El Paso officials, aid workers and churches are scrambling to find shelter and legal counsel for a surge of Central American migrants
US authorities failure to keep up with a steep increase in Central American families seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border has left El Paso aid workers, churches and city government scrambling to respond.
After a sudden surge in arrivals, migrants have been crowded into hotels, churches and even held under a bridge behind a chain-link fence and razor wire while their asylum claims are processed.
The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, said the number of new arrivals in March is expected to reach 100,000, including 55,000 family members. The immigration system is at breaking point, he told reporters on Wednesday.
The chaotic scenes in El Paso are the result of a regional crisis in which growing numbers of Central American families flee violence, corruption and poverty only to come up against failed migration polices in Mexico and the US.
The exodus has only gained pace in recent months. Last year, border apprehensions dropped to historic lows, but in February CBP announced more than 76,000 people were apprehended or sought asylum at the US southern border the highest number in a decade.
The advocacy group DHS Watch noted that family apprehensions at the border had been steadily increasing since 2012. Nothing is perfect, but we have seen that the Trump policies of the last two years have not only failed, they have led us to more serious problems, Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch, said in a statement.
Authorities in US border towns have struggled to cope with the crush of families and unaccompanied minors. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are now being released to pursue their claims in immigration courts, a process that can take years.
Marissa Nuez, a volunteer coordinator at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the shelters in El Paso have been overwhelmed and that some migrants have been transported to shelters about 300 miles away in New Mexico.
These past couple of weeks there has definitely been a huge, huge surge of people, said Nuez.
But advocates rushing to find shelter and legal representation for thousands of migrants say that the emergency response will not be sustainable over the long term.
At a city council meeting earlier this week, Ruben Garcia, the executive director of El Pasos Annunciation House, said: Annunciation House over the past four or five months has now paid out over $1m in hotels we are not going to be able to sustain that.
And there is no sign that the mass exodus is likely to end soon. Most of the current wave of migrants come from three small Central American countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where migration is driven by a a toxic mix of violence, poverty, food insecurity, climate change, political instability and corruption.
Violence perpetrated by drug traffickers, street gangs and state security forces have made this region, known as the Northern Triangle, the most dangerous place in the world outside an official war zone.
Rabbi Salem Pierce, of the rabbinic human rights group, Truah, said that migrants on both sides of the border had over and over and over again described the dangers that had prompted them to flee Central America.
Pierce said local community groups are doing incredible amounts of work to respond to the mass releases, but that is a Band-Aid for the broader lack of infrastructure to efficiently process and house families seeking asylum.
El Pasos mayor, Dee Margo, said at a city council meeting this week that he was tired of the federal governments failure to respond to the influx of families arriving at the border. The root cause is Washington DC, and we are dealing with the byproducts of their failure and inaction and their lack of intestinal fortitude on both sides of the aisle to deal with something that should have been dealt with many years ago, he said.
For decades, most border-crossers were Mexican men traveling alone and looking for work. That population shrank after the recession, but the number of Central American migrants has steadily increased.
Many Americans first became aware of the problem in 2014, when a wave of unaccompanied Central American children reached the border. Those minors were greeted by a border infrastructure built for the apprehension, detention and deportation of adult males not for responding to a humanitarian crisis.
And there is little doubt that the Northern Triangle countries are in crisis.
Guatemala is the most unequal country in Central America with 59% of the population living in poverty without access to basic rights such as health, education, housing and justice, said Jorge Santos from Udefegua, an organisation which monitors attacks against activists, journalists and community leaders. The countrys politicians meanwhile, have been mired in a string of corruption scandals.
Theres a growing feeling that there is little possibility of a dignified life in Guatemala which is producing the increased flow of migrants and refugees, said Santos.
In November, Guatemalans overtook Mexicans as the largest nationality taken into CBP custody an incredible figure considering that the population of Mexico is seven times larger than that of its southern neighbour.
In the fiscal year so far (October 2018 to February 2019), 12,576 unaccompanied Guatemalan children were apprehended at the southern border compared with a total of 13,726 from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.
Hondurans have also surpassed the number of Mexicans attempting to cross the border: in the first five months of the fiscal year, almost 52,000 Hondurans travelling in family groups were apprehended at the US border compared with 39,439 in the whole of 2018.
Migration from Honduras has accelerated amid a dire political, economic and security situation triggered by the 2009 coup which ushered in the pro-business and pro-military rightwing National party. An upsurge in human rights violations including high profile cases like the murder of the indigenous leader Berta Cceres triggered international condemnation but failed to stop the bloodshed or stem US aid.
Central Americans are not just heading to the US: many are seeking safety in Mexico, where asylum requests by Guatemalans were up 333% in the first two months of 2019 compared with the same period last year.
Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed Mexico for the increase in Central Americans heading north without ever acknowledging the negative role US politics historical and current play in the regions political, economic and security woes. Trumps Mexican counterpart, Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador, argues that there is little his country could do to stop the flow.
We respect President Trumps position, and we are going to help, said Lpez Obrador on Thursday, before qualifying his response: This is a problem of the United States, or its a problem of the Central American countries. Its not up to us Mexicans, no.
Human rights campaigners in Mexico, however, are increasingly frustrated by the new governments rudderless and reactionary approach to tackling irregular migration and asylum.
In January, migration agents were deployed to the southern border city Tapachula and issued several thousand temporary humanitarian visas to migrants in an attempt to dissuade them from continuing north.
But on Wednesday, Mexicos interior secretary, Olga Snchez Cordero, announced that federal police and civil protection agents would be deployed to southern Mexico, indicating a more punitive response.
The surprise announcement came after Snchez met with the US homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.
Snchez claimed the deployment was necessary in light of the mother of all caravans, made up of more than 20,000 people, which she said was preparing to leave Honduras.
But although a smaller group of around 1,500 to 2,000 peopleis currently making its way through southern Mexico, there is no evidence of the caravan described by Snchez , said Rubn Figueroa from the Mesoamerica Migrant Movement. Weve no idea where Olga Snchez got this false information, he said. But we can only assume that the objective is to generate a migrant crisis which will help President Trumps demands for a wall.
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