‘We don’t have facilities to hold the numbers we are seeing…’
(Alfredo Corchado, Dallas Morning News) Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a brief visit to the Texas border Thursday as authorities began releasing detained migrant families onto the streets of the Rio Grande Valley almost immediately after they crossed into the U.S., saying they didn’t have enough space in facilities to accommodate soaring numbers.
Central Americans — many in families and traveling in large groups from Honduras and Guatemala — have been traveling north through Mexico to the U.S. border in growing numbers. Some are waiting in Mexico for a chance to cross at border checkpoints to seek asylum legallty, while others have become increasingly desperate, crossing the border in remote areas and even in urban areas such as El Paso, where they then turn themselves in to authorities.
The crunch has become so intense that U.S. authorities briefly stopped processing asylum cases from across the border because shelters in the El Paso area were at capacity.
Now, Nielsen said, federal authorities at the border in far South Texas are simply releasing families to await the outcome of their cases rather than sending them to federal facilities where they would normally be detained for days or weeks.
“We don’t have facilities to hold the numbers we are seeing,” said Nielsen, according to Texas Public Radio. “We’re out of detention space, so due to emergent situations at particular areas, field decisions are made as to what we can do to expedite the processing.”
More than 76,000 migrants were apprehended on the southwest border in February, an 11-year high. Authorities expect as many as 100,000 to be apprehended in March, overwhelming processing facilities from the Valley to here in El Paso.
“To mitigate risks to both officer safety and vulnerable populations under these circumstances, and due to limited bed space, CBP will begin releasing families in the RGV (Rio Grande Valley) Sector with a Notice to Appear (NTA) / Own Recognizance (OR),” CBP said in a statement.
Critics of the administration say the release of hundreds of migrants onto the streets of the Valley, something that has been happening in El Paso since October, seems timed to beef up President Donald Trump’s assertion that there is an “invasion” crisis.
The more people there are in the shelters or on the streets, the easier it is for Trump to make his case that there’s a national emergency that merits his reallocation of billions of dollars in funding to build a border wall.
“Is this a coincidence?” asked Marissa Limon, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based community organization that serves the El Paso, Las Cruces and Ciudad Juárez region. Limon said that she is careful about using the word crisis but that “this is a moral crisis that will dictate who we are as a community and as a people.”
Nielsen insists that the situation along the border is not a “manufactured crisis.”
The situation is about to get more complicated as the Trump administration prepares to implement its Migrant Protection Protocols in the El Paso-Juarez region on Friday. The protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, require that asylum seekers wait in Mexico until they are summoned by U.S. officials to have their cases heard in U.S. immigration courts.
Critics say the protocols, in place in the San Diego-Tijuana region since December, will deepen the humanitarian and legal crisis that already has shelters on both sides of the border at a breaking point.
So many asylum seekers are arriving in this region that last week U.S. authorities in El Paso temporarily shut down a controversial metering system that limits the number of people allowed to present their asylum claims at legal ports of entry.
The situation is particularly worrisome for officials across the border in Juarez, said Jorge Muñoz, who’s helping coordinate a volunteer effort to provide assistance for migrants on behalf of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“This is a crisis in every sense of the word,” he said, adding that as many as 4,000 asylum seekers are in the city, with hundreds more are arriving daily. “We are so unprepared as a city and state that this is a national security, a humanitarian, public health and housing crisis all rolled into one.”
He called on the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to provide federal funding and a border plan to deal with a “worsening situation that we’re completely unprepared to deal with.”
“We have received word that the new program (Migrant Protection Protocols) will begin today or tomorrow and we’re not prepared for that,” he said, adding that funds to shelter and care for migrants are coming from the state and local governments as well as in donations from residents.
The Migrant Protection Protocols have put Lopez Obrador in an uncomfortable spot. U.S. legislators, Catholic leaders and dozens of immigrant rights groups, including the Hope Institute, have accused his administration of “being complicit” with the Trump administration in sidestepping international human rights law that grants asylum seekers a hearing.
“Why is he complicit with the Trump administration?” asked Limon, “What’s in it for Mexico?”
On Tuesday evening, Lopez Obrador dined in Mexico City with White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Lopez Obrador said in a news conference that the two discussed trade and an economic investment plan for Mexico and Central America that would be intended to help slow down migration north. No other details were provided.
In the past, Mexican administration officials have said they want to avoid a confrontation with Trump over immigration, something they see as a domestic matter that needs to be resolved by U.S. courts and not the Mexican government.
Several groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued to challenge the legality of the measure that calls for asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their cases can be heard in U.S. immigration courts. They say international law assures migrants the right to seek asylum when they cross into U.S. territory. They also say the migrants are further endangered when they have to wait for days or weeks in high-crime areas such as Juarez and Reynosa, across from McAllen.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday on a request for a temporary injunction to block the Migrant Protection Protocols.
“Remain in Mexico is a truly shocking policy not just in terms of its legality but in terms of any of these clients getting fair due process rights,” said Taylor Levy, a legal coordinator at Annunciation House, an El Paso Catholic nonprofit group that provides food and shelter to migrants released by U.S. authorities. “Juarez is a high-crime city. Migrants are continually targeted for kidnapping, extortions.”
Levy said she worries that U.S lawyers may have a hard time visiting clients on the Mexican side because of attempts by the U.S. government to generate a “chilling effect” on attorneys, social activists and even journalists. The practice was documented by NBC News and NBC’s San Diego station, KNSD-TV.
On Jan. 3, Levy was crossing from Juarez to El Paso when she was taken into a U.S. Border Patrol station and questioned about “my work — why do I represent migrants, why do I work for Annunciation House — and questions about my boss, Ruben Garcia. They even wanted to know what my clients tell me.”
She said she was threatened with arrest but then was asked to unlock her phone. She refused. About two hours later, she was finally released. Her lawyers have since opened an investigation.
“I think it’s very clear that I was targeted,” she said. “It’s attempting to have a chilling effect on our work. It was scary, scarier than I’d like to admit.”
Levy said she has not returned to Juarez since. “We have our hands full on this side of the border,” she said. She vowed that she would “not be colored by the fact that I was targeted by CPB. … But for me it made me take pause, for now.”
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the agency was looking into the allegations and was “fully committed to earning the public trust through accountability and transparency within the law.”
Annunciation House is expected to receive as many as 600 migrants per day in the coming days, and the organization is reaching out to churches and shelters from El Paso to Albuquerque to secure space.
On Thursday evening, the El Paso Community Foundation was hosting best-selling author Ron Stallworth at a screening of the Oscar-nominated “BlackKKLansman” movie about him to raise funds for the Migrant Families Relief Fund. At times, Levy said, Annunciation House spends an estimated $100,000 per month in hotel fees to provide shelter for migrants.
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