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Lena I. Jackson
Lena I. Jackson
A surge in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months has led U.S. Border agents to drop some migrants off at sites in rural American towns, to begin their wait for court hearings. But these towns often lack the means to cope with the influx, even though aid groups have stepped in to help. Special correspondent Dan Lieberman reports.
A surge in crossings at the U.S.-Mexican border in recent months has led U.S. border agents to drop some migrants off at sites in rural American towns to begin their wait for court hearings.
As special correspondent Dan Lieberman reports, these towns often lack the means to cope with the influx, even though aid groups have stepped in to help.
It's another hot day on the border for Fernie Quiroz, a volunteer with the Arizona California Humanitarian Coalition, a group that was created to respond to a growing trend, border Patrol releasing migrants in small towns that lack the resources to respond.
They have nowhere to call, where to go. They don't even know where the bus station is. Where is an airport? Where is a local hotel?
Instead of releasing the migrants onto the streets, Border Patrol began dropping them off at the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, a rural city near Yuma, Arizona, where they get COVID-tested and are given food and water before boarding a charter bus to shelters hours away. From there, they often travel hundreds of miles to stay with family members or a sponsor.
The 41 individuals that were released to us today, this time tomorrow, they will be in the arms of their family.
The next day, we met C and her 9-year-old daughter from Nicaragua. For her own protection, we are using just her first initial. I asked her why she decided to leave now.
C (through translator):
There is a lot of conflict. There is no economy, there is no work. There is no way to get ahead. Besides, we are afraid of being in a country where there is great danger for everyone.
Once they got to the U.S. border, they crossed between official ports of entry to get into the U.S.
C (through translator):
The area where we crossed, the wall is there, but it's open. The wall isn't closed. There's an entryway.
We're right up against the border with Mexico, where just a small fence and canal separate the two countries.
We were told by Customs and Border Protection that a majority of migrants are choosing to cross at places like this one, instead of ports of entry. Under Title 42, the pandemic era rule that expels most migrants, many know that, if they cross here or other places like it and turn themselves into Border Patrol, they can claim asylum.
Customs and Border Protection say they have recently seen the highest number of apprehensions along the Southwestern border in two decades, with nearly 180,000 in April alone, a 34 percent increase from the last surge in the spring of 2019.
When you see these rural drop-offs occur, what does that say about the system?
U.S. Well, it would say that the system is bogged down.
Robert Bushell is a special operations supervisor with Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. He points out that, by law, Customs and Border Protection has to release migrant families within 72 hours of their arrival in the U.S. Unaccompanied children are transferred to a Health and Human Services shelter, until they can be connected with vetted family or sponsors.
We don't have facilities that are built to house these populations like family units. When it's time to transfer custody, let's say to ICE, if ICE is not able to take those folks into their custody, we really have no choice but to release them with a notice to appear.
Some end up paroled into the community and some end up in detention.
Alex Miller is an attorney with The Florence Project, a legal services organization that provides free counsel to migrants.
She says while some, like C, are processed into the U.S., most are still being immediately expelled back to Mexico under a pandemic era rule called Title 42.
Initially implemented by President Trump, the Biden administration has continued the policy, which closes the border indefinitely to nonessential travel to stop the spread of COVID-19.
We see it applied differently to people from different geographical backgrounds or demographics.
But, for the most part, individuals and families from Central America tend to be returned to Mexico. And folks from further afield, from South America end up getting put into normal immigration proceedings.
Some residents of this Arizona border community have been frustrated by the releases, seeing it as one more symbol of a broken immigration system.
If people don't see it as a crisis, it's probably because they haven't seen it.
John Boelts is a fifth-generation produce farmer in Yuma County who's struggled to maintain a legal and reliable work force.
Right now, the message is, come cross any which way you can and seek asylum, and we will put you up in a hotel. That's odd. That's not a great way. And it just — it makes Customs and Border Protection's work that much more difficult.
What we would like to see is legal commerce at the border, legal traffic at the border, not the situation we have today.
He says many of his own workers, some of whom cross the border every day, are as frustrated as he is.
To legally immigrate into this country, if you want to work in agriculture, that takes months, years of applications, tens of thousands of dollars. So, it can be frustrating to see somebody else getting a much easier path.
For Mario Jauregui, who owns a business in the nearby border city of San Luis, it's a question of taxpayer dollars.
What's next for those families? Where are they going? Who's going to be taking care of them? Who's going to be feeding them? Who's going to be the health care that they need to be receiving? This is going to put a tremendous burden on — on the American people.
Border Patrol acknowledges it presents challenges for the agency, too.
As Border Patrol agents, our job is to know who and what is coming across our borders between the ports of entry. And when we encounter large groups of children or family units, more of our resources that should be on the border looking for the who and the what's crossing are now diverted for a certain period of time to deal with those kids or those families that just entered.
Carlos Bernal, whose family emigrated from Mexico in 1972, believes the U.S. must welcome them.
Carlos Bernal (through translator):
Why do we have to deny them the universal right of the American dream? This land isn't owned by any individual person. It's everyone's land. We are all immigrants.
I think we need to really talk about our small communities along the border.
Doug Nicholls is the mayor of Yuma.
We really need to have a policy in place that protects them and that takes care of what the issues are on the release to not adversely affect the small communities, where they need to transport to other communities, when DHS is already present in those other communities.
At the end of the day, this will just be a cycle that repeats itself if we don't get to the heart of the issues.
Alex Miller, with The Florence Project, agrees that the system needs to change.
One way to relieve some of the pressure on Border Patrol in rural areas is to make sure that migrants who want to seek asylum at ports have that opportunity.
After leaving Somerton, C and her daughter arrived safely at Casa Alitas, a shelter in Tucson, almost four hours from where we first met them.
They were given a place to sleep, new clothes, and food before heading to the airport to fly to San Antonio to reunite with her brother, who she hasn't seen in 10 years. I asked her what her hopes are now.
I have to work so that my daughter can study. I want her to have a better future. I feel happy to have had the opportunity to come to this country.
If the Biden administration ends Title 42, as they just did with Trump's remain-in-Mexico policy, aid groups and Border Patrol anticipate there will be a significant increase in the number of migrants crossing the border again. They're waiting to hear what comes next.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Dan Lieberman in Arizona.
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