Originally Published in The New York Times.
A crisis is emerging at migrant shelters as the Trump administration focuses, as one official put it, on “how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”
Jan. 4, 2019
EL PASO — At a migrant shelter near the Mexican border, three girls from Guatemala — sisters aged 10, 9 and 6 — 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 aluminum 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 traveling as families crossing the border from Mexico exceeded 25,000 in November, the highest numbers ever recorded.The Border Wall: What Has Trump Built So Far?The existing barrier isn’t a single mile longer than it was when he took office.Jan. 5, 2019
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 President 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 that a succession of ever-harsher border 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 with overcrowding, health threats and uncontrolled releases of migrants in cities along the border.
The daughter of a Guatemalan migrant got sick during the 12 days the family spent at crowded detention facilities in Texas, her mother said.CreditSara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times
“It’s the complete, 100 percent 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 incentivize the smuggling of illegal immigrants under the age of 18.”
At the direction of the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has churned out a series of aggressive initiatives aimed at discouraging migrants from coming. Most of them have been quickly blocked by the courts.
Last year, the government announced it would arrest close to 100 percent of all those who crossed the border illegally and separate them from their children — a measure that was blocked by the courts and rescinded. Later, the administration tried to prevent migrants from applying for asylum anywhere but at legal border crossings, and then limited the number of migrants it would process each day at those border stations. That policy created logjams and escalating tensions at border stations from Texas to California, though part of it, too, was enjoined by the courts.
Some of those involved in the policymaking said that there was open acknowledgment 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, ‘O.K., 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. “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,” Mr. Margo said.
The government itself is dealing with some of the most acute problems — housing large numbers of families in border processing centers built to handle single men.
In Yuma, Ariz., 87 percent of migrants apprehended in the current fiscal year were traveling as a family, and 50 percent of them were children. Expenditures have shot up 600 percent since last year, with the money being spent on diapers, feminine care products, snacks and juice, said a Border Patrol official in the state who was not authorized to speak on the record.
While the Yuma office was approved for some overtime funding and additional agents, requests for a modular facility to house children and families have been denied, the official said. The new building would add more showers to the current number, which is three, as well as add beds and play rooms for children.
The administration’s aggressive focus on deterrence has built up the frustration of the migrants themselves. After trying to jump the fence at Tijuana and fleeing a wave of tear gas on New Year’s Eve, Fernando Duarte, a 22-year-old Honduran, was among those hurling rocks at Border Patrol officers. He said he was determined to try again.
“They are very wrong if they think tear gas will keep me from trying,” Mr. Duarte said. “I am trying to get a better future and a little gas won’t stop me.”
Nowhere has the growing desperation of migrants been more apparent than in Tijuana. The high volume of migrants from Central America arriving there has collided with the Trump administration’s decision to ration the number of asylum requests processed each day. Private shelters in Tijuana managed by local Christian and Catholic groups are near capacity, pushing new migrants into tent cities and improvised shelters that lack proper sanitation.
“The ones that are waiting for the door to open, they’re waiting three or four months,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, the director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana. “Others are getting desperate and prefer to try to cross illegally.”
In November, municipal leaders in Tijuana opened an improvised shelter at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex that turned, as Mr. Clark Alfaro put it, into a “Central American ghetto.” The conditions there grew increasingly dismal as winter brought cold weather and rain, and about 6,000 people were crowded into the stadium at one point, far beyond its capacity of roughly 2,000. The city shut down the shelter. As a replacement, the government opened a new shelter in El Barretal on the east side of Tijuana.
The Barretal shelter is a large compound where hundreds of sleeping tents are lined up on the clean concrete floor. Freshly laundered clothes hang from balconies and staircases.
Inside, Isabel Lázaro Díaz, 30, finished the meal she had waited in a long line for: grilled chicken, rice and beans.
“On the way here, I regretted it a thousand times,” she said of her decision to leave her native Guatemala with her 5-year-old son, adding of Mr. Trump, “What he is doing is making us feel frustration and despair and putting us in a closed box with four closed walls, no entry or exit.”
Manny Fernandez reported from El Paso, Caitlin Dickerson from New York, and Paulina Villegas from Tijuana, Mexico. Jose A. Del Real contributed reporting from San Diego, Calif., and Mitchell Ferman from McAllen, Tex.A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 4, 2019, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Gamble Fails, Overcrowding Migrant Shelters