Mi­grant cri­sis prompts buildup along U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - NEWS - TAM­SIN MCMA­HON With files from Adrian Mor­row

As more troops move to the fron­tier and of­fi­cials slowly process claims, back­log of asy­lum seek­ers camp­ing out grows to the south

In his of­fice in No­gales, Ariz., Sher­iff Tony Estrada points down the street to where dozens of U.S. sol­diers are in­stalling ra­zor wire atop a pedes­trian bor­der cross­ing in the heart of the city’s small down­town. “They should not be here,” he says. “There is no in­va­sion. This is not a war.”

Sher­iff Estrada, the chief lawen­force­ment of­fi­cial of Santa Cruz County for the past 26 years, says the sol­diers sta­tioned across the town as part of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ef­forts to de­fend the bor­der against an ap­proach­ing car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants makes this oth­er­wise peace­ful com­mu­nity feel as if it is a war zone.

For Mr. Trump, who made build­ing a wall with Mex­ico the cen­tral fo­cus of his elec­tion cam­paign, mil­i­ta­riz­ing the bor­der is part of sweep­ing ef­forts to re­shape the coun­try’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

Lieu­tenant-Colonel Chad Cald­well, who over­sees those sol­diers as part of an en­gi­neer­ing bat­tal­ion of more than 450 troops, says the mis­sion to for­tify the bor­der feels far re­moved from the con­flicts he saw in mul­ti­ple tours of duty that in­cluded Iraq, Afghanistan and Bos­nia.

“It’s safer. There is not a huge threat. We’re not there afraid we’re go­ing to get at­tacked,” he says. “But the en­gi­neer­ing never changes. … A prob­lem is a prob­lem whether it’s in Iraq, Afghanistan or Ari­zona.”

The pres­i­den­tial or­der to send thou­sands of troops to the bor­der is a job to do, Lt.-Col. Cald­well says, a mis­sion as with any other.

In re­cent weeks, the Pres­i­dent has sent more than 5,600 troops to the bor­der and pro­posed deny­ing cit­i­zen­ship to ba­bies born to moth­ers who have en­tered the U.S. il­le­gally.

But for Sher­iff Estrada and oth­ers who live and work along the bor­der, such mea­sures rep­re­sent a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der- stand­ing of life in the coun­try’s bor­der re­gions and an in­ef­fec­tive strat­egy to deal with a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Cen­tral Amer­ica that has re­sulted in a con­tin­u­ous surge of refugees flock­ing to the United States.

Mr. Trump’s lat­est move came this week, when he is­sued a 90day procla­ma­tion bar­ring any­one who en­ters the United States from out­side an of­fi­cial port of en­try from mak­ing an asy­lum claim.

Im­mi­grant-rights groups backed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter im­me­di­ately filed a court chal­lenge to block the procla­ma­tion. Cur­rently, asy­lum seek­ers can make a refugee claim no mat­ter where they en­ter the United States.

It is pol­icy changes such as th­ese that worry of­fi­cials in Mex­i­can bor­der com­mu­ni­ties such as Ci­u­dad Juarez, al­ready grap­pling with a back­log of hun­dreds of mi­grants camped out on a pedes­trian bor­der cross­ing into El Paso, Tex.

“It’s not se­cure, they don’t have show­ers, they don’t have any­where to wash their clothes,” says Ser­gio Madero, who heads the Bor­der Bridges Trust of Chi­huahua, the state agency that op­er­ates Juarez’s in­ter­na­tional bridges into the United States.

Juarez has enough shel­ter beds and other re­sources to ac­cept a car­a­van of thou­sands of mi­grants, but Mr. Madero won­ders how long the city can man­age given U.S. bor­der of­fi­cials are pro­cess­ing claims on the bridge at a rate of 20 peo­ple a day.

Julio Ce­sar Reyes, his wife and two-year-old daugh­ter have been camp­ing on the bridge in Juarez for three days. The fam­ily, flee­ing gang vi­o­lence in south­ern Mex­ico, first tried to cross at a bridge in New Mex­ico, but were told the bor­der sta­tion was at ca­pac­ity. “We’ll just wait here and if it’s not tonight, we’ll be here to­mor­row,” he says. “If it’s not to­mor­row, we’ll be here the next day.”

There are other com­pli­ca­tions be­yond over­crowd­ing at in­ter­na­tional bridges.

Un­der ex­ist­ing U.S. fed­eral pol­icy, asy­lum seek­ers who are caught cross­ing the bor­der out­side of of­fi­cial ports of en­try are el­i­gi­ble to be re­leased on bonds, paid by fam­ily mem­bers or non­profit groups. Those taken into fed­eral cus­tody at ports of en­try aren’t el­i­gi­ble for bonds, mean­ing they can con­ceiv­ably be de­tained in­def­i­nitely.

Nor does it ap­pear that U.S. bor­der cross­ings have the ca­pac­ity to hold so many mi­grants.

One evening this week, Ruben Gar­cia took mem­bers of a U.S. con­gres­sional sub­com­mit­tee on home­land se­cu­rity on a tour of one of two El Paso mo­tels he has rented to house roughly 375 mi­grants be­ing re­leased by im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials into the city each day.

Mr. Gar­cia runs An­nun­ci­a­tion House, a net­work of mi­grant shel­ters. He tells the Wash­ing­ton staffers about a tent fa­cil­ity to process asy­lum seek­ers that im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials con­structed at a com­mer­cial bor­der cross­ing in nearby Tornillo two years ago, com­plete with dorms, din­ing halls and shower fa­cil­i­ties.

The tent city was shut­tered five months later, when the flow of mi­grants be­gan to slow. Since then, as the num­ber of asy­lum seek­ers has started to soar once again, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials have opted to de­tain mi­grants in over­crowded hold­ing cells, some­times for weeks. Among those whom An­nun­ci­a­tion House has re­ceived from de­ten­tion are three ba­bies with pneu­mo­nia, a young girl with the chicken pox and 11 preg­nant women.

Last week, only days be­fore the U.S. midterm elec­tions, Mr. Gar­cia got word from lo­cal im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials that their poli­cies were chang­ing once again to com­ply with a court or­der restrict­ing de­ten­tions to 72 hours.

Now, mi­grants are be­ing dropped off at the down­town bus sta­tion – thou­sands a week – so many that An­nun­ci­a­tion House’s vol­un­teers are hav­ing trou­ble get­ting enough Grey­hound bus tick­ets.

Two years af­ter Mr. Trump was elected on a prom­ise to build a wall along the bor­der with Mex­ico, lit­tle has changed with how the United States deals with the cri­sis at its south­ern bor­der, Mr. Gar­cia says, be­yond the pol­i­tics of fear.

“If I’m a smug­gler, what I’m say­ing to you as I sell my prod­uct is: If you’re think­ing of com­ing, now is the time to come,” he says. “Be­cause in spite of all the rhetoric, they still can’t de­tain peo­ple.”

MIKE CHRISTY/ARI­ZONA DAILY STAR

U.S. sol­diers in­stall ra­zor wire along the bor­der just east of a port of en­try in No­gales, Ariz., on Wed­nes­day.

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