The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Momentary border reprieve rests on a rickety foundation, as U.S. immigration policies are put to the test

A children's art station sits empty at the Casa del Refugiado in El Paso on Thursday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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EL PASO — The dirt lot beneath the border bridge here is a parking area again, not an outdoor jail. When the Border Patrol station next door had 2,000 detainees spilling out of its cells this spring, families slept on the ground beneath the overpass in a razor-wire enclosure.

On Friday, the station had six. Cells that were standing room only now stand empty.

Down the highway at the Clint border station, where 700 minors were crammed in appalling conditions six weeks ago, about two dozen children remain, outnumbered by agents and contractors.

In the weeks since President Trump arm-twisted Mexico into starting an immigration crackdown, the extraordinary migration wave that built up through the spring has been disrupted. Arrests along the border fell 28 percent in June and have continued dropping this month.

Nowhere has the shift been as abrupt as in El Paso. This past week, the number of migrants in U.S. Border Patrol custody there dropped to 300, down from nearly 5,300 in May. At another border station where emergency tents were set up in May with capacity for 500, there were 45 in custody last week.

Border arrests drop as Mexico’s migration crackdown appears to cut crossings

“It’s a far cry from where we were a few months ago,” said Chris Clem, the Border Patrol’s deputy chief here, taking a group of reporters into parking lots that were squalid camps a few months earlier. He was visibly relieved. “We’re going to take some deep breaths and take advantage of the lull to evaluate what we can improve.”

But the decline has been uneven. Across the state in the lower Rio Grande Valley, the busiest place along the border, crisis levels remain. Hundreds of men were packed in a reeking garage at the station in McAllen, Tex., this past week, and the converted warehouse nearby where families are held in chain-link pens remains badly overcrowded.

Vice President Pence visited the valley with Republican senators Friday, touring a spacious new tent facility where families told him they were treated well. He also veered into a pestilent garage where 384 men were packed into a sweaty, fenced enclosure, several telling reporters that they could not shower and had been stranded for weeks.

“This is tough stuff,” Pence said. “That’s the overwhelming of the system that some in Congress have said was a manufactured crisis.”

Pence’s border visit underscores how the momentary reprieve in border crossings rests on a rickety foundation.

Health and Human Services officials say their youth holding facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex., aims to move children out of border patrol custody swiftly. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The underlying structural forces that brought more than 144,000 migrants across the border in May — poverty, drought and danger in Central America — remain unchanged. Also the same are the “pull factors” in United States — a robust economy, widespread opportunity and the longing to join relatives here.

The entanglements and loopholes of the country’s immigration court system and asylum laws, which Homeland Security officials blame for the crisis, also remain. Their appeals for congressional action appear more futile as the 2020 campaign revs up and exacerbates the country’s immigration fissures.

Border crossings tend to dip during summer months, but there is little doubt here and across the river in Ciudad Juarez about what has driven the numbers down so sharply. The Mexican government has deployed thousands of national guard forces to screen travelers along highways. It has positioned troops along the banks of the Rio Grande to stop migrants from attempting to cross.

Whether Mexico’s government can continue the effort remains to be seen. Mexico has never done it before, let alone maintained it.

In its June 7 accord with Trump, the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, also agreed to the borderwide expansion of the “Remain in Mexico” program, officially the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” which requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are adjudicated.

The MPP program has been challenged in federal court, and even the nation’s asylum officers have opposed it, saying that it is an assault on American values and puts those seeking refuge in the United States in danger.

The program has been aggressively applied in El Paso, where the number of asylum seekers sent back to Juarez doubled after the deal was reached. But the Department of Homeland Security has not implemented the “Remain in Mexico” program yet in the lower Rio Grande Valley. One reason migrants appear to be crossing there in large numbers is to avoid other areas of the border where they risk being sent back to Mexico, where they would have to await asylum hearings in notoriously dangerous border cities.

The Trump administration has been trying to make the journey to the United States appear a perilous and fruitless endeavor, using policy and enforcement to create numerous deterrents.

A long-delayed immigration enforcement operation targeting thousands of parents and children who arrived as part of the record-breaking surge of families is scheduled to begin Sunday, President Trump told reporters this week, following his promises to deport “millions.”

Trump says ICE raids to start Sunday, emphasizing purge of criminal immigrants

Single adult migrants, men especially, have been subjected to some of the worst confinement conditions. They are the lowest priority for processing, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection is determined not to release those eligible for deportation.

In Ciudad Juarez, opposite El Paso, some are giving up on the wait and choosing not to remain in Mexico any longer.

Juanita Acosta, 53, said last week that she could no longer stand the hot days at the Juarez shelter where she has spent the past three months waiting for her asylum claim to work its way through U.S. immigration courts. She crossed the border illegally into El Paso in late March with her three granddaughters.

The girls are now with their mother in Houston, but Acosta was separated from them and sent back to Mexico, where she lives behind high walls ringed with razor wire at the Good Samaritan shelter on an unpaved street. About 125 Central Americans, Cubans and Africans were there this past week, sleeping head to toe, many too scared to go outside.

The days of 100-degree temperatures and nights in a sweltering dorm are too much, Acosta said.

“I can’t stand this heat any more,” she said. “My heart can’t take it.”

She is one of five Hondurans at the facility who recently signed up for voluntary repatriation, said the shelter’s pastor, Juan Fierro.

At the state migration offices in Juarez, where new arrivals can put their names on a waiting list for a chance to approach U.S. authorities and request asylum, fewer than 20 show up per day now, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Centro de Atención a Migrantes. Earlier this year, 200 to 300 per day were arriving, he said.

Those on the list must wait two or three months to be called, gathering twice a day in a small plaza next to the U.S. border bridge hoping that their numbers will come up. Most now are Cuban, waiting for a turn to request asylum. U.S. authorities call the system “queue management,” but the policy is informally known as metering, and even as the migration pressures have eased at the border, CBP has not increased the number of asylum seekers it takes, Mexican officials say.

Some days, it takes no one at all. And more and more of those whose numbers come up are turned around again and made to wait in Mexico.

Katiuska Cardero, 42, was one of the 15 whose numbers were called this past week. “I’m excited, but worried because I don’t know if they’ll send us back,” she said.

Many have given up, Valenzuela said. A small survey conducted by federal immigration authorities found at least 30 percent of the migrants wanted to go home, Valenzuela said, and a new program run by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration has started sending buses south with voluntary returnees.

“We’re trying to cope with a situation we did not cause,” Valenzuela said.

The “express buses” that smugglers were using to bring large groups of Guatemalan families to the El Paso area have been interdicted by Mexico’s crackdown. In May, border officials encountered 28 groups of more than 100 migrants crossing the border here to turn themselves in to U.S. agents, including the largest group ever — 1,036 people on May 30.

The sudden influx of hundreds of parents and children needing care badly strained U.S. agents and border stations that were never designed for families. But the Border Patrol has not had a single group of more than 100 during the past month, officials said. Mexico is stopping them.

Ruben Garcia has sheltered migrants in El Paso for over four decades. With crush at the border, he needed a warehouse.

The Mexican government has unleashed “enforcement on steroids,” said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit that shelters migrants released from U.S. custody.

In April, Garcia opened “Casa del Refugiado,” a facility with room for 500 in a warehouse on the industrial outskirts of the city. He was caring for as many as 1,000 people per day then. Now he’s getting 100 to 150, he says.

The warehouse has abundant food and medical supplies, its walls adorned with bright murals from local painters. Hundreds of Red Cross cots are stacked up, unused, in its empty, cavernous halls.

Garcia is preparing to renew the four-month lease on the warehouse anyway. “I can’t take a chance,” he said. “What if the whole dynamic changes again?”

He now wants to open a shelter in Ciudad Juarez to house migrants made to wait there by “Remain in Mexico.”

In one sign that U.S. officials remain wary that the migration patterns will shift again, crews were busy last week setting up a tent camp with space for 2,500 adults in Tornillo, east of El Paso, even though the holding cells across the sector are mostly empty.

U.S. opening 2,500-bed migrant facility in Tornillo, Tex., site of controversial child shelter

Clem, the Border Patrol’s deputy chief in El Paso, said agents took more than 155,000 migrants into custody during the first nine months of the government’s 2019 fiscal year, the highest total since 1986. Of those, 117,000 arrived as part of a “family unit,” a 1,759 percent increase over the same period last year.

The number of underage migrants arriving with a parent jumped 267 percent. At the Clint station, which is the focus of much of the public outrage over detention conditions for minors, there were 700 unaccompanied children in custody in early June, sleeping in converted garages and on concrete floors. Those halls are empty now, as are most of the cells inside.

Asked why officials did not transfer children out of the station when overcrowding reached critical levels, acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin Mc­Aleenan said the minors, by law, can only be released to the Department of Health and Human Services, which also has been overwhelmed.

“We looked at every available legal option,” McAleenan said.

Border officials at the station said that the children were offered showers every 48 to 72 hours but that agents could not force them to bathe if they declined. Only in recent weeks have outside contractors arrived to take over child-care duties that border agents were never trained for — and often resent.

As in other locations, the surge of resources has come late. “Finding Dory” was playing to an empty room in one of Clint’s cells, and outside in the hallway, two female contractors were comforting a young girl, the only toddler in custody.

As reporters toured the facility with McAleenan, hundreds of warm spaghetti dinners had arrived in neat foam containers from a new meal service. But there were only about 20 children inside to eat them.

Miroff reported from El Paso and McAllen, Tex., and from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Josh Dawsey, in Texas, contributed to this report.