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EL PASO, Texas — Hundreds of migrants have spent days sleeping outside under the bridge connecting El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, wrapped in foil blankets to keep them warm during 50-degree nights. Some say they’ve been there up to five days, despite claims by immigration officials that they are being released in a day or two.
This is the new crisis at the border, one that the Trump administration seems eager to expose with immigration officials uncharacteristically open to allowing TV crews film the makeshift shelter.
On Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke showed up and asked border agents if the purpose of the shelter itself is promotional. "Are we trying to send the message by having people in the open air, behind concertina wire and barbed wire and fencing with reporters allowed to go up and transmit these images," he told VICE News. "It invites the question: Are we trying to send a message by the way that we're warehousing people at their most desperate moment?"
The president has championed hard-line immigration policies under the theory that they will deter Central American migrants from coming to the U.S. But instead of deterring migrants, Trump’s tough rhetoric may be doing the opposite: triggering a rush to the border by fueling a sense of “now or never” that has contributed to the highest number of undocumented migrants entering the U.S. in more than a decade.
“The more attention Central American migration gets, the more people start to panic and feel the door to the U.S. is going to close, and they should go now while they still have the chance,” said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.
The cycle is in overdrive.
More than 100,000 undocumented migrants are expected to cross the southern border this month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, driven by an unprecedented number of parents coming with their children. Overwhelmed, the agency has diverted 750 agents from the major points of entry to the border itself to help with the surge, while acknowledging that the immigration system is at a “breaking point.”
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirjsten Nielsen sent a letter to Congress asking for more funding for detention facilities along the border. She also said she would seek legislation that would make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors back to their home country and “allow” Central American migrants to apply for asylum in the U.S. from their home country.
On Friday, President Trump threatened on Twitter to “close the southern Border” next week if Mexico “doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States.”
Even assuming Trump could close the border — billions of dollars of cross-border trade are at stake — any attempt would likely end up in the courts and drag on for months. Meanwhile, Trump may be inadvertently spurring yet another mass wave of migrants, particularly families.
Catch and release
Already, the initial wave of asylum seekers has snowballed. Because so many migrant families are arriving to the border at once, there's not enough space in detention facilities to hold them. As a result, most spend a few days in detention and are released. They are given a notice to appear at a future court hearing, but in the meantime they can start working and enroll their kids in school.
From their new homes around the U.S., these asylum seekers are relaying the news to friends back home: Reaching the U.S. wasn’t so hard — especially if you come with kids, Leutert said.
“The larger the numbers, the easier it feels”
“The larger the numbers, the easier it feels. Because when you arrive in a large group of people, you are processed very quickly. It’s become a selling point for smugglers. That if you show up with your whole family, you will be held for a couple of days and released to start your life.”
The message is being heard across Central America, including El Salvador, where it reached the ears of Julio Hernández Ausencio, a farmer who was struggling to survive after a drought devastated his crops and made it impossible to support his family.
“I knew if I came alone, they wouldn’t give me the opportunity to stay in the United States. But if they saw me enter with my little girl, they would give us the chance to start a new life,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez paid $7,000 for a smuggler to take him and his 11-year-old daughter to the U.S. He said it usually costs $7,500 per person, but because they wanted to turn themselves in to U.S. immigration officials instead of sneaking across the border, they got a better price.
As officials struggle to cope with the crush of asylum seekers, Customs and Border Protection began this week releasing asylum seekers instead of turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — returning to a practice Trump derisively called “catch and release” when he was a candidate and promised to end. Also, many asylum seekers are being released without ankle bracelets to monitor their whereabouts because there simply aren’t enough.
How crackdowns help smugglers
Andrew Selee, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that at every turn Trump’s crackdown on migrants has turned into a selling point to smugglers, starting with the now-abandoned family separation policy.
“It created a new cycle of migration around the fact that the U.S. government could not separate families and children. The smugglers take news that people have already heard and sell it as truth,” he said.
Trump’s fixation on the migrant caravan in the fall may also play a role in the current spike of asylum seekers. The caravan was tiny compared to the overall number of migrants entering the U.S. Around 6,000 Central Americans traveled with the caravan; this week, federal agents apprehended 4,000 migrants crossing the border on a single day.
But the attention that Trump gave the caravan – including sending troops to the U.S. border to stop it – elevated its profile and highlighted a new way for Central Americans to reach the U.S. without paying smugglers.
Selee thinks smugglers responded by cutting prices and finding new ways of delivering families to the border, including via express buses that take a week or less. That’s contributed to the large groups of 100 or more migrants that have been turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents.
“Among some people in Central America, there is this sense that if they are going to migrate, they better do it now, because at some point the U.S. government will really succeed in stopping them,” Selee said.
But Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University who studies human smuggling and migration, disputed the idea that Trump’s policies have backfired. She said Trump’s goal is getting a wall built along the border – whether the wall stops Central American migrants or not.
“These new caravans have helped Trump make a point and support the further militarization at the border,” she said. As for the spike in migrants seeking asylum: “This is perfect for Trump. It’s helping him get his wall built. That’s the bottom line.”
Additional reporting by Roberto Ferdman
Cover image: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge await processing on March 28, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has temporarily closed all highway checkpoints along the 268-mile stretch of border in the El Paso sector to try to stem a surge in illegal entry. (Photo by Christ Chavez/Getty Images)