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Why thousands of immigrant children have spent more time than legally allowed at border

Correction: In Amna Nawaz’s report from the U.S. southern border she misidentified Jennifer Harbury as an attorney with Lawyers for Good Government. Harbury is a legal volunteer with the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley. NewsHour apologizes for the error.

Amid an influx of immigrant children arriving at the southern border, new images have surfaced from inside the overcrowded facilities on the U.S. side. The Biden administration on Monday sent officials to Mexico to discuss efforts to stem migration north. Amna Nawaz reports on the reasons behind the problem, which starts much farther south.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dramatic new images from migrant facilities on the U.S./Mexico border have emerged today. That comes as the Biden administration dispatches top officials to address the sharp increase in migrants seeking asylum.

    Amna Nawaz has been on both sides of the border today, and she reports from McAllen, Texas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amid an influx of immigrant children coming to the Southern border, new images have surfaced from inside the overcrowded border facilities on the U.S. side.

    These photos provided to "PBS NewsHour" by Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas show adults and children bunched together on sleeping mats at a makeshift tent facility in Donna, Texas, operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

    It comes amid an outcry from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators after they toured a border facility last Friday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Press were barred from the trip.

    Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said that he fought back tears while touring the facility. Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said the facilities were — quote — "overrun."

  • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito:

    The numbers are just continuing to grow, and there's no impedance for these children to be coming in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayorkas told ABC News yesterday the Biden administration is working to move children out of temporary border facilities as quickly as possible. He added one final message for immigrants hoping to journey north now.

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    Now is not the time to come. Do not come. This journey is dangerous. We are building safe, orderly and humane ways to address the needs of vulnerable children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Biden administration today sent officials to Mexico to meet with Mexican officials about efforts to stem migration north.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Amna joins me now from McAllen, Texas, on the U.S. Southern border, where it is very windy this afternoon.

    So, hello, Amna.

    Tell us, how much difference can those meetings with Mexican officials make?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, certainly, Judy, I think they're hoping that those meetings can help stem some of the flow making its way up to the U.S. Southern border.

    But the truth is the problem start much further south. I have to tell you, the vast majority of people we met with today are coming from those three Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

    And we should also mention the numbers of people crossing the U.S. Southern roared border has been increasing since May of last year. That's something we don't talk about a lot. It did increase dramatically in the fall. And, of course, here we are hitting these 20-year highs with over 100,000 people crossing in February.

    But it's important to note, too, the vast majority of people crossing the border, over 80 percent, are single adults. And the vast majority of people crossing that border are still being almost immediately expelled. That includes families.

    We, in fact, crossed over into Mexico today to a town called Reynosa, where many of these migrant families are now sort of sheltering after recently being expelled by the Biden administration. They said they crossed. Within a matter of hours, in some cases, they were fingerprinted, photographed, and then walked right back across the bridge, the border crossing into Mexico.

    In some cases, they didn't know they were being sent back to Mexico until they were dropped off. We met with a lawyer who actually works with some of these families. Her name is Jennifer Harbury. She works with a group called Lawyers for Good Government [sic.]

    And here's what she told us about some of the migrant families we met sheltering in one particular park.

  • Jennifer Harbury:

    Almost all of these people are Central American families with children, including small children, who tried to cross and were sent back under the COVID rules. They were just dumped at the foot of the bridge. And now they have been forced to stay over here, close to the foot of the bridge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amna, as you say, the vast majority of people are being sent back. But unaccompanied children are allowed to stay. How much is that taxing the system?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Oh, incredibly, Judy.

    I mean, we have been seeing this in the reports. We have been reporting this on our — on this ourselves. Our system is not meant to handle this many unaccompanied children. And those numbers have been increasing.

    We now know, according to a source familiar with the information who isn't allowed to speak to the media, we know that that backup, the fact that the shelters that house these children they're supposed to be transferred to working under reduced capacity in the pandemic, there's a backup now in the Border Patrol facilities, where children are not meant to be staying.

    We now know over 3,000 of the thousands of children in Border Patrol facilities have been held there longer than 72 hours; 72 hours is the legal limit they're supposed to be there. We also know over 800 have been held in those facilities for more than 10 days.

    Now, one of the things I should point out is, with some of these migrant families we spoke to who've been recently expelled, they now feel they have to make a tough choice. Many of them were asking, should I send my child alone? Would he or she have a better chance of making their way into the United States, some of them as young as 8 or 9 or 10 years old, if I allowed them to go alone?

    We actually met one woman, a mother named Ada Rosa. who left Honduras, she says fleeing unspeakable violence. Her 27-year-old son had been murdered in front of her. Her 14-year-old son had also witnessed the crime, but they said they don't trust the authorities to report it to them.

    So, they made their way to the U.S. to the Southern border, spent their life savings, have survived and seen unspeakable scenes, and they were immediately expelled back into Mexico.

    Here's what Ada Rosa told us about how she perceived she was treated by U.S. officials.

  • ADA ROSA, Honduran Migrant (through translator):

    I was looking for protection, but they didn't help me. It didn't matter to them that my son was killed. They didn't care that he was killed. They turned me back.

    I don't have any money. And I haven't eaten.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So hard to hear that, Amna.

    We know the Biden administration has said over and over again, don't come. Now is not the time to come.

    Is that message getting across at all?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, from the families we spoke to, it is not.

    I asked a group of those migrant families we spoke to, have any of you heard President Biden say the border is closed? Not a single person raised his or her hand. So I asked them, what have you heard, because many of them began their journeys three, four, in some cases five or six months ago.

    And they said we heard, when President Biden is in office, there will be no deportations. It will be easier for young children to enter. And, quite frankly, the people who are in the business of moving people, that is, the smugglers and the traffickers who are incentivized to move as many people as they can, they have been helping to amplify this message: Now is the time to come.

    So, these families are spending thousands of dollars and risking their lives to make their journey. The message that Biden administration wants to deliver is not landing in these communities — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a tough situation, Amna Nawaz at the U.S. Southern border in McAllen, Texas.

    And Amna will be reporting from there tomorrow.

    Amna, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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