Border Patrol boat patrols the Niagara River forming the U.S.-Canada border on June 3, 2013 near Black Rock, New York. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, monitors the 5,525 mile long border, including Alaska, forming the longest international border between two countries in the world. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Related: Surge in Children, Families at the U.S. Border May Be the 'New Normal'

Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla told NBC News that a brick-and-mortar wall is only part of the answer.

"I never look at one singular solution to a very complex problem," he said. The solution "includes aircraft, it includes technology, and in some places, the fence is absolutely necessary."

A 3-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy stand at the feet of their mothers, who say they made the long journey to the U.S. from El Salvador. David Douglas / NBC News

At the Sacred Heart Church, Sister Norma Pimentel and her volunteers are helping more than 300 migrants a day. Many of them wear ankle monitors as they await immigration court hearings.

She said a wall wouldn't address the root cause of the influx: violence and poverty in Central America.

"There's no justification to send back people that are hurting that more than likely will end up getting killed back home," Pimentel said.

Francisca Cecilia brought her 5-year-old son, Christopher, on a harrowing three-week journey from El Salvador after she said a street gang murdered her nephew.

Choking back tears, she described to NBC News in Spanish how she was hoping to stay in the United States despite having illegally crossed the border.

"We're all human," she said.

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