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Fact-Finding Q and A: What Is Happening at the US-Mexico Border?

The U.S.-Mexico border is currently experiencing one of the worst immigration and humanitarian crises in history, and no solution seems to be on the horizon. Record numbers of people from Central America are arriving every day, several children have died while in Border Patrol custody and Congress can’t reach an agreement on how to send help.

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What follows is a Q&A session with U.S.-Mexico Border expert (and In Homeland Security columnist) Sylvia Longmire. Sylvia is the author of “Cartel” and “Border Insecurity,” both of which were nominated for literary awards.

Q: What is the current situation at the border?

Sylvia Longmire: The U.S.-Mexico border is currently undergoing a humanitarian crisis, with record levels of migrants arriving from mostly Central America every day. In May alone, U.S. authorities detained or turned away more than 140,000 people – including approximately 84,000 families and 11,000 minors. Nearly 133,000 migrants were detained between ports of entry, and authorities also apprehended more than 36,000 single adults.

The May apprehensions were the highest monthly total in 13 years. Every migrant who is apprehended for illegal entry or turns themselves in to request asylum must be processed by Border Patrol agents. Because of the unprecedented number of people arriving, there are nowhere near enough agents to process incoming migrants expeditiously, or enough space in existing detention facilities to hold everyone comfortably until they can be processed. The result is dangerous overcrowding and extremely poor sanitary conditions in facilities that were not designed to hold five or six times their human capacity.

Q: Why are so many migrants arriving now?

Sylvia Longmire: It’s a combination of factors. The majority of migrants are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and are escaping poverty and gang-related violence. The journey from Central America to the Southwest border is very dangerous, largely because the human smuggling trade is run by violent Mexican drug cartels.

To reduce their vulnerability, many migrants in the last year have joined huge caravans of people for safety in numbers. The political landscape in the United States is sending a message to origin countries that now might be the best time to attempt to request asylum before U.S. laws change. Human smugglers are also marketing their services under the guise that if migrants travel with family members or children, they will be released by immigration authorities.

Q: What happens to migrants when they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border?

Sylvia Longmire: Thousands of migrants are still attempting to cross the border illegally — often with tragic consequences. Others are apprehended by Border Patrol agents.

However, the majority of migrants are voluntarily turning themselves in, either at ports of entry or elsewhere along the border, and requesting asylum. If asylum is not involved, usually the migrants are processed for expedited removal and are released into Mexico at a port of entry along the border. If a migrant requests asylum, he or she must undergo a credible fear interview to determine if they qualify for an immigration hearing.

Some ports of entry are so crowded that agents have started a process called metering, where they only admit a limited number of migrants each day to request asylum, causing huge lines on the Mexican side of the border. The Trump administration has also enacted what’s called the Migrant Protection Protocols, where certain migrants are returned to Mexico after processing to await their immigration hearings.

Q: Why are detention facilities so overcrowded?

Sylvia Longmire: Most border detention facilities were built decades ago, with the intent to house single Mexican males. This was the demographic of the standard border crosser for a long time, and even though this demographic has shifted dramatically towards large groups, families, and unaccompanied children in the last seven years, updates to facilities have not been made.

Migrants who have been apprehended or otherwise require processing must be held in detention until they can be processed and either removed or released with an immigration hearing date. So many migrants are arriving at the border that there is no place to comfortably detain them until they can be processed. As a result, many border detention facilities are holding five or six times their capacity. Facilities are also not designed to hold families or children, so many basic needs for detainees are not being met.

Q: Are detention facility conditions as bad as the media portrays?

Sylvia Longmire: In many cases, yes. Immigration attorneys have reported widespread illness, lack of migrant access to showers, soap, toothbrushes, diapers and clean clothes. There have been reports of infants and toddlers soiling themselves because diapers are not available.

The media aren’t being allowed access to most of the detention facilities, and are publishing reports based on accounts provided by immigration attorneys and migrants who have been released. Their reports are having an impact. Recently, DHS transferred almost 300 children from a detention facility in Clint, Texas, after news emerged about the horrific conditions there. However, just a few days later, 100 of those children were transferred back to Clint after the overcrowding was alleviated.

Q: Why are some members of Congress referring to the detention centers as concentration camps?

Sylvia Longmire: Part of it is because of the horrible conditions that migrants kept there are being subjected to. Another part is because it’s unimaginable to many that people would knowingly be kept in these conditions for any length of time by the U.S. government on U.S. soil. It is a very politically charged term with a considerable amount of shock value, and likely used by some to impress upon others the seriousness of the humanitarian order crisis.

Legally and technically, the migrant detention facilities being run by DHS are very different than what many people think of as concentration camps in Europe and Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. However, the day-to-day living conditions in many border facilities are probably some of the worst that people have experienced on U.S. soil since that time.

Q: What happens to migrants after they get processed?

Sylvia Longmire: It depends on the migrant’s specific situation. If they have a criminal background or are suspected to be a gang or cartel member, then they are kept in detention, usually transferred to a facility away from the border. If they pass a credible fear interview, they are usually provided with a notice to appear before an immigration judge – sometimes as far as a year or more in the future – and released. Sometimes they are taken in large groups by bus to other cities for release, or are taken to a bus station where they can make connections to reunite with their families elsewhere in the United States.

Unaccompanied children are supposed to be transferred to the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement for placement in foster care. Because it has been challenging to either locate family members or find group homes or foster care, children are not being removed from detention facilities and placed in proper care as quickly as the law mandates.

Q: Are children being separated from their parents?

Sylvia Longmire: In April 2018, the Trump administration initiated a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents as they underwent criminal proceedings. Many of them still have not been reunited with her parents.

This policy was overturned two months later after a huge outcry. However, U.S. law still states that if immigrant parents are undergoing criminal proceedings, their children can be removed.

Q: What is the U.S. government doing to alleviate overcrowding?

Sylvia Longmire: In the very near term, they are attempting to move detained migrants to other shelters that are less crowded, but this is proving to be a challenge. The Department of Homeland Security has reached out as far as the states of Florida and Maine with a plan to transfer hundreds of migrants to communities there. Several states and cities have declined to take migrants, citing insufficient funding and infrastructure to adequately process and house them.

On the legislative front, Congress is attempting to pass a humanitarian bill worth over $4 billion to shore up funding for migrant shelters and medical care. However, while the house has passed one version and the Senate has passed another version, the two chambers can’t seem to reach an agreement.  The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for caring for unaccompanied children who arrive at the border, will run out of funding within a month if a deal cannot be reached.

Q: What is the U.S. government doing to reduce migrant arrivals?

Sylvia Longmire: Currently, the Trump administration is putting as much pressure as possible on Mexico and Central America origin countries to tighten up their border controls.

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The Mexican government promised to send 6,000 soldiers to its southern border, and so far has sent about 1,000 National Guard troops to the area. Media reports are indicating that cross-border traffic from Mexico to Guatemala has slowed.

Apprehension numbers at the Southwest border for June are down from May, but it’s hard to determine if that’s because of new border enforcement measures or the natural slowdown due to harsher temperatures. The White House has also attempted to establish harsh immigration policies and changes to asylum protocols that would make it almost impossible for migrants to even request asylum in the United States. However, domestic and international pressure, as well as legal challenges, are keeping these attempted deterrents at bay for the moment.

Q: What can be done to fix this crisis?

Sylvia Longmire: The short-term solution for the crisis at the Mexico border is more money and more people. Congress needs to provide fast-flowing funding to agencies along the border in order to build and prepare more shelters and more beds, especially places that are family-friendly. Border Patrol agents need to be shifted to the busiest detention centers in order to process migrants more quickly.

However, this is just a Band-Aid solution. The long-term fix is a complete overhaul of the immigration and asylum process, which is not been done in decades. Unfortunately, there is no motivation to do this if there isn’t a pressing crisis. Given the deep divisions between political parties in Washington, it is unlikely that a workable bipartisan solution will be reached anytime soon.

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