‘The Crisis Is In Washington’: Overwhelmed border officials urge D.C. to act

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Here, at the southernmost tip of Texas, tucked along the Gulf Coast and bumping along the Rio Grande, this border town of about 185,000 residents is accustomed to welcoming three groups of people: Mexican shoppers, spring breakers — and migrants.

But college students are flying into the airport here, ready to party on the beaches of neighboring South Padre Island. And now, as the immigration debate intensifies on Capitol Hill, this city is seeing an influx of migrants, many from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. Many are landing here after days and weeks of travel on buses and by foot — showing up at the border crossing Brownsville shares with Matamoros, Mexico, hoping to connect with their families elsewhere in the United States.

Local officials and community leaders along the border say their main message to Washington is: Less politics, more actual change. So far this time, they say, they’ve managed to hold chaos at bay. But they worry the situation is getting out of control as the number of migrants swells and conditions worsen accordingly at U.S. Border Patrol facilities. They insist it’s way past time for leaders in Washington to come up with long-term solutions that will help create better conditions in the migrants’ home countries and allow those that still want to come to the U.S. to enter via a smooth and fair process.

“There’s no question Donald Trump’s strategy was inhumane, brutal and un-American,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), who represents a border district. “But what we’re doing now is also a failure.”

Officials and community leaders along the border also say there’s one key detail missing in the debate: These are human beings that politicians are arguing about.

On an early Friday morning, Guatemalan asylum-seeker Marlen Reyes sat at the downtown bus station with her 8-year-old daughter, Meylin, and 5-year-old son, Freddy, parked next to a small flowered backpack and two plastic bags filled with water, juice and snacks. Just two blocks away looms a bridge linking the U.S. to Mexico, where Americans can pay a dollar in coins to cross over to Mexico by foot. The surrounding area is marked by its border status with duty free stores, a flea market and outlets selling everything from sunglasses to party supplies in the streets leading up to the bridge.

But Reyes wasn’t thinking about her proximity to Mexico. The 33-year-old mother of two was thinking about how close she and her children were to reaching Miami, where she planned to stay with her mother, a U.S. resident for the past 15 years, until her case is finally heard. That could take months — even years.

Ask her why she made the 16-day trek from her home country to the U.S. and Reyes doesn’t hesitate in her answer: the violence. The threats from local gang members to kidnap and kill her children.

Like Reyes, thousands of parents, most of them hailing from Central America and Mexico, are making the trip north with their small children in hopes they’ll be welcomed by the Biden administration — and praying they won’t get kicked out like most migrants. But so far, their reception at the border is often contradictory and confusing. That’s partly because the U.S. government’s capacity to handle the influx of migrants is limited — and partly because Mexico isn’t always willing or able to receive them.

That means some families are allowed to stay, while others are forced to leave.

Here and in other Texas border towns, local officials and non-profit leaders aren’t interested in debating whether or not they’re facing a “crisis” at the border. To them, it’s not a crisis. Yet. They’re focused on the day-to-day challenges: getting the migrants released in the U.S. fed, clothed, tested for coronavirus — and moving to their final destination as quickly as possible.

Still, their efforts are overshadowed by the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Austin, where Republican leaders and lawmakers are calling what’s happening at the border a “crisis” and a “superspreader event,” blaming President Joe Biden for what they see as mishandled policy and messaging.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week summed up the Republican position: “The Administration can’t admit they’ve caused a crisis; they have yet to address the crisis; and House Democrats are backing policies that would only exacerbate the wrong incentive.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats say the new administration is working hard and they’re giving it breathing room to tackle challenges — such as where to shelter and how to quickly process the thousands of unaccompanied children and teenagers arriving at the border each day. Others, including a mix of progressives and moderates, insist Biden is moving too slowly and doesn’t grasp the severity of the situation — even though they don’t agree on a solution.

Officially, the border is closed to families. On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, himself an immigrant, told lawmakers that “families who are apprehended at the border are also immediately expelled under the same public health authority unless we confront at times a limitation on Mexico’s capacity to receive them.”

But in February, more than 11,000 “family units” — nearly 60 percent of the more than 19,000 that were taken into custody at the border — were allowed to stay in the U.S. while they await their court proceedings, according to CBP statistics. That’s up from only 38 percent that were allowed to stay, temporarily, in January.

Biden’s critics say his messaging is squarely to blame for the thousands of migrants coming now: But more than half a dozen asylum-seekers interviewed by POLITICO said they would make the trek regardless of who was in the White House. Some of their reasons: lack of job opportunities, concern for the safety of their family and devastation from last year’s back-to-back hurricanes that walloped parts of Central America.

For Reyes, the decision came after she received threats that Meylin and Freddy would be kidnapped and killed if she didn’t pay a fee to keep them safe. She said she knew the threats were real because her husband’s friend recently was kidnapped, tortured and killed even though his family paid the ransom. (Reyes did not discuss her husband’s whereabouts.)

“For my children, I am capable of doing anything,” Reyes said as she combed Meylin’s long, straight black hair into a ponytail.

Later, while Meylin played with a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle and Freddy jumped around with his Spiderman action figure, Reyes recounted through tears how she tried to file a formal complaint with police in her hometown of Escuintla. But officers told her there was nothing they could do.

“Given what happened, I would have found a way to come no matter what,” Reyes said as she sat among about 20 parents with small children who, like her, were dropped off by CBP at the bus station that morning.

In her gray crossbody purse, Reyes kept a copy of the complaint she tried to file with police. She stored a copy on her phone, too, just in case. And she saved recordings of the calls threatening her children’s lives in hopes a U.S. judge will grant them asylum.

The odds are not in her favor. In fiscal 2020, more than 70 percent of asylum claims were denied, according to the research center Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. From Guatemala, specifically, less than 15 percent of those seeking asylum succeeded.

Reyes knows her chances are bleak. But, she said, she is holding onto hope: “God doesn’t forsake us.”

A call to stop making it political

More than 100,000 migrants were apprehended or turned themselves over to officials at the border in February, a 28 percent increase from January, according to CBP statistics. Of those, the majority were almost immediately booted out under a public health authority former President Donald Trump invoked in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. And a chunk of those migrants, according to CBP, are repeat crossers who’ve tried multiple times to enter the country illegally.

Those numbers are on track to be even higher in March and the coming months. And Biden officials acknowledge that. Mayorkas last week warned that the U.S. is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

It’s also clear that the number of migrants crossing — including unaccompanied minors — has increased sharply with the start of the Biden administration. As of Thursday, 4,500 unaccompanied minors are being held in Border Patrol facilities — and more than 9,500 are staying in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services as they wait to be matched with a vetted sponsor, an administration official said in a press briefing.

Democrats and immigrant advocates say this spike in arrivals is the result of four years of Trump’s attempts to seal off the border and dismantle the U.S. asylum system. Republicans blame the run-up on Biden, who they argue is effectively encouraging migrants to come by undoing Trump-era policies.

The reality is: This isn’t the first surge of migrants arriving at the border. It happened in 2019 under Trump. It also happened in 2014 under former President Barack Obama.

That’s why local officials and community leaders are saying that, for now, they can handle the influx. They’ve been preparing for months. But, they say their willingness to help the migrants shouldn’t detract from the urgency to move quickly. Federal government-run centers dedicated to processing migrant arrivals are overwhelmed. On average, children are being held by Border Patrol well over the legal limit of 72 hours. And there isn’t enough shelter space for unaccompanied minors.

“The crisis is in Washington because it’s the third administration that can’t solve it,” said Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, Texas, a small city 60 miles west of Brownsville. “The only thing that could stop families is legislation and actually doing the work to help Central America — and that’s not happening.”

Many of the families flocking here stop through McAllen, which, like Brownsville, is in the Rio Grande Valley — the region on the southeast side of the border, dotted with towns accustomed to migrant arrivals. In McAllen, a city of about 140,000 people, a local NGO, the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, tests migrants for Covid-19, shelters them and helps coordinate their travel logistics.

Sister Norma Pimentel, the group’s executive director, said the narrative that “this is a crisis and it’s caused by this administration” is wrong. “It’s caused by the fact that nobody has ever done something to address it before and that’s why we still have the situation,” she said.

Not everyone in McAllen agrees with Darling and Pimentel. McAllen is a heavily Latino town, but that certainly doesn’t mean they’re all liberals or support Biden’s vision for immigration. Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located, was one of the predominantly-Latino counties in South Texas where Trump saw his biggest improvement in the 2020 election. Still, Biden won the county by 17 percent.

In the early afternoon on a sweaty, sunny Saturday, about a dozen protestors — most of them Latino, some donning Trump 2020 gear — stood outside white tents set up to test migrants for the coronavirus. They waved the American and Texas flags and talked about how Biden was to blame for the “flood of illegals bringing in Covid.”

“We need to take care of people in America first,” said Celia Segovia, one of the protestors, who wore a red t-shirt that read “Blood type A: American.”

“It’s not fair to the ones coming. And it’s not fair to us.”

‘Decisions are made on the ground’

On an early Saturday morning, several CBP trucks and SUVs were lined up on the side of a highway in La Joya, Texas, a small town of about 4,000 people just 20 miles west of McAllen. Minutes later, there were local police officers and a Texas state officer, too.

The scene: Nine migrants— eight men and one woman — were caught walking through the brush not far from the Rio Grande. First, CBP agents apprehended seven of the migrants, who came only with the clothes they were wearing and a couple gallons of water. A few minutes later, another agent appeared, escorting the other two migrants handcuffed together.

The migrants sat, heads down, looking defeated. CBP officers handed them blue surgical face masks, then ordered them to take off their shoe laces, belts, hats — and gave them plastic bags to place everything in their pockets. Then they patted them down. Shortly after, they divided the group up, putting them into different trucks before driving away.

Soon, the migrants will likely be back in Mexico. Current U.S. policy is to expel everyone but unaccompanied minors. In some cases, families with small children are allowed to stay.

For weeks now, many migrant families — typically a parent with a small child — crossing the border into the Rio Grande Valley area are being processed quickly by CBP and then released in McAllen or Brownsville.

But “in order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible,” a CBP spokesperson said, the agency has begun to send some of the families on a three-hour bus ride to Laredo. Or they put them on a plane to El Paso, a city at the westernmost point of Texas, according to the spokesperson.

When a family arrives at the border today, where and when they are processed by CBP varies. Some are processed — which includes a criminal background check and health screening — in makeshift centers near ports of entry or in areas where there is heavy migrant traffic. Others are taken to formal processing centers. Or they’re transported to another city for processing. The goal, right now, officials say, is for CBP to either expel them or release them in the U.S. in order to quickly make room for other arriving migrants.

The CBP spokesperson told POLITICO that the fates of the families are “evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” The spokesperson, who did not want to be identified, wouldn’t elaborate on what criteria was used to determine who gets to stay — and who must leave.

In El Paso, community leaders were alarmed to discover migrant families sent to their city from the Rio Grande Valley are often kicked out, hundreds of miles from where they were first apprehended, news first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

Ruben Garcia was one of those community leaders raising the alarm. He operates Annunciation House in El Paso, one of the nation’s largest shelter networks for migrants and refugees. Currently, one of his “hospitality centers” — a repurposed warehouse set up with cots, a Covid testing room and colorful murals throughout — is able to house upward of 180 migrants with social distancing. And he’s setting up another area of the center with cots that would allow him to welcome closer to 400 migrants.

Families dropped off by CBP at the center typically spend 24 to 96 hours there while arrangements are made for their travel to other parts of the country. But, Garcia said, earlier this month, just days after CBP announced it was sending flights of migrant families over to El Paso — many of whom would enter his shelters — he discovered that “a very real percentage of them” are being expelled back to Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s sister city in Mexico.

“Once you allow these people to enter you don’t fly them to another city and then expel them there,” Garcia said. “I have a real problem with that.”

Over in McAllen, Pimentel said the issue, as she understands it, is this: CBP officials stationed along the Rio Grande Valley are overwhelmed by the influx of migrants seeking sanctuary. So, rather than processing them there, where there isn’t capacity, CBP sends them to El Paso and Laredo.

But what happens after they’re processed varies. All migrant families are supposed to be expelled, according to current U.S. policy. But local officials say Mexico is now refusing to accept families with children under the age of 6 at certain parts of the border, which means they end up being released into the U.S. anyway. However, Reuters reported on Friday that even families with young children are being expelled after they’re flown to El Paso.

On Thursday, an administration official told reporters on a call that “decisions are made on the ground at the time based on a whole variety of circumstances.”

“We do continue to expel families but there are certain limitations in terms of Mexico’s capacity at certain times and in certain areas. There have been instances when they have been unable to accept families with children of tender years,” the administration official said.

But that information isn’t reaching most migrants making the trip. Several of the parents POLITICO spoke to said the word in their communities was that unaccompanied minors, as well as families with young children, were allowed to stay in the U.S.

That’s why, in February, Delmy Suyapa Galdamez left Honduras with her 2-and-a-half-year old daughter Evelyn, heading for the border. After a month-long trek via buses and by foot, Suyapa found herself stuck at the Brownsville bus station, toddler in tow, waiting for details about how she would reach her final destination: Her sister-in-law’s house in Louisiana.

“I always would have done this because I wanted an opportunity to help my family,” she said.

But recent events compelled her to act. Life back home had become untenable. She lost everything in last year’s hurricanes. And last month, her nephew was murdered.

Suyapa said her goal is to find a job. She hopes she can settle in the U.S., so she can help her daughter get ahead and, one day, buy a small home. With all her immediate family still in Honduras, she said she really wants to send money back there to help them.

“With the help of God, we can move forward. And while it’s very hard,” she said, “there’s nothing else I could do.”

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