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Why current U.S. immigration challenge reflects ‘complete political failure’

Federal immigration officials in El Paso say they're overwhelmed by a massive influx of families seeking asylum. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has responded to the surge by moving personnel in from other areas, but that could exacerbate the problem by further slowing processing of asylum requests. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Bob Moore of Texas Monthly about the ‘completely new’ situation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to the U.S.-Mexico border, where federal immigration officials say they are overwhelmed by the massive influx of families seeking asylum.

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage, with reporting and production help from the Cronkite News Center at Arizona PBS.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In El Paso, Texas, migrants detained by the U.S. crammed under a bridge behind fencing and razor wire. Officials say a nearby detention center is past capacity from a surge in arrivals, mostly families and children.

    On Twitter today, President Trump accused Mexico of doing nothing to help stop the flow, and he threatened to close the southern border. Some of his top aides are echoing the president's message.

    In El Paso on Wednesday, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, warned that his agency is at a breaking point.

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    With the flows at these levels and increasing, combined with the lack of bed space for our partners, it means that we will be continued to be challenged to provide humane care for those in our custody.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Overall, the total number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is still well below historic highs in 2000, but they have crept up in recent months. Customs and Border Protection says 3,700 people were detained Monday alone, the largest one-day total in a decade.

    They estimate this month's total could reach 100,000.

    CBP has responded by moving some 750 staff from internal checkpoints, down to the border. But officials say there still isn't room for everyone detained. As a result, many families and children, pending immigration hearings, are being released at bus stops or churches the same so-called catch and release practice President Trump has condemned.

    Volunteers who work with migrants say they are struggling to keep up. Reverend Raul Salgado is pastor at Revolution Church in Tucson, Arizona

  • Rev. Raul Salgado:

    The numbers, when we started back in November, December, we started off with 50 a day. Now we're up to like 100 a day, so they have just been going up higher and higher.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yesterday in Honduras, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spoke with Central American leaders about the violence and instability forcing people to flee north. She appealed for help.

  • Kirstjen Nielsen:

    We are facing an unprecedented regional crisis. The United States has gone from facing a crisis to an emergency to the almost complete shattering of our system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Officials from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have now agreed to joint police operations to fight human trafficking and smuggling. And Mexico announced it is sending federal forces to its southern border, as more groups make their way north.

    Meanwhile, with little action from lawmakers, and the White House calling for unprecedented measures, these families and children remain stuck in the middle of a political battle.

    And Bob Moore has been covering this story for "Texas Monthly." He joins me now over Skype from El Paso, Texas.

    Bob, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We can't say this enough. Volume isn't the problem here. It's demographics, right? There's not more people coming over the border. It's just more families and children. From what you have seen there, how is this creating a capacity issue for immigration system?

  • Robert Moore:

    So much of our border security infrastructure and even the debate we have around border security is trapped in the 1990s.

    The truth is that the infrastructure that we have, particularly the Border Patrol, is not equipped to handle families coming across. It's a force that's been built to stop people from sneaking across, not deal with large numbers of families seeking to come across and surrender.

    That system has become overwhelmed. And, in turn, as the numbers increase, the volunteer network in El Paso that's handled these migrants, housed and fed them once they're released by ICE and Border Patrol, is also becoming overwhelmed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we're seeing some of those images now coming from the border.

    You actually have been tweeting out some of them, and a couple actually right before the press conference yesterday that CBP Commissioner McAleenan gave.

    Give me the backstory on those photos.

  • Robert Moore:

    Within 100 yards or so of where Commissioner McAleenan had his press conference was the Paso Del Norte Bridge, which is the main port of entry into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez.

    And there are hundreds of people, mostly families, being detained under that bridge out in the open. There's Mylar blankets scattered everywhere. You see just these desperate faces of people who don't know what's happening to them right now.

    And that's something completely new. It's a sign of the capacity of the Border Patrol being exhausted. They have no place to put these people as they process them. So they're holding them under an international bridge right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bob, I got to ask. You have been in El Paso for over 30 years. You have covered immigration. Have you ever seen anything like that?

  • Robert Moore:

    It took my breath away when I saw that yesterday.

    And then again today, when I walked over the bridge into Ciudad Juarez to get a view from above, as I'm walking across the bridge, you could hear babies crying underneath. That is a completely new experience, nothing like we have ever seen before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you something about the legal ports of entry, because I have walked across that Paso Del Norte Bridge with legal asylum seekers.

    There was a process back then, when they were basically preventing people from entering, limiting the number of people. Is that still a problem?

  • Robert Moore:

    It's a huge issue. There are still agents at the top of the bridge that are prepared to turn back anybody who doesn't have the proper documents, and basically put them in a long line in Juarez to wait for their turn to come seek asylum.

    That system has ground almost to a complete stop now. They're letting very few, if any people across. And one of the changes that Commission McAleenan announced yesterday, which is the redeployment of 750 people from ports of entry to help with this migrant processing issue, is going to make problems even worse, because a lot of the agents they're deploying are the people who would process asylum seekers at a port of entry.

    So, the administration repeatedly says the way to seek asylum is to come to a port of entry and make your request in compliance with the law. That process has stopped. There's essentially no way for people to do that on the southwest border right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you about that. And there's been talk about a new processing facility potentially being built over several months, right, in El Paso.

    You mentioned some of the solutions McAleenan has presented. It's hard for people to understand, though, how CBP, which is under DHS, and is one of the best funded agencies in the government, how this is the best option, this is the only option for them, which is people behind a fence and razor wire under a bridge.

  • Robert Moore:

    It is not the only option. It's the option they have chosen.

    In 2016, we had another large influx in El Paso, and one of the things that CBP did at that time was to set up a processing center at another port of entry, where people were staying in tents for a little while, but they were well-cared-for. There are other options available.

    And I don't want to put this all on the administration either. This is a complete political failure at every level, Congress, the administration. We have had five years of warning that this was coming. And we have done nothing in terms of response to prepare Border Patrol to handle this, to adjust laws to handle this influx of families. It's a massive political failure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We just have a few seconds left, Bob, but tell me, what do you expect to see next? Will these numbers continue where they are? Will they go down or up?

  • Robert Moore:

    As the weather warms, we're going to see more and more people making the journey north from Central America.

    As it stands right now, about one in every 200 Guatemalans and one in every 150 Hondurans has already crossed this border in the last six months. Those are staggering numbers that I don't think that the American people fully comprehend.

    And, as I said, as the weather warms, that's traditionally the migratory season. We're going to see a growing influx. The commissioner mentioned yesterday that 100,000 people had been taken into custody this month. I could easily see that doubling or tripling in coming months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bob Moore joining us from El Paso, Texas, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

  • Robert Moore:

    Thanks for having me.

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