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'There's gotta be a different way': County, state leaders say the border needs help

As the search continues for a missing Texas National Guard member, officials say it highlights the need for a new plan along the border -- including who's on patrol.

EAGLE PASS, Texas — The search for a missing Texas National Guard soldier is expected to continue Saturday, depending on conditions along the Rio Grande.

The Texas Military Department said strong waters forced search-and-rescue teams to stop dive operations Friday evening. The soldier went missing after trying to rescue migrants who were attempting to cross the river into the U.S., according to officials. 

RELATED: Texas Army National Guard soldier missing following mission-related incident

"It was a small group. He jumped in to assist a woman migrant that was having trouble in the river and they both went under the water and they did not come back up," said State Rep. Eddie Morales, of House District 74.

Morales, who has relatives in Border Patrol, was notified about the soldier around 9 a.m. Friday.

Officials with the Texas Military Department say he was in south Texas as part of Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott's year-long initiative to secure the border. His body armor, radio and cell phone were found on land.

"It's really sad. It's really, really sad to see this," said Maverick County Commissioner Rosy Cantu, of Precinct 2. "We're losing lives."

Cantu says while the river may appear calm, looks can be deceiving.

"There are some low spots that they know where they are, but you can't trust those low spots we have because the currents are raging," she explained.

The Texas Military Department, DPS and Border Patrol searched the river most of the day Friday for the soldier. The scene was closed off to investigators only.

"It's really shocking to all the citizens of Maverick County that they're seeing this," said Cantu. "Everybody is waiting to see what's going to happen. We're just hoping that this can stop."

She says the border needs help. Morales agrees.

"This is actually one of the most pressing concerns that I had," said Morales, who represents nine of 14 counties that share a border with Mexico. "It's unnecessarily exposing our law enforcement officers."

Morales believes the state needs to invest in border communities and expand ports of entry for a more orderly process. Instead of the National Guard, he proposes funding for local sheriff's departments to help patrol the border instead.

"Sheriffs and their deputies are going to be the best at knowing their communities," said Morales. 

What could also help, he added, is further postponing the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era CDC health order allowing authorities to more quickly deport migrants due to COVID-19 concerns. 

"The news that I'm receiving from elected officials in Mexico, in Piedras Negras and Acuna, is they have about 100 to 140,00 migrants just waiting for Title 42 to end, then they're going to be crossing in mass," Morales said. "We just can't have them do that through the river."

The Texas Rangers are taking the lead in the investigation.

Officials are in the process of notifying next of kin regarding the missing soldier.

"There's gotta be a different way of how to come into the U.S.," said Cantu. "We have to look at the right way to do it. Not by doing it by crossing the border and putting lives in danger. Not just on their side, but on our side, the U.S."