Border crisis: How El Paso copes as ground zero

Why We Wrote This

In El Paso, everyone from Customs and Border Protection officials to immigrant activists says the immigration system needs an overhaul. What that overhaul should look like is a tougher question.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Israel Cabrera, an associate pastor at the Caminos de Vida church, talks on the phone in El Paso, Texas, on April 4. His church has been one of more than two-dozen volunteer groups helping to shelter migrants in El Paso, but after five weeks his resources are stretching thin.

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Javier Lopez and Lalo Garcia are playing chess in San Jacinto Plaza. Both men are in their 20s, and both have lived in the city for the four big migrant influxes it has experienced. They have never seen anything like this one, they agree.

“My neighbor’s actually Border Patrol and he talks about it all the time. Like, ‘Dude, I don’t even know what time I get home,’ ” says Mr. Lopez.

With the southwest border experiencing a surge in migrants, primarily families from Central America seeking asylum, this West Texas city has become ground zero. The commissioner of Customs and Border Protection said the U.S. immigration system had reached a “breaking point” due to “vulnerabilities in our legal framework.”

Immigrant advocacy groups dispute that, claiming that the situation has been worsened by policy decisions by  the Trump administration.

What isn’t disputed is that the people handling the migrant flows in El Paso – including CBP agents, city government, and volunteer organizations – are exhausted. The 11-hour-plus work days, buzzing cell phones, and daily chaos is akin to responding to a natural disaster.

In a border city with generations of connections to Mexico, and generations who came to the U.S. under much different circumstances, the situation is provoking mixed feelings.

For Israel Cabrera, it started five weeks ago.

A friend from another church had called. Immigration agents would be releasing 152 migrants, their processing and background checks completed. Could he take them?

Mr. Cabrera, an associate pastor at the Caminos de Vida church, said he needed time to think. We need an answer now, his friend replied.

“Ok,” Mr. Cabrera said. “Yes.”

That left 30 minutes to prepare, and all the church had was a 24-pack of bottled water. By the end of the day, members of the congregation and the community had brought beans, rice, clothes, and blankets. By the end of the week, Caminos de Vida had so many supplies they were helping other churches hosting migrants.

“The amazing thing is, we just said ‘yes.’ That’s all we did,” says Mr. Cabrera. “This is what happens when a community gets together and does something and moves on their own.”

Since the call, Caminos de Vida has been taking in 50 migrants every few days, feeding them, clothing them, and arranging transportation to family or friends in the United States. They are starting to feel the strain, he says while preparing to welcome another 50 migrants. The water bill jumped from $80 to $500; volunteers, many of them elderly, are burning out; and some members of the congregation have left, uncomfortable with what the church is doing.

That tension permeates El Paso. With the entire southwest border experiencing a surge in migrants, primarily families and children from Central America seeking asylum, this West Texas city has become ground zero. Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came here last week and announced that the U.S. immigration system had reached a “breaking point” due to “vulnerabilities in our legal framework.”

Immigrant advocacy groups dispute that, claiming that the situation on the southwest border has been worsened by policy decisions by immigration agencies and the Trump administration.

What isn’t disputed is that the people handling the migrant flows in El Paso – including CBP agents, city government, and volunteer organizations – are exhausted. The 11-hour-plus work days, buzzing cell phones, and daily chaos is akin to responding to a natural disaster.

If you’re not a part of those groups, the surge in asylum seekers has remained mostly invisible on the ground. In a border city with generations of connections to Mexico, and generations who came to the U.S. under much different circumstances, the situation is provoking mixed feelings.

Never seen anything like it

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Javier Lopez and Lalo Garcia are playing chess in San Jacinto Plaza. Both men are in their early 20s, and both have lived in the city for the four big migrant influxes it has experienced. They have never seen anything like this one, they agree.

“My neighbor’s actually Border Patrol and he talks about it all the time. Like, ‘Dude, I don’t even know what time I get home. It’s just crazy because we’re shorthanded,’ ” says Mr. Lopez.

The volume of asylum requests bothers him though. “I feel like this is a safe haven for everybody, and sooner or later it’s going to be crowded or some other problems are going to come up,” he says.

Mr. Garcia jumps in. “Put yourself in their shoes,” he says. “A lot of people come trying to survive. Not all of them, but most of them,” he continues. “Which is the controversy. We get hit by that, but they need it. So, honestly, it’s up to your morals whether you want to help or not.”

Commissioner McAleenan has described how he thinks the immigration system needs to change.

Border Patrol is projecting that 100,000 migrants will have crossed the southwest border legally and illegally in March, the highest single month figure in a decade. The El Paso sector, which includes West Texas and New Mexico, has seen some of the sharpest increases in recent months. But those crossing are now mostly family units and unaccompanied children, and that change in demographics has forced the CBP in particular to do things it is not used to doing.

The agency has begun medical screening for every child 17 and under taken into custody, a policy Mr. McAleenan called “unprecedented.” And last week, for the first time in a decade, the CBP began releasing migrants directly after they have been processed due to overcrowding in Border Patrol stations and a lack of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bed space.

The agency has reassigned 750 agents from four other ports of entry to process asylum-seekers, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sent a letter to Homeland Security employees last week asking for volunteers to help on the southwest border.

“This humanitarian mission which we are committed to is undermining our border security efforts,” said Mr. McAleenan last week. “Changes in the law and closing the vulnerabilities in our legal framework is the only way that this flow is going to be reduced.”

‘It’s a challenge to us’

El Paso City Council meetings these days have come to include similar statements about the need for immigration reform.

Certain laws passed in recent years, Mayor Dee Margo said during a meeting this week, “amounts to basically unfettered asylum-seeking. We’re a humanitarian nation. People are coming for their families, economic benefits, but it’s a challenge to us.”

Last week, the city appropriated $20,000 to the United Way to fund a volunteer coordinator position, and they’re now helping Annunciation House – a nonprofit shelter that has been managing the network of more than two-dozen volunteer organizations – open a new 500-bed hospitality center for migrants.

If there is a face for the citizen response in El Paso, it is Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House. He calls and texts with CBP and ICE every day, and calls and texts other churches and volunteer groups to see who could take the migrants in.

But he’s begun to notice what he calls a “concerning” trend. When ICE releases migrants, it contracts with private companies that can transport migrants up to eight hours away – so when bed-space is low in El Paso, migrants can be taken to shelters in Las Cruces and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The CBP doesn’t have that ability, but the volume of their releases has been increasing, according to Mr. Garcia, from 115 last Thursday to 240 this Monday.

Those releases are “basically going to be restricted to El Paso,” he said in a press conference.

“I’m not sure exactly where Border Patrol is headed in terms of the releases,” he added. “I very much hope [it] does not have a political component to it.”

CBP did not respond to specific questions about their migrant releases by deadline.

It ‘feels like we are the target’

There have been other instances of political manipulation of the immigration bureaucracy, others believe.

Perhaps the most dramatic example was the housing of hundreds of migrants in an outdoor shelter under the Paso del Norte Bridge last week. CBP say they initially opened that camp to deal with the large increase in migrants. Another is “metering,” a policy that limits the flow of asylum claims processed at official ports of entry. Last summer, CBP officials expanded the practice to ports of entry in every border state, causing wait times to stretch for months and more migrants to cross illegally.

Xochitl Rodriguez, a community activist, says it sometimes “feels like we are the target, like they’re trying to break … the community down.”

She has been volunteering at migrant shelters, preparing food – usually pozole soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If she’s lucky she gets one day’s notice of how much to prepare.

“I think we’ll never be so tired we can’t jump on it,” she says.

For other El Pasoans, the situation illustrates how much the immigration system has changed since they had to navigate it themselves.

Darlene Villagrana’s father entered the U.S. without documents and worked for more than a decade before the rest of his family joined him after President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 “amnesty” bill. Ms. Villagrana recently got married and paid $3,000 to bring her husband to the U.S. Earlier this week she was taking her infant son for a stroll in El Paso’s Memorial Park.

“I know they have problems, but ... I don’t think it’s fair,” she says. “They just come and they cross” immediately.

“It’s something I’m really struggling with,” she adds. “They think they can just come here. But everyone deserves a better life.”

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