No Easy Answers: Views From the Border

Blog post Cathy Senderling-McDonald

Three weeks ago, I was in El Paso, Texas, riding in a Border Patrol bus along the Rio Grande river. The river ran through a concrete gorge, Mexican national guard troops standing every few hundred feet on the other side. Just past a tall section of border wall, several Border Patrol SUVs converged on a young woman holding a baby in her arms, a toddler clutching her jeans and a young man standing next to her. Another woman, also with a baby and toddler, sat nearby.

My group, mostly elected county officials and some other county administrators and staff like me, filed quickly off the bus. Some took pictures while the Border Patrol agent with us spoke to the woman in rapid-fire Spanish.

“She’s from Honduras,” he said. “She says it took them 15 days to get here.”

I was struck by how calm the adults and children were. As we watched, the families were loaded into one of the SUVs and they drove off.

“Where are they taking those families?” someone asked.

“The same place we’re headed – they’re going to be processed,” the agent told us.

By the time we got to the Border Patrol Station, about 20 minutes north of the border, the families were already there. One woman was talking with an agent who sat behind a computer, scanning her documents. The other one stood in line, waiting her turn.

“This is surreal,” someone said.

*****

The day was surreal in a lot of ways. The tour, organized by the National Association of Counties, offered about two dozen members of the association’s Immigration Reform Task Force, on which I sit, the opportunity to spend the morning with Customs and Border Patrol on an official tour, then to cross the border into Juarez, Mexico to tour a refugee shelter funded by the Mexican federal government.

Both ends of the day were eye-opening and raised many questions. Given recent controversies, the Customs and Border Patrol agents were determined to show they were treating people respectfully. We saw a lot of toothbrushes, toiletries, diapers and food, all of which seemed in ample supply and available at every stage of the process to migrants, whether they came through the official crossing or had been caught illegally crossing the border. What we didn’t see was the next stop for many of these migrants, namely, the facilities run by ICE and Health and Human Services that continue to be in the news.

The refugee center in Juarez is another path for many such migrants, probably including the two families we saw. Under the Migrant Protections Protocols (MPP), in place since early 2019 in the U.S., many Spanish-speaking migrants from countries other than Mexico are processed and returned to Mexico to await a court date (likely months away). About 16,000 people have been returned to Mexico under MPP, and the network of shelters there is insufficient to house them all; the whereabouts of many are unknown. The shelter we toured, with a capacity for more than 1,000, was housing 600 at the time of our visit. The staff said about 80 percent of the residents were Honduran, the rest mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala. All were there voluntarily, although the alternatives in Juarez, once named the most dangerous city in the world, aren’t very appealing.

The shelter was clean, seemed comfortable, offered three hot meals a day, and had job placement services for parents and school for the children (a recent improvement, according to a legal aid attorney with us on the tour). I spoke for a few minutes to a smiling, adorable little girl, who said she and her family were “muy bien.” The director told us the Mexican government was trying to “offer an alternative” for these migrants, who mostly came from such violent countries that they had genuine fear if they returned. Under MPP, it seems likely that very few will make it into America, but only 80 from that shelter had taken jobs in Mexico so far.

*****

The members of our tour group came from all over the United States, and from all over the political spectrum. We had some time together to process what we’d seen, and we did have areas of agreement.

  • The immigration system in our country is fragmented and broken.The number of different programs and the constant policy shifts discussed on our tours were incredibly confusing to follow. I can’t imagine what those coming across the border – legally or illegally – must think. The policies often seemed to conflict with one another and/or result in strange outcomes. While immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol were sent back to Mexico if they were from a country other than Mexico, some Mexicans were released on their own recognizance in America while others were placed into ICE custody for deportation. Apparently, a lot of recent Brazilian migrants have been released in the U.S. on their own recognizance because, as non-Spanish speakers, they don’t qualify MPP.  
  • How policymakers define “family” results in children being separated from their caregivers. The Border Patrol agent we spoke with, as well as representatives with us from Washington, DC, talked about splitting up children who came across the border with anyone other than a parent or legal guardian. Culturally, grandparents often travel with these children, whose parents precede them into America and then send for the rest of the family; they are split up as a matter of course. A Border Patrol agent estimated that roughly a third of the groups coming across the border who state that they are families are later found to be “fraudulent.” The legal aid attorney took issue with this, saying it includes not just those who lie about family ties, but also those who are grandparents or other relatives without the necessary legal paperwork. This is a policy that even those representing the federal agencies cited as problematic from their perspective.
  • The immigration system is seriously under-resourced. The conditions we saw at the time were not at crisis levels, but the agents leading our tours talked about how recently they had been far beyond capacity. On the Border Patrol portion of the tour, we were shown a holding cell with about eight men in sleeping bags and a stated capacity of 35. A few months ago, the cell was crammed with more than 200 detainees, due to a surge at the border of illegal crossings and a lack of space at the detention facilities run by partner agencies. We saw trained Customs agents who had been shifted into day-care roles, caring for unaccompanied minors who came into the Paso Del Norte border crossing. The children typically carry a phone number of someone in America, an agent told us. We toured administrative areas turned into housing and day care areas for these children and saw a conference room filled with phones for them to call relatives in the U.S. The customs agent told us they often have to close crossing lanes for cars and pedestrians because of agents being shifted into these interior areas.
  • These federal problems quickly turn into local problems. The El Paso County representatives on our tour spoke of the large number of migrants who are released and referred daily to community-based organizations for service, without much warning and without the needed resources to serve them. The legal aid attorneys spoke of huge caseloads and very little time with each client, if they can even find their clients. One said that due to MPP, she and her colleagues now must travel across the border into Juarez regularly to seek out the clients they have been assigned.

*****

I’ve been processing what I saw for a few weeks now, and here’s what I took away from my day at the border: It’s going to take more than just some money and toothbrushes to solve the problems we saw. It’s going to take bipartisan willingness to engage, not just with fellow federal lawmakers but with states, cities and counties, and with people on the front line – including people on various sides of this legal and humanitarian issue. How you view this depends on where you sit, but there is common ground to be found, as we all discovered.

We were at these facilities on a good day, when things seemed to be working smoothly and there were enough sleeping bags and space for everyone. But there’s no question that overcrowding, and the myriad issues it brings, can occur very quickly if an unanticipated surge in families or individuals occurs again. The problems at detention facilities run by ICE or HHS, the next stops for many of these migrants, continue to be documented (and litigated).

In the end, it’s simply well past time to figure out a more humane, logical, and comprehensive set of solutions to the issues created by our fragmented immigration system.