Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SUNLAND PARK – A record number of Central American migrants are overwhelming Border Patrol agents and facilities, with New Mexico among the areas bearing the brunt of the surge, according to Customs and Border Protection officials.
“The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told a news conference Tuesday.
More than 76,000 migrants crossed the Southwestern border last month, and more than half were families and children from Central America, according to new data released by CBP.
“Smugglers are dropping these groups in the most remote areas of our border, including places like Antelope Wells, New Mexico; Ajo, Arizona; and Yuma, Arizona,” McAleenan said.
The Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico, has had to cope with the largest surge in Central American migrants, with a more than 430 percent increase in “apprehensions” of families and children this fiscal year, according to CBP.
“The Border Patrol has no reason to expect that this trend will decrease,” Brian Hastings, chief of Border Patrol operations, said during the news conference in Washington, D.C. “In fact, we believe it will increase.”
The news conference was webcast for journalists around the country.
There have been more than 70 large groups of 100 or more migrants crossing the border since October, with 29 in New Mexico alone. Last fiscal year, there were only 13 large groups and two the previous year. Most are Central American parents with children and minors traveling alone. The vast majority turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and ask for asylum.
“The facilities and the manpower cannot support the continued increase in the apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children,” Hastings said.
The Border Patrol is stretched thin trying to respond to both the humanitarian crisis and security issues, he said.
Hastings said agents are “seeing firsthand the drug trafficking organizations are utilizing these groups for cover and diversion, to divert agents.”
Smuggling organizations are busing Central Americans to the border faster than ever before, reducing travel time to 4 to 7 days, according to McAleenan.
“The availability of these express bus routes means that more young children are arriving at our border. … We are seeing migrants arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers,” McAleenan said.
After the deaths of two Guatemalan children in Border Patrol Custody in New Mexico in December, CBP began medical checks of children, with a focus on those under 10 years old. Medical staff has screened more than 12,000 children, McAleenan said.
He said a new Centralized Processing Center for families is planned in El Paso and will include medical staff. Existing Border Patrol facilities that were designed for single men are now filled to capacity with parents and children.
“The fact is these solutions are temporary, and this situation is not sustainable. Remote locations of the United States border are not safe places to cross, and they are not places to seek medical care,” McAleenan said.
The vast majority of Central Americans entering the country are fleeing poverty and violence and are seeking asylum, a legal claim that is decided in immigration court by a judge.
CBP officials warn that unless Congress overhauls immigration laws to remove the incentive for migrant families to try their chances in seeking asylum, more will continue to arrive at the border.
“The message from the smuggling organizations to parents in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is clear: ‘If you bring a child, you will gain entry to the United States and you will be allowed to stay,’ ” McAleenan said.
Parents seeking asylum are often released, because children cannot be held in detention for more than 20 days. A backlog in immigration court means families can remain in the country for years until a judge decides whether they have a valid asylum claim.