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Migrant Surge In El Paso Strains Border Patrol


Federal officials say the southern border is out of control. The Border Patrol is on track to stop nearly 100,000 migrants crossing illegally this month. The newest hot spot - El Paso, Texas. One day last week, agents there apprehended 400 people in five minutes. And many migrants are coming with infectious diseases. That's put a strain on the Border Patrol, which is bringing in more agents and asking the Pentagon for more help. NPR's John Burnett has our report.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If there's a crisis at the border, this is what it looks like. A ragged line of 47 men, women and children from Central America is wading across the Rio Grande. Their clothes are soiled after the long trip north. They step onto U.S. territory and head straight for the nearest Border Patrol agent to turn themselves in.


BURNETT: The agent tells them to walk along the border fence to a waiting bus. They comply wordlessly and tramp the final quarter-mile of their arduous journey. Carlos Martinez holds the hand of his 7-year-old son, Elbin. They're from La Paz, El Salvador.

CARLOS MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) I came with a dream to stay here in the U.S. and get ahead. God brought us here safe and sound. He guarded us on our journey. I don't know what's going to happen now.

BURNETT: To understand how easy it is for these travelers to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, understand that the international boundary is the shallow river. Then, there's about a hundred yards of no man's land before you reach the steel fence on a levee. Beyond that is the historic Texas city, El Paso del Norte, the pass to the north.

Despite the administration's insistence that a wall will fix what they're calling a border catastrophe, asylum-seekers are undeterred. I said as much to Ramiro Cordero, a veteran agent.

RAMIRO CORDERO: Oh, most definitely. We cannot put the fence in the river because it's a river. We cannot put it right next to the river because it's a flood plain.

BURNETT: Migrant flows shift constantly. Earlier this year, big groups favored remote stretches of the western border in New Mexico and Arizona. Today, many are crossing into the heart of metropolitan El Paso. The migrants say they're fleeing crime and poverty. The government says they're taking advantage of lax asylum laws and overwhelming the system.

An official with Customs and Border Protection tells NPR that five highway checkpoints in the El Paso region were shut down in recent days so the agents could be redeployed to the border. The official also confirms that the Trump administration is again turning to the Pentagon, this time requesting more active-duty troops to help with migrant processing, transportation and medical care in high crossing areas.

Once apprehended, the daily crush of immigrants is herded into holding cells, sometimes for up to five days, until they can be processed. The harsh conditions of confinement have been well-documented - bad food, no mattresses, frigid temperatures, toilets in the open. Some immigrants call it la perrera, the kennel.

RUBEN GARCIA: It's now becoming pretty well unanimous that everybody is opposed to the holding cells.

BURNETT: Ruben Garcia coordinates a dozen shelters around El Paso that care for migrants after they've been released from federal custody to wait for their day in immigration court. Every day, he finds at least 500 beds for these families.

GARCIA: The overcrowding, inability to control the flu, chicken pox within the holding cells. And everybody agrees. And everybody is saying we need to change that.

BURNETT: A Border Patrol official tells NPR that more migrants are arriving with communicable illnesses, such as flu, mumps, impetigo - a rash that occurs among children - and even one case of flesh-eating bacteria. Agents are making 50 hospital runs a day with sick immigrants. In December, two Guatemalan children died in Border Patrol custody in the El Paso sector. Since then, there's been criticism that agents are unprepared for the surge of vulnerable immigrants carrying illnesses and that holding facilities lack even basic medical care. Again, agent Ramiro Cordero.

CORDERO: Well, I mean, you've got to remember that we're law enforcement officers. We're not medical technicians. We're not, you know, doctors - none of us. We all signed up for this job to protect our borders.

BURNETT: CBP has now sent contract medical personnel to the busiest border stations to examine and triage sick immigrants and get them to hospitals.

Back at the fence line, the group of 47 migrants is approached by another agent.

JESUS MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Good afternoon," says agent Jesus Morales. "Welcome to the United States." He asks if they have documents to be in the U.S. legally. None do, so he directs them to the Border Patrol bus.

And this is what happens all day long?

MORALES: Every day. This is probably every 20 minutes.

BURNETT: A new group every 20 minutes. Morales looks ruefully at more families headed his way.

MORALES: This is history in the making. In 20 years, we'll probably look back at this.

BURNETT: The number of asylum-seekers continues to grow. Shelter director Ruben Garcia says the government contacted him on Sunday and bumped up its request. He now needs to find spaces for up to 750 migrants every day for the foreseeable future. John Burnett, NPR News, El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.