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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
El PASO – A new surge in Central American families attempting to enter the United States is putting a strain on Border Patrol facilities and migrant shelters along the stretch of border that includes New Mexico.
“If I had space for 1,000 per week, (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would release 1,000. We’re over capacity,” said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, which provides temporary shelter for migrants with help from a network of churches in the Las Cruces and El Paso areas.
“These numbers are troubling, especially when you think of the consequences for these families,” he said.
Half a dozen parents released from Border Patrol custody this week told the Journal they were held in “overcrowded” cells with their children.
Domingo Mateo, 68, of Guatemala, said he had to step over people sleeping on the floor to use a toilet in the corner and found people “asleep with their heads under the toilet bowl.”
Jenny Celaya, a mother from Honduras, said she also “held it” rather than use the “stinking” toilet in the bathroom area where the men were sleeping.
“It was scary, like a horror movie,” said Celaya, who was with her 9-year-old son. She said she felt sorry for two other women who were mothers of 2- and 4-month-old babies.
In the past three months, there has been a spike in “family units” in the El Paso sector.
This was the “highest August on record” for the southwest border according to a statement issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last month.
Through August of this year, 9,641 families have been apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico. Many turn themselves in to agents and ask for asylum.
The number of families arriving at ports of entry, mostly Central Americans seeking asylum, has nearly doubled this year in the El Paso sector, from 6,278 in all of 2017 to 11,264 through August of this year. September numbers are not yet available.
People interviewed by the Journal said they were kept in crowded cells with between 40 and 50 parents with children, fed cold burritos at 3 a.m. and given three minutes to shower.
And when time was up, “they would start kicking the door” to the stall, said Osvaldo Pineda, 48, who arrived at the border from Guatemala seeking asylum with his 14-year-old daughter.
Parents interviewed by the Journal all reported being moved to different holding cells over the course of several days. Celaya said she saw a sign that read “Tornillo” as they arrived at one of the locations. There is a Border Patrol station in that area.
Border Patrol agent Ramiro Cordero said, “We have 11 stations that we can use to our advantage. If need be, we can move people around.”
Six of those Border Patrol stations are in New Mexico, and the remaining five are in West Texas.
“They’re not comfortable. They’re holding cells” said Cordero, a Border Patrol spokesman for the El Paso sector.
The cells were not designed for families. Cordero said they hold up to 50 people “sitting down,” and disputed the accounts of crowding and people sleeping under toilets.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I’ve seen the toilets. You cannot sleep under the toilets.”
Roger Maier, a spokesman with Customs and Border Protection, said, “We treat all those in our custody with dignity and respect and take all allegations seriously, and we investigate all formal complaints.”
Parents interviewed by the Journal at Annunciation House said they had spent three to five days in holding cells after being picked up by Border Patrol. Customs and Border Protection’s standard is 72 hours before people are turned over to ICE for processing, “except in rare, extenuating circumstances.”
Cordero said Border Patrol agents are dealing with an “uptick” in the number of families crossing the border, but “we’re still at manageable levels.”
Garcia sees it differently.
“They simply have more people than they have infrastructure for, and that creates real concerns,” he said.
A variety of factors could be contributing to the latest surge along the border.
Along with an “expected seasonal increase,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said smugglers “know if a family unit enters the U.S. illegally, they are likely to be released into the interior.”
There are only three family detention centers in the country, with a total capacity for 3,326 people, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued this year.
With limited space, many parents arriving at the border with children are released with ankle monitors and are required to check in with ICE periodically while their case proceeds through immigration court.
The spike also could be caused by a backlog of Central Americans who “paused” during the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance crackdown that led to the separation of nearly 3,000 children from their parents before it was canceled. At that time, the parents were locked up and prosecuted, and children were sent to shelters.
Carlos Manuel Moreira, 34, a father from Honduras, said he “waited a little” to come to the U.S. because he was worried his 15-year-old daughter would be taken away.
He and other parents, with electronic monitors strapped to their ankles, talked about their futures. They were gathered in a room at Annunciation House with a Virgin of Guadalupe portrait on the wall.
Jose Angel Monterrosa, 43, a father from Guatemala wearing a donated long-sleeved T-shirt with “Ruidoso, N.M.,” emblazoned on it, crossed the border with his 7-year-old son. He worried about being pressured by an agent to sign documents in English he didn’t understand.
Monterrosa said that when he asked about a lawyer, the response was, “Can’t you defend yourself?” He said he now fears he signed deportation papers.