By Walt Baranger
SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico – Just feet away from a large freeway-like sign declaring “Boundary of the United States of America,” children play in the Anapra neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. But this is not exactly true; they gambol in a narrow strip of the United States that lies between the Mexican state of Chihuahua and the American border fence, perhaps a dozen feet of disused territory between the invisible international border and the steel slats that soar up to 26 feet high, forming a rust-colored dotted line across the continent.
Happily for the youngsters, the designers of the United States’ border fence failed to take them into consideration. A shoeless pre-teen can easily scramble nearly to the top of the barrier here, and later ask $1 of American passersby who are amazed to see the fence so easily scaled.
Bemused U.S. Border Patrol agents occasionally hand out granola bars or other treats to the little hands that reach north through the bars. The agents know the children by name, and on a recent Monday even chided them for not being in school.
This thin necklace of sand may be United States soil, but sovereignty has been ceded to the nimble fence-climber and his friends, and their pet dog.
In this parched rural stretch of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, audiences for the fence climbers are an increasingly rare commodity as agents are diverted from patrolling the fence duties elsewhere. The migrants who attract Washington’s attention are no longer Mexican job seekers, but Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran families, driven north by poverty, violence and endemic government corruption.
Officials report that the number of migrants apprehended in the El Paso area over the past seven months is up a staggering 374% from a year ago, to more than 10,000. The number of families taken into custody is up 1,816% in the same period, to more than 74,000. In the entire Southwest, the number of families caught by the Border Patrol may rise 400% this year, the government estimates.
Actually, “caught” misstates another trend that the vexes the Border Patrol: Families from Central America seeking asylum frequently make no attempt to evade border guards, and instead seek out agents to whom they can surrender. The border security system was designed to apprehend and quickly deport single Mexican males who crossed the border. Small holding cells near the border were never designed for families.
El Paso is the epicenter of this surge of humanity, and a Border Patrol spokesman said that 40% of the region’s field agents have been reassigned from patrol duties in an effort to buttress processing and detention centers.
By all accounts, both the Border Patrol and the migrants they encounter are in dire straits. Federal processing centers and detention facilities are beyond their designed capacities, filled with the poor and dispossessed, the young and the old, often suffering from health problems after such an arduous journey north.
On a recent day near downtown El Paso, Border Patrol agents in plain sight along the Rio Grande, which is easily forded but muddy, warned two families in Juárez not to cross. But they splashed ashore anyway and then waited patiently – the mothers and children appeared exhausted – while reporters quizzed them in Spanish and the agents arranged for their transportation to a processing center.
The migrants were driven away in a faded blue government bus of uncertain vintage. One of the families had decamped from a village in Honduras, some 2,100 miles away.
Their destination will be Border Patrol holding cells in the El Paso area that, in the words of Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, are “overcrowded,” “dangerous” and “unsanitary.” In May 2019, one El Paso detention facility designed for 125 detainees held 900, with some cells so crowded that there was no room to sit.
“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers,” said the inspector general on May 30.
This multimedia package was produced for 2019 Dow Jones Multimedia Training Academy by Farideh Dada, Nancy Garcia and Walt Baranger.