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How surge in family border crossings is complicating enforcement

In the Yuma sector of the southwestern Arizona border, Border Patrol officials are observing dramatic shifts in the migrant populations they apprehend. In the past, a majority of migrants caught crossing illegally were single men. Now 90% of those apprehended are Central American families and unaccompanied children. Amna Nawaz reports on how changing demographics are taxing immigration resources.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Although crossings at the U.S. southern border are at historic lows, the number of families and unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. has been increasing.

    Amna Nawaz was granted access to Border Patrol's Yuma Sector operations in Arizona.

    This is the first of two reports, starting with a view from the U.S. side of the border. And a warning: Viewers may find some images disturbing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Under the hot Arizona sun, with few belongings and well-worn shoes, these migrants have just crossed onto American soil after the nearly-4,000-mile journey from Guatemala.

    Some in the group allow us to shoot video. Florencio says he and his 4-year-old son, Walter, traveled for 30 days. He's desperate for work and says there was none back home. He and the others surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents. The agents didn't allow us to record interviews with the group.

    But they invited us to spend a day seeing what they do here in the Yuma Sector in Southwest Arizona. The groups they're encountering in recent years have changed dramatically.

    A decade ago, 90 percent of immigrants caught crossing illegally were single adult men from Mexico. Today, nearly 90 percent are families and unaccompanied children from Central America. That change, they say, is stretching their resources like never before.

    At their headquarters, Border Patrol shows us where families are first detained.

    Inside the headquarters is what they call a processing center, where families are held for about three days. And we're not allowed to shoot any picture, but we can tell you what we saw. It's basically a giant cement room. And around the perimeter of the room are a number of holding cells that are broken up by population. So you have mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.

    But the single most crowded room was for unaccompanied males, just dozens and dozens of teenagers lying like sardines in this one cement room.

    What really strikes you about the room, though, is how many children there are, toddlers running around, infants in their mother's arms. The one thing border officials will tell you is everyone can agree this is no place for families and children.

    We could record video in what they call their Costco, a room once filled with office supplies, now packed with diapers, formula, and family essentials, unpacked here by some of the 90 National Guard troops sent to backfill staffing.

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    This is what we call an enforcement zone, so this is triple-layer fencing here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yuma Sector Chief Anthony Porvaznik says he's asked for more agents. He already has funding from last year to update 25 miles of border fencing.

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    This will all be replaced.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Into what?

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    It will be 30 feet bollard-style fence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    His resources, he says, haven't changed since 2012, but the job has. Porvaznik estimates 35 percent to 40 percent of his current manpower goes to processing and caring for the families and children in custody.

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    We just had a lady last week who delivered twins two months premature.

    And they see — they see sick kids in our custody. And last year alone, we took 550 kids to the hospital here, over 1,700 total here just in the Yuma area. That's a huge strain on our resources, because they're doing things that are not enforcement-related.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But agents concede no barrier is 100 percent effective.

    They point us towards the surveillance videos showing families climbing over sections of wall. The 14-year-old girl in this clip broke her vertebrae from the fall. Injuries, they say, are common and further stretch their resources.

    How far back does this date?

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    This dates back to about 1990.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chief Porvaznik believes updating older wall will dissuade people from trying to cross illegally.

    When you see people who are willing to dig under this and climb over barbed wire and build makeshift ladders to climb over additional fencing, do you think that that's enough to deter people to try to breach it in some way?

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    The majority of the population, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes?

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    It will deter the majority. And what we're trying to do is impede and deny entry into this area. And so, 87 percent of the people that we apprehend right now are family units and unaccompanied children. They won't go over a 30-foot bollard. Is it going to push it somewhere else? Likely, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Later in the day, Border Patrol encountered a second group of Guatemalans migrants.

    This mother of two young children asked we don't show their faces. She's fleeing her abusive husband. She and the rest of this group of 12 waited across the Colorado River to get into the U.S.

  • Carl Landrum:

    These are things that we have to interact with here on the ground.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Deputy Chief Carl Landrum walked us through the brush to show us where they crossed.

    The fact that people are willing to make a crossing like this with little kids tells you what people are willing to do to come to the States.

  • Carl Landrum:

    It definitely — it definitely shows that people want to experience the American dream. And we would like for everybody that could be a part of that legally to be a part of it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But immigration attorney Laura Belous of the Arizona-based Florence Project says resources should go to immigration courts, not physical barriers.

  • Laura Belous:

    If you look at the history the border over the last 20 years, increased walls within cities then pushed people into deserts.

    So, if there's walls and deserts, it is going to push people into canyons and rivers, where people are likely to have even more dangerous crossing. Smuggling will be even more expensive. That then makes everyone along the border less safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chief Porvaznik says, whatever the solution, the current situation is unsustainable.

  • Anthony Porvaznik:

    Look, we can't arrest our way out of the problem. That's not going to solve the problem. So we have to figure out — and this is not a Border Patrol solve. This is — this comes from legislation, updated laws.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the policy debate in Washington drags on, there's little relief in sight for both those patrolling this border and those seeking to cross it.

    Officials say the vast majority of those crossing are families seeking stability or safety, though they also say background checks sometimes reveal someone with a criminal history.

    Judy, it's worth noting that criminal history often means an immigration violation, not necessarily a violent crime. But Border Patrol officials' bigger concern is who they're missing while they're busy caring for these families and children. So they say they want everyone to cross legally.

    And that will be the focus of our piece tomorrow evening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're very much looking forward to that.

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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