EL PASO, Texas — When a new interim Border Patrol chief arrives in El Paso, he or she will find a sector in which apprehensions have fallen in half in the past month and whose holding facilities are not as crowded as before.
But that person will also be dealing with many agents who are still processing migrants inside stations instead of being on the front lines, where an average of 25 migrants per hour are being stopped or turning themselves in to seek asylum.
On Wednesday, NBC News reported that El Paso chief Patrol Agent Aaron Hull was being temporarily reassigned to Detroit and that El Centro Sector chief Agent Gloria Chavez would take his place. No reason was given for the sudden rotation.
Hull presided the Sector during the Central American migrant surge that started in October. Later, his sector was singled out by lawyers’ groups and congressional delegations that denounced alleged neglect in the health care of minors at the Clint, Texas station, where older children supposedly were taking care of younger ones and basic supplies such as toothpaste and soap were denied. Other allegations made by Democratic lawmakers included that a woman at the facility had been told to drink water from the toilet.
The El Paso Sector runs from Hudspeth County to the New Mexico-Arizona border.
Migrant traffic today
A Mexican soldier waves his arms from across the Rio Grande and Mario Escalante stops his white SUV with the green U.S. Border Patrol markings. He parks a few feet from where the steel bollard fence ends along the American levee. With the river bed all but dry at this time of the year, the spot allows undocumented migrants to walk straight north from Mexico.
“This is a flood zone, so it makes no sense to continue a fence that may wash away,” Escalante says as he gets off his patrol vehicle. The agent walks to the edge of the fence and points to multiple shoe tracks, big and small, on the dirt. “See, this is a popular spot,” he told Border Report during a ride-along.
Escalante shouts across the border and the soldier — part of Mexico’s new National Guard — points East. The agent turns deliberately and soon spots a lone figure walking on the south side of the bollard fence. It’s a young man clad in a pink T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He’s coming directly toward Escalante.
“Everything OK?” the agent asks as the man makes his way up the levee. “My name is Mario Escalante. I’m an agent of the United States Border Patrol. You are in the United States.”
The man, with a short pony tail and no apparent possessions other than a sweater tied across his waist, says his name is Alejandro.
“Alejandro, what is your nationality?” the agent asks. “Cuban,” the young man responds. Escalante asks him if he crossed alone and how long he has been in Juarez, the Mexican city of 1.5 million people just across the river from El Paso. The man says he’s by himself and that he’s been in Juarez for two months.
Escalante conducts a five-minute interview revealing that the Cuban flew in to Nicaragua, proceeded north to the Guatemala-Mexico border three months ago and entered Mexico illegally through the southern state of Chiapas before heading for the U.S. border. The agent finally sends him 50 feet up the road, where other agents greet him with a water bottle and a pat-down. “I knew he was Cuban since I saw him,” Escalante says. “Cubans are the only ones who come by themselves nowadays.”
Earlier, the agent had come across three families that, like Alejandro, headed straight for him to surrender. “There was a lady from Guatemala with two young girls, ages 3 and 4. There was a mother with a teenaged son and a young husband and wife with a cousin and a teen,” Escalante recalls. “Nothing like the groups of 100 and 200 we used to run across at a time.”
At the peak of the surge, the Patrol was averaging 1,200 apprehensions per day. The number has fallen to 600 since Mexico on June 18 deployed the National Guard not only to Juarez, but most to the busy border with Guatemala, where migrant caravans, thousands-strong, used to make their way north.
Nobody has been able to nail down what triggered the migrant surge, but there are plenty of theories by experts: rampant crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador); the ongoing collapse of small farms in that region; activists successfully organizing caravans to reduce the risk of migrants being preyed upon along the way; and smuggling organizations aggressively marketing the false premise that anyone with a child was guaranteed asylum in the United States.
Legal watchdogs point out that the asylum success rate in the United States is only about 20 percent. In El Paso, immigration advocates say that rate is closer to 6 percent.
“They are selling something that’s not real and these people believe it, they sell whatever they have to pay the smuggler and then they find out that things are different when they get here,” Escalante said.
The agent says there’s no doubt that smugglers send the migrants straight to Border Patrol agents. He points to a couple of neighborhoods in Juarez — one next to a supermarket, the other close to the Paso del Norte Bridge — where he sees groups of migrants regularly march toward the river. Those migrants look well-rested and clean, as if they had time to rest and prepare for the final leg of a 2,000-plus mile trip, Escalante said. That’s because they probably spend the previous night at smugglers’ safe houses.
The border agents’ priority nowadays is to ensure the migrants are healthy. “You try to get an idea of how they’re doing, how they’re feeling. You do a quick assessment, making sure they don’t have any health issues, that they’re feeling well,” he says.
In the case of the group he came across earlier in the day, he says one of the young girls looked restless and had somewhat of a high temperature. “We did notice she had several layers (of clothes) on. Obviously, it’s been triple digits out here the past couple of days and we told (the mom) to just remove some of the layers and when transport arrived we told them, ‘as soon as you arrive at the processing center, make sure they give a little bit extra attention to this little girl,'” he said.