As the number of migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border soars to record levels, an El Paso nonprofit is renting out dozens of motel rooms each night to accommodate parents and children before they join families elsewhere in the United States. It’s a little known but increasingly crucial factor in how the U.S. government is coping with the latest surge of families from Central America.
At about 3:30 p.m. Monday, two large buses pulled up outside an El Paso motel complex and disgorged about 160 people—men, women and children. The scene is likely to be repeated every day for at least the next several weeks as the Trump administration struggles to cope with increasing numbers of families who cross the border and surrender to Customs and Border Protection agents, usually declaring that they are seeking asylum in the United States.
Arrest numbers for September, the last month of the fiscal year, haven’t been officially released, but the Washington Post reported that a record 16,658 family units were apprehended on the Southwest border last month—much to the consternation of President Trump who made border security a key part of his campaign pledge.
“It’s becoming untenable, the conditions in which the people are being held” by the government, said Ruben Garcia, the founder and director of Annunciation House, which has been providing services to migrants in El Paso for four decades. “They (government officials) will never say that themselves because they don’t want to be quoted that they…are acknowledging that conditions in these holding cells are untenable. In fairness to them, they’re willing to release all these people. Right now their choice is release them to the street or release them to Annunciation House, but Annunciation House’s capacity is limited. So they’re putting pressure on me to ramp it up and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Before arriving at these low-budget El Paso motels, these families had been held in CBP cells meant to hold people for no longer than 72 hours. But increasingly, the cells have been used to house twenty to 50 people for days at a time, Garcia said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can only house about 3,300 families at a time in long-term detention facilities. So the government turns to nonprofits like Annunciation House to shelter and feed the migrant families, before putting them on a bus or plane to join family members elsewhere in the United States while their deportation and asylum cases wend through backlogged courts.
Over the past couple of months, CBP officials in El Paso have been releasing about 700 people a week into the care of Annunciation House, Garcia said. That is the capacity in Annunciation House’s series of church-based shelters across El Paso and southern New Mexico. But in recent days, government officials have urged Garcia to expand that capacity to move more detainees out of the holding cells more quickly. So Garcia has begun renting two El Paso motels (he asked that they not be named.) He said he’s acting on faith that donors will provide the $3,500 a night being spent on the motel space. The government provides no funding to Annunciation House for caring for the migrants.
At the motel complex on Monday, workers put up a tent that will serve as a dining facility for the families staying there. Garcia is asking El Paso area church groups to take turns feeding the families each day. Annunciation House also needs more volunteers to help families get to the bus station or airport. And, as always, the nonprofit needs cash donations.
Garcia said arriving migrants have been telling him for weeks that their families have been housed in holding cells for a week or ten days. The cells are shared with dozens of people. Sometimes the cells have a single toilet without privacy, Garcia said. Roger Maier, a CBP spokesman based in El Paso, confirmed that migrants are sometimes moved to different locations. He stressed that detainees are treated humanely. “It is a priority of our agency to process and transfer all individuals in our custody to the appropriate longer-term detention agency as soon as possible,” Maier said.
CBP officials said 1,884 members of family units were apprehended in August in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes Far West Texas and all of New Mexico. That approached the sector record of 1,984 in December 2016. Across the Southwest border in August, the Border Patrol reported apprehending 12,774 members of family units, second only to 16,330 in June 2014.
The Trump administration has portrayed this increase in family arrivals at the border as a crisis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Mexico last week as a caravan of up to 5,000 Central Americans made its way north, vowing to try to enter the United States. Pompeo falsely said a “record number of migrants” were coming to the United States. President Trump on Monday tweeted about the situation as well:
Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2018
Although the United States is seeing record numbers of family units apprehended crossing the border, the overall numbers of people caught crossing the border illegally are a small fraction of what they have been in the past. Border Patrol agents apprehended a total of 25,484 people on the Southwest border in August, the second-lowest August total over the last 45 years.
Garcia said the current migration from Central America is indeed a crisis, but not for the reasons Trump believes. He said the United States is surrendering the leadership it has shown on refugee issues since the end of World War II. “It is a categorical lie that the people that are arriving pose a threat to us. They don’t,” he said. “The crisis on the border is not a crisis of refugees, it is a crisis of morality, of integrity. That’s the crisis. And the ones that have the crisis is us as a people of the United States.”