Trump’s migrant deterrence strategy sees overcrowding, health threats and hundreds released on city streets at US-Mexico border

Growing ‘chaos’ is result of administration’s ‘failed gamble on ever-harsher border policies’, security workers say

Saturday 05 January 2019 14:29
The US-Mexico border security network built over a period of decades to handle large numbers of single men has been inundated with women and children in the past few years
The US-Mexico border security network built over a period of decades to handle large numbers of single men has been inundated with women and children in the past few years

At a migrant shelter near the Mexican border, three girls from Guatemala – sisters ages 10, nine and six – coughed and sniffled. One of them clung to both a teddy bear and a large bottle of Pedialyte, to soothe her dehydration and flu.

The girls’ mother, Nelcy, 28, said her daughters got sick not during their long journey to the border in the back of a pickup truck, but during the 12 days they spent at two crowded government detention facilities before arriving at the privately run shelter in Texas.

“It was very cold, especially for the children,” said Nelcy, who would only be identified by her first name. “My children got sick. They gave us aluminium blankets, but it wasn’t enough.”

The shelter network here run by the nonprofit Annunciation House is now receiving roughly 200 new migrants a day, the same number it saw in an entire week only a year ago.

The number of migrants travelling as families crossing the border from Mexico exceeded 25,000 in November, the highest numbers ever recorded.

Like Nelcy and her daughters, the new arrivals from Central America are coming in much sicker, after being held far longer than ever before in bare-bones government detention facilities never intended for children.

Asylum-seekers bottled up in Mexico are jumping fences and throwing rocks at officers, who are firing tear gas to push them away.

Hundreds of migrants have been released on city streets in recent weeks, uncertain of where to go. Two sick migrant children have died while in custody.

A crisis of the kind Donald Trump has long warned of is beginning to take shape along the country’s 1,900-mile border with Mexico.

A border security network built over a period of decades to handle large numbers of single men has in the past several years been inundated with women and children. And as the number of families has peaked in recent months, the system has increasingly been unable to accommodate all of them.

Much of the growing chaos, say many of those who work along the border and in some of the government’s own security agencies, is a result of a failed gamble on the part of the Trump administration with a succession of ever-harsher border policies. It was thought that these policies would deter the flood of migrants coming from Central America.

It has not, and the failure to spend money on expanding border processing facilities, better transportation and broader networks of cooperation with private charities, they say, has led to the current problems. This includes overcrowding, health threats and uncontrolled releases of migrants in cities along the border.

“It’s the complete, 100 per cent focus on harsher options that will deter the influx, with a disregard for managing what’s happening,” said a Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired. “We have a lot more families, a lot more unaccompanied children, and the focus has just been on how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”

Mr Trump has made it a priority to end what he calls the practice of “catch and release”, but the policy of holding large numbers of migrants in detention has led to capacity problems.

The Obama administration had a policy of releasing migrants who were considered safe and likely to appear in court in order to make room for others who were a higher priority for detention, but the Trump administration has largely eliminated that practice.

The number of detainees at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities has reached its highest point ever, according to figures provided by the agency, with an average daily population of 45,200 single adults and family units.

The result is the recent need to release large numbers of migrants, many simply dropped off at bus stations. About 600 migrants were dropped off with no advance planning in El Paso during the last full week in December. Similar releases have happened in recent days and weeks in Arizona and California.

The homeland security official said the administration could have done more to improve the situation and avoid the recent mass drop-offs, such as working more closely with nonprofit groups.

“They could have put more resources down there, either monetary or physical,” the official said. “There are things you could do to manage it so that it’s not just, ‘We’re overwhelmed. We’re releasing them'."

The administration blames Congress and the courts for creating a system that encourages families who do not qualify for asylum to apply for the status anyway, often living in the country for months or years as their applications move through the courts.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, has been critical of court rulings that make it difficult to hold migrants with children in detention for long periods — creating what officials say is a loophole that is encouraging migrants to bring their children on long, treacherous journeys from Central America.

“Secretary Nielsen has been saying for over a year to anyone who would listen – especially members of Congress – that our frontline men and women don’t have the adequate resources needed for the number of aliens we are apprehending,” Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, said in a statement. “This humanitarian crisis is driven by activist court rulings and poorly written laws that incentivise the smuggling of illegal immigrants under the age of 18.”

Some of those involved in the policymaking said that there was open acknowledgement within the government that the newest policies under development – a plan that would require asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico through the duration of their immigration cases, and one to build tent cities along the border to house more families – were either likely to face an immediate court injunction or were so costly that they could not be justified to taxpayers. But the officials said they were under orders from the White House to push forward.

“It’s like, ‘OK, why are we working on this if it’s just another lawsuit in the making?'” said a second Homeland Security official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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“Everybody knows that it’s going to be challenged in the courts and likely struck down. I don’t think the people at the top feel like they have a choice. They just do what they are asked to do.”

The situation has become more tense in recent weeks as ICE authorities, who in the past were careful to coordinate with volunteer shelters when releasing migrants, have instead begun dropping them in large numbers in the streets in Texas, Arizona and California, forcing city officials and charity groups to scramble.

“We’re dealing with the symptoms of the root cause, which is the lack of a rational immigration policy from Washington, and both sides are culpable,” said Dee Margo, the mayor of El Paso.

City officials have been told that the government may soon increase the number of migrants released in El Paso to 500 daily. “That may be a killer, that may be a real challenge for us to be able to deal with,” Margo said.

The New York Times

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