HOUSTON - While numbers dropped during the month of June, Customs and Border Protection recorded four straight months of more than 100,000 immigrants being apprehended along the southern border or deemed inadmissible to the country.
The current numbers
Even with the decline, the number of apprehensions along the southern border remains at levels not seen in a decade and eclipses the numbers seen when the issue first arose during President Barack Obama’s administration.
The division chief of Border Patrol’s law enforcement operations, John Morris, was blunt when answering the question about the numbers seen along the southern border.
“It’s not sustainable. We need help,” Morris said. “At one point, we had almost 9,000 in custody. Where do we put them?”
During KPRC 2's meeting with Morris, he said the Rio Grande Valley sector has the capacity to detain approximately 3,300 people, yet that sector had 6,000 in custody.
“We're not in the business of detention,” Morris said. “We're not funded for it, we're not trained for it, we don't have the facilities for it.”
Moreover, Morris said Border Patrol is only meant to detain immigrants long enough to process them into the system before handing them over to partner agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is set up to handle long-term detention.
“If that partner agency says, 'Sorry we're full,' and they don't take them, we don't have anything else to do. We have to continue to hold them,” Morris said. “There's a legislative fix to this and there's also a funding fix to this, neither of which we have control over.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has twice warned Border Patrol about dangerous overcrowding, substandard conditions and accusations of mistreatment and holding detainees longer than the 72-hour government-set guidelines.
“If they don't like the temperature in the place, sorry. You know this place is overcrowded, and we're doing the best we can,” Morris said. “It's overcrowded and it's uncomfortable, and it's not the way it's designed to work.”
Morris added despite recent accusations of poor treatment, most of his agents work very hard to provide care to those detained along the border. He said so many agents have to be pulled to care for detainees, field operations have been cut back along certain portions of the border.
“There are certain areas that we're not patrolling or there might be a few more areas where we don't have folks watching for smuggling going on,” Morris said.
Congress recently approved spending more than $4 billion to address everything from building temporary detention facilities to hiring more immigration judges to tackle a massive backlog of cases. The Pentagon also announced an additional 2,100 National Guard troops will head to the border, bringing the total deployment to 6,000. Gov. Greg Abbott announced 1,000 Texas National Guard troops will also be sent to the border to support Border Patrol operations.
We also visited with Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley. Pimentel has long overseen a shelter for immigrants recently released from detention. Pimentel calls it a respite center because it's set up for people to only stay 24 hours. The space is located in McAllen across from the bus station. Those released from Border Patrol detention find the center so they can get a hot meal, a shower, a little rest and help contacting family members already in the United States.
“They need guidance. They're pretty much lost and scared and unsure what's happening to them,” Pimentel said.
Most of the families we saw at the shelter were holding manila envelopes containing paperwork notifying them of when and where their immigration cases will be handled. We also asked several of the families about their treatment in Border Patrol detention. All we spoke with said they were treated well, despite cramped conditions.
“The kids weren't missing anything, apples, cookies, candy. Same for us, too,” said Alba Leticia Molina-Garcia, from Honduras.
Molina-Garcia was traveling with her husband, Eber Mauricio Ordonez-Palma, and her 7-year-old son. Both said they could not find work in Honduras and their home was destroyed. The family already had a bus ticket to Houston, where her mother and siblings live. Molina-Garcia added her mother has never met her grandson. Both said they are applying for asylum.
“If God opens the door, it would be a blessing for us to be allowed to live in the U.S.,” Ordonez-Palma said.
Pimentel said what's happening now is a repeat of the problems seen five years ago when the border crisis first flared up.
“We haven't seen any improvements or any solutions or anything that really addresses a better, more humane response to what is happening,” Pimentel said. “There's no solution. It's almost as if it became just a political issue that is tossed around back and forth and nobody takes responsibility.”
The White House also announced this week new rules further restricting how immigrants can apply for asylum. The Joint Interim Final Rule was issued by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The rule is intended to “add a new bar to eligibility for asylum for an alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border, but who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which he or she transited en route to the United States.”
Acting DHS Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan said the rule is intended to help reduce a major "pull" factor driving irregular migration to the United States.
Frustration grows among those waiting
KPRC visited a mission in Mexico last month and again this month. Senda de Vida is filled with mainly Cubans and Venezuelans. The last time we visited the mission, all there said they would wait to enter the U.S. legally and apply for asylum. Those staying at the mission write their name in a spiral notebook and get a number. The pastor in charge of the mission then waits for American authorities to notify Mexican authorities how many individuals the U.S. will allow to apply for asylum on any given day. The pastor then gives those individuals a ride to the border. During our recent visit, the promise of patience changed.
“Right now, they're, everybody, they're really angry,” pastor Hector Silva said. “They're really jumping at me and (saying) 'What's going on? We already have a lot of days in here.'”
Many in the mission said they had been there for longer than 90 days with no word on when they may be able to apply for asylum.
“With how long we've been waiting, people are getting desperate, and they're throwing themselves in the river,” Lorena Perez, from Cuba, said.
Others said they were considering following some of their counterparts who left the mission and crossed the river illegally.
“They're arriving, so many daily. So, that's really the problem,” said Julio Santos-Padilla, from Cuba.
Other said they tried to cross the bridge and apply for asylum but were told they could not enter the country.
“Sometimes those people get like, 'Well, that's not our fault, we're trying to do it the right way,'” Silva said.
On our way back to McAllen from Reynosa, we also saw Customs and Border Protection officers stationed at the midway point under a tent. We saw one agent was periodically stringing concertina wire across the lane to stagger traffic. We did not see similar activity while crossing the bridge from Matamoros into Brownsville. Customs and Border Protection sent an email in response to our questions about what we saw on the bridge.
“On multiple occasions in the past few weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has deployed officers and concertina wire to temporarily close the Hidalgo International Bridge in response to multiple large groups of undocumented aliens that had attempted to enter the port without inspection. Periodic deployment of port hardening measures such as concertina wire and barricades supplemented by CBP personnel effectively eliminates the ability for a large group of migrants to illegally and forcefully surge through the Ports of Entry,” a CBP official wrote. “CBP continues to monitor the situation and is in constant communication with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners as well as Mexican officials to prevent these types of incidents.”
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