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‘Overwhelmed system’ encouraging people to cross

A Border Patrol agent looks for migrants in the Animas Mountains in New Mexico’s Bootheel in 2015. Extra border agents could be a solution to slowing the inflow of migrants. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: Today the Journal concludes its series on the influx of migrant families seeking asylum with a look at possible solutions.

LAS CRUCES – The surge in asylum seekers arriving on the border has local, state and federal officials looking for ways to respond to the humanitarian crisis while also protecting the border.

Border Patrol is coping with a record number of Central American families and minors on their own turning themselves in and asking for asylum in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico. In the same region, Customs and Border Protection officers have a waiting list of thousands of people who want to make an asylum claim at an official port of entry.


Border Patrol agents riding ATVs patrol the fence near the El Paso border with Mexico earlier this month. Hiring more agents is one solution proposed for managing the influx of migrants seeking asylum. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Both CBP and Border Patrol are stretched thin and have vacancies that need to be filled. Border Patrol agents are busy taking hundreds of migrants a day into custody and transporting them back to the El Paso Processing Center.

“Yes, it is very time consuming, and it does draw away from those who are able to patrol the border,” El Paso Sector Border Patrol Chief Aaron Hull said.

“You see the overwhelmed system is encouraging people to cross because now it’s cheaper, easier for them and it’s safer for the smugglers because a lot of them are not even coming into the U.S. anymore,” Hull said.

Hull said a combination of a border wall in strategic locations and technology can help secure the border, but agents are the most important resource. He noted that someone has to watch the wall, and “a camera can’t make an arrest.”

Rep Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., recognizes the need for more manpower on the border and introduced the bipartisan U.S. Customs and Border Protection Rural and Remote Hiring and Retention Strategy Act with Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas.

The legislation focuses on CBP developing strategies to address recruiting and retention issues.

Torres Small represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes more than 200-plus miles along the border with Mexico.

She has pushed to get tools to help CBP adapt to handle the surge in family migration, including transportation, humane holding cells and the ability to more quickly process asylum seekers.

“While all those pieces are in place, we have to have the manpower, and technology and infrastructure where necessary to stop the bad guys, to stop the human traffickers, the drug traffickers and the violent criminals as well,” Torres Small said.


A group of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America walk along the U.S.-Mexico border fence earlier this month. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In some parts of New Mexico, improved technology is part of the solution. A slow internet connection can affect the ability of agents to process migrants or others who cross the border, Torres Small said.

State officials, meanwhile, are concerned that lack of cell phone coverage can pose a security problem in remote areas of the border that have long been drug smuggling corridors and have recently become crossing points for large groups of migrants seeking asylum.

“There’s a big shadow of no communication capability in the Bootheel of New Mexico. It’s quite concerning to all of us,” said state Secretary of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Jackie White.

White said the state is reaching out to universities to help solve some of the communication issues on the border by developing a smart app. The app would allow users to share critical information in real time to help local, state and federal authorities respond in remote areas.

White was in Washington, D.C., this past week meeting with officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re all really trying to pull in the same direction and solve these problems together, and when we do that I think we create that force multiplier that can only help the safety and security of New Mexicans,” White said.

She toured the New Mexico border with the governor in January. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham met with CBP and Border Patrol officials and toured their facilities in January weeks after the deaths of two migrant children in Border Patrol custody.

The governor was not available for an interview because she was busy as the state Legislature wrapped up its session.

But in an emailed statement, Lujan Grisham said, “We are taking calculated action on the border. Facts, not fear tactics, drive our decision-making.”

Lujan Grisham called back the New Mexico National Guard from the border in February, although she left about a dozen troops in the Bootheel region after reviewing the situation. She also added six state police officers to help local law enforcement in Hidalgo County.

“We’ve had multiple teams from state agencies assess the needs, and they have reached the same conclusion: There is indeed a humanitarian crisis, as I have said, and not a national security crisis, certainly not one that would necessitate a ‘national emergency,'” Lujan Grisham said, referring to President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration.

“That’s why we have responded in the way that we have – our priority is to help vulnerable children and families where we can and assist with public safety efforts where possible,” she said.

Humanitarian response

A Homeland Security officer stands guard at the international bridge where razor wire has been put in place to prevent a possible mass rush of migrants at the port of entry into El Paso. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The governor has also moved to help with the need for medical services in the border region where local hospitals and clinics have treated the growing number of migrants brought in for care by the Border Patrol.

“We are here to be proactive to address this problem,” said Abinash Achrekar, deputy secretary for the N.M. Department of Health. Achrekar was in the parking lot of a Las Cruces church were the state’s mobile medical clinic was parked.

Doctors and nurses in the clinic were seeing migrant parents and kids staying at the church that also helps provide shelter for families. The conditions were mostly minor ailments, including mild dehydration.

“It’s not only helping these migrants here it’s also helping our local community because we are trying not to inundate our local health care system,” Achrekar said.

“We’re all volunteers; nobody gets paid. Doctors are coming in after they get off their shift,” said Frieda Adams, a volunteer nurse.

Adams is coordinating the state’s migrant medical response in southern New Mexico, working with churches that serve as temporary shelters.

“Personally, I’m responding because I can. It’s as simple as that,” Adams said. “I can help. There’s a need. As a community, as churches, as community members, and as the state, we all feel an obligation to help. This is a growing humanitarian issue.”

She retired as the director of the office of border health in December as the number of migrant families crossing the border into New Mexico grew.

“I quit my job to do this,” Adams said. “That’s what my heart told me to do.”

Reform and root causes

Other solutions include easing the backlog of asylum cases in immigration court by hiring more immigration judges. Congress and the president have already signed off on a budget package that includes funding for additional immigration judges.

“I think that should be a bipartisan issue because the clearer you are, the quicker people receive result in the scope of due process, the more likely you can challenge the misinformation that might be used by human smugglers,” Torres Small said.

While reporting in Guatemala, the Journal found that smugglers were telling migrant families they would be allowed to stay in the U.S. and work if they were seeking asylum. The backlog in immigration court means it may be months or even years before a judge rules on an asylum case.

Torres Small said immigration reform is a key solution, including more work visas.

“How do we make sure people who want to work hard, and obey our laws and contribute to our economy can do that in a legal way?” she asked.

The ultimate solution may involve both Congress and the Trump administration finding ways to help with the root causes driving migrants to make their way up to the New Mexico stretch of border.

Torres Small points out that many migrants are “fleeing gang violence or escaping poverty.”

“There are things that we can do to invest to change that, (such as) supporting economic development in the northern triangle,” she said.

8 hours on the border by Albuquerque Journal on Exposure