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At U.S.-Mexico border, migrants seeking legal entry are stranded in hazardous ‘limbo’

Much of President Trump’s rhetoric over immigration focuses on the people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. But what is the situation for the thousands who wait on a daily basis to enter through legal means? In the second installment of our two-part series, Amna Nawaz crosses the border into Mexico to see firsthand how the existing U.S. immigration system “isn’t working for anyone.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We continue our look now at migrants crossing the southern U.S. border and the policy decisions affecting their journey.

    Amna Nawaz traveled to Mexico, and the San Luis port of entry, where families from Central America and Mexico are facing a months-long wait to enter the U.S. legally.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For thousands of migrants on their way in or out of the United States, this is a temporary haven, the Casa del Migrante shelter in San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico.

  • Martin Salgado Ames:

    We give them food. We give them medical attention when they need it, and they can spend up to three nights here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Martin Salgado Ames' family has run this shelter for decades.

  • Martin Salgado Ames (through translator):

    Until a few months ago, the majority of the population that came to these shelters were men, mainly men; 95, 97 percent were men. The families were in Mexico in their homes, and the father went to find a job and send money.

    But this started to change drastically when violence and unemployment started to increase. Then, entire families started crossing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They come mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, he says. But some are from other parts of Mexico, like Carmen and her kids, 4-year-old Alison and 2-year-old Edwin, from Guerrero, Mexico, 1,800 miles away.

    Her husband, she says, has been working in the U.S. for almost a year. She's struggled to provide for the family alone.

  • Carmen:

    I want to cross to the other side, because they say that you can pass with no problem. Nothing happens. So, I came, so I could pass and be with my husband and work with him. We want to have money and a house. That's what we want.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carmen came to the shelter to feed and bathe her family and wash their few clothes. She will then walk her kids an hour back to the sidewalk camp they have called home for the last seven weeks.

  • Carmen (through translator):

    Where I slept before was a tarp and a mat that they gifted me. It's very cold. And, yesterday, three women came and gave me a tent that I'm going to sleep in with my kids.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    U.S. officials talk often about the increase in illegal border crossings, not the growing backup of families waiting to enter legally.

    This is a line of more than 250 families, over 1,000-people-long, sheltered under blue tarps during hot days and sleeping on a freezing sidewalk overnight. Many have been here for months, and most are from Mexico. The U.S. port of entry is just a few yards away. And more families join the line every day.

  • Man:

    Three or four families.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Added every day? And how many families get to enter every day?

  • Man:

    Average, one.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One family a day.

    Whoever is first maintains this list. We make our way down the line, talking to family after family.

    How many kids does he have?

  • Man:

    Three, and the other family, another three.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Oh, there's two families living under here.

    Mario says he and his family fled violence in Guerrero. Rutilio and Josefina are also from Guerrero. They want a better education for their four kids. Their two sons were actually born in the U.S. after the family entered illegally years ago.

    So, wait a second. Two of his kids are U.S. citizens? And they're still making them wait?

  • Martin Salgado Ames:

    Yes, because the rest of the family are from Mexico.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While we're there, family number 34 is allowed into the U.S. port of entry.

    So, the guys you see in the orange back there are actually part of a Mexican federal agency that does humanitarian work. They go and they help those families who are waiting in line to get processed and escort them up when it's their turn. They're taking a family up right now that's been waiting for weeks, possibly months, in that line.

    In response to our questions about the pace of processing families, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson cited capacity issues, saying they process undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible, without negating the agency's overall mission, which includes counternarcotics, national security, and facilitation of lawful trade, all requiring a careful balance of their resources and space.

    But immigration advocates, like Laura Belous of the Arizona-based Florence Project, worry the slow pace of legal entry may push people to cross illegally instead.

  • Laura Belous:

    When I talk to clients about the reasons why they come, the first thing that they talk about is the harm., and the harm that was so severe that really coming to the United States was a last resort in terms of having safety.

    Our clients often report that they have suffered severe harm along the way in terms of assaults, in terms of robbery. But they make that trip because they're looking for safety.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carmen, meanwhile, is stuck. She can't go home. But she also can't afford to wait in the line much longer.

  • Carmen (through translator):

    I only have 200 pesos left, but I'm going to buy food soon. I don't have any left, because food is expensive here. And I don't know if I'm going to have enough for tomorrow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carmen, what you will do when you run out of money?

  • Carmen (through translator):

    Sometimes, my kids ask for things, and I keep telling my son that I don't have any money. Don't ask me for anything. My daughter, she understands. But my son, he starts crying, because all he wants is his cereal and milk. I am all by myself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can you tell me about this?

    At the shelter, Martin says all he can do is try to ease their journey, wherever it may lead.

  • Martin Salgado Ames:

    They stand right here, and they pray, and they…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do they pray for?

  • Martin Salgado Ames:

    To cross, and for their lives — life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow, such a powerful story, Amna.

    You were there at the border. How typical is what you found at this one border crossing location?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Unfortunately, it's not that unique.

    We know there is some version of this kind of backup happening across the border. We saw it last summer when we were in El — sorry — in El Paso. U.S. officials were standing at the international boundary keeping people from entering because of capacity issues.

    An inspector general report later found they're doing what's called metering. That's limiting the amount of people who can enter the ports of entry. And we now know there is a Trump administration official policy that asks legal asylum seekers to stay in Mexico. They can't come into the U.S. while their immigration court cases are adjudicated.

    It's in place — in two ports of entry right now. And they have said they're going to expand it across the border in the coming weeks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you showed us some scenes of what it's like for these people who are waiting. They're living in tents, obviously, the mother being emotional there.

    Tell us more about what these people are going through.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, the backup, Judy, is basically taking a vulnerable population and making them more vulnerable.

    What we couldn't show you, but what they did tell us, was what happens when we're not there. Often, the kids are sent out to beg for money during the day. At night, a lot of the women are forced to prostitute themselves just to get money to feed their kids and make ends meet. Most people can't afford to live in limbo like that for very, very long.

    But the big takeaway from all of this, Judy, is what we found over both sides of the border, is that the system isn't working for anyone, not the U.S. officials who are trying to secure the border without enough resources to do so, and not the people on the other side, the thousands and thousands of families, a vast majority of whom are fleeing instability and are not a criminal threat to the U.S., who want to cross the border.

    So, the question right now that both of those groups are asking is, what can we do about it with what we have, and what our lawmakers going to do about it to try to change the system to work for everyone?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a side of the story we don't get to see often enough. It's so important to do this, do this reporting.

    Amna, thank you very much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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