Border at ‘Breaking Point’ as More than 76,000 Migrants Cross in a Month

Caitlin Dickerson, New York Times, March 5, 2019

For the fourth time in five months, the number of migrant families crossing the southwest border has broken records, border enforcement authorities said Tuesday, warning that government facilities are full and agents are overwhelmed.

More than 76,000 migrants crossed the border without authorization in February, more than double the levels from the same period last year and approaching the largest numbers seen in any February in the last 12 years.

“The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters in announcing the new data.

Diverted by new restrictions at many of the leading ports of entry, migrant families continue to arrive in ever-larger groups in remote parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. {snip}

More than 90 percent of the new arrivals were from Guatemala, officials said, with a significant change in the dynamics of the migration: While Central American migrants once took weeks to journey through Mexico to the United States, many Guatemalan families are now boarding buses and reaching the southwest border in as little as four to seven days “on a very consistent basis,” Mr. McAleenan said.

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“These solutions are temporary and this situation is not sustainable,” he said. “This is clearly both a border security and a humanitarian crisis.”

The high number of families crossing the border suggest that President Trump’s policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers are not having their intended effect. {snip}

The throngs of new families are also affecting communities on the American side of the border. In El Paso, for example, where most of the families are being processed after submitting their asylum applications, a volunteer network that temporarily houses the migrants after they are released from custody has had to expand to 20 facilities, compared with only three during the same period last year. Migrants are now being housed in churches, a converted nursing home and about 125 hotel rooms that are being paid for with donations.

“We had never seen these kinds of numbers,” said Ruben Garcia, the director of the organization, called Annunciation House. He said that during one week in February, immigration authorities had released more than 3,600 migrants to his organization, the highest number in any single week since the group’s founding in 1978.

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Border Patrol officials said that the biggest “pull factors” encouraging migrant families to make their way to the United States were federal laws and court settlements that prohibit the authorities from deporting Central Americans without lengthy processing, and from detaining migrant families for more than 20 days, after which they must be released into the country while they await immigration court proceedings. {snip}

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The larger numbers and the surge into more remote areas of the border have drawn new attention to longstanding problems with medical services provided by Customs and Border Protection. {snip}

Last year, the agency referred 12,000 border crossers to emergency rooms for care, each one requiring an agent to wait with them at the hospital and ensure they were immediately returned to federal custody upon release. {snip} Meanwhile, cocaine seizures for the current fiscal year have already exceeded the previous one, and methamphetamine seizures have also increased, according to the agency, a situation that also is demanding staff resources.

Historically, many migrant families have been released from custody almost immediately upon crossing the border because the capacity of facilities outfitted to house parents with children is much smaller than the number of people traveling as families. {snip}

Recently, though, the agency has also begun releasing single adults into the country because of backups that now extend to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities across the country, where adult detainees are traditionally held until their immigration court cases are resolved.

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