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Why increased family crossings are challenging border resources

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol says over 76,000 migrants crossed into the U.S. from Mexico last month -- twice as many as in February 2018. The increased volume reflects a greater proportion of migrant groups containing family units, for whom immigration authorities are poorly resourced. Amna Nawaz talks to Judy Woodruff from Arizona, where she has been reporting on the situation at the border.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced today that more than 76,000 migrants crossed into the United States on the southern border in February. That is more than double the numbers from just one year ago.

    In Washington, the Senate is preparing to block President Trump's national emergency declaration. Mr. Trump will likely veto, clearing the way for funding for his long-promised border wall.

    To learn more about the situation on the ground, our Amna Nawaz has spent the past days reporting from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And she joins me tonight from San Luis, Arizona.

    Amna, hello to you.

    So this part of the border where you are is a place that the Trump administration has touted as a success. They say that the number of crossings,, illegal crossings is down. We see the border wall behind you. What are you finding on the ground about it?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, you're absolutely right about that. It's not just the Trump administration either. It's previous administrations.

    They have some form of significant walling here in the Yuma Sector, as it's called, for several years. There was a huge surge back in 2005. They asked for fencing funding. They got it. They have this kind of walling now along a good portion close to the point of entry which is called triple-layer fencing. It is significant and very aggressive.

    It gets less aggressive the further away you get from ports of entry, but that has not made this sector immune from those same trends you just noted there we're seeing across the country. They have been seeing surges and upticks over the last three years.

    So, they're seeing more larger groups, like the rest of the country is seeing, and they're seeing a lot more crossings in remote areas. Why are they seeing that? The same reasons the rest of the country is, Judy. They're seeing more family units crossing than ever before.

    And Yuma Sector now has the distinction of having the highest percentage of family units crossing. Ten or 15 years ago, 90 percent of the people who crossed were single adult males from Mexico. Today, almost 90 percent of the people crossing are families with kids or unaccompanied minors.

    And that is taxing the same resources they have had here for several years in unprecedented ways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Amna, we know one of the strains on all of this is the lack of housing for these migrants. The Border Patrol people have said that they built a new processing center in El Paso. You were able to see one of these new processing centers today.

    What did you find out?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Those processing centers are basically the first place that migrants are taken after they are apprehended or their encounter Border Patrol after crossing illegally. And it's exactly that. It's the place where they go to have their identities checked or run background checks to get fingerprinted.

    They don't usually allow access to these processing centers that are also temporary detention centers. And when you go inside, you understand why then. And we saw was one room in particular that was packed to the gills with unaccompanied young men.

    So these were teenagers and young boys lying like sardines, head to foot in some cases, with Mylar blankets on top of them and nothing but a thin pad to sleep on. And this is where the majority of these folks will spend three days or longer before they're moved on to ICE custody.

    And I will tell you what also strikes you when you walk around this room is how many children there are, a number of toddlers who are confined to these small spaces, who got absolute delight from just being able to put their hand up against a pane of glass to say hi to us and smile and make faces for a few minutes, infants in their mother's arms.

    And this is not the population that Border Patrol is used to housing. And they're not resourced for it. They showed us what used to be an office supply closet. You just have the standard things they would need. It's now packed, stocked up to the ceiling with diapers and baby food and onesies for infants and the kinds of things that you need to take care of children, which is now an increasingly large part of their job.

    They're not used to doing it. And, as one official said to me, they'd rather not be doing it. It's taking resources away from all the other responsibilities they think that they have, securing the border and doing law enforcement there.

    So they have told us before they have asked for additional facilities. They wanted a temporary trailer added. They made that request for two years. It's an $800,000 budgetary request. And it's been denied. They'd hoped that would just be one place where at least the kids could go for some portion of the day to play.

    So far, Washington has denied them that. And they say the current resources, they're not built to handle this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Oh, it's such a difficult picture to imagine.

    Quickly, Amna, you have been talking to these Border Patrol agents. What do they tell you they think is needed to fix this immigration problem?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, look, they want additional resources. Like I told you, those housing centers are not built to handle the population they're now responsible for housing.

    They want more agents. In Yuma Sector, they have a little over 800. The chief told us yesterday he's gone to Washington and made a request for 100 more agents every year for the next four years.

    But what they also say they want is more wall, and not just wall, but the technology that comes with it. They have about 18 camera towers right now. They say they could use more. They have substantial walling, as you can see, but even that can be penetrated. They walked us along the wall yesterday and showed us places where there hasn't been a concrete foundation poured.

    People have been able to dig under and come through. There's older wall, what they call the old landing mat wall, that's easily penetrated or climbed over as well.

    So I put to them, look, the conversation around the wall is always, if you build a 30-foot wall, which is what they want in some places, people will just build a 31-foot ladder. What do you say to that?

    And they say, we can't deny that. Sometimes, the walls just end up redirecting traffic or causing people to take on more harm to try to cross it.

    But it is something that they can do right now. They also say that what they hope they do is encourage people to just make a legal crossing — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to be reporting this story from on the ground, from where it is happening.

    Amna Nawaz, from San Luis in Arizona, thank you, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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