A Vatican representative will join Catholic bishops from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border next week at a meeting in El Paso to discuss how to respond to the growing influx of Central American families and the Trump administration’s efforts to stop them.
The meeting comes as U.S. border officials are taking additional steps to “harden” international crossings in El Paso and plan additional measures to keep asylum seekers out of the country—including placing concertina wire around ports of entry and sending asylum seekers back to Mexico until their claims are processed.
“The meeting is about the emergency situation here on the border that’s been precipitated by the Trump administration,” said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, which is helping to organize the event. It will include a gathering on Tuesday at the border fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just across the state line from El Paso. Reverend Robert Stark from the Vatican Migrants and Refugees Section will attend the meetings.
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Although illegal border crossings are well below levels seen ten or twenty years ago, the numbers of families and unaccompanied children are now at record levels. Just over 120,000 family unit members and unaccompanied children were apprehended at the Southwest border in the first four months of fiscal year 2019, triple the numbers of a year ago, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. About two-thirds of those apprehensions have occurred in two Texas-based Border Patrol sectors: the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. Families and children now account for about three of every five people apprehended at the border.
The surge in families crossing the border in El Paso and neighboring New Mexico, which began in October, has escalated in recent days and is expected to continue to grow through the spring, officials have said. About 1,500 migrants are now housed in shelters in Ciudad Juárez as they wait to make asylum claims in El Paso, Corbett said, triple the number at the beginning of the month. El Paso Border Patrol sector agents are apprehending more than 800 or more people a day, the highest numbers in years, officials have said. Most are seeking out Border Patrol agents and surrendering, not trying to evade apprehension.
On Thursday, CBP officials began placing extra barriers—including concertina wire—at El Paso ports of entry. Such measures have previously been in place in South Texas and California, but it is the first time they’ve been used in El Paso. Officials said the barriers are needed to prevent large groups of migrants from rushing the bridge-based ports, which hasn’t happened.
“Waiting until a large group of persons mass at the border to attempt an illegal crossing is too late for us; it is vital that we are prepared prior to when they arrive at the border crossing. The safety and security of our communities, members of the traveling public, international trade, CBP personnel and our facilities is paramount,” said Hector Mancha, CBP director of field operations in El Paso.
U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, harshly criticized the additional security steps. “The barricades constructed today at our ports of entry by CBP are an affront to the El Paso-Juárez border region’s efforts and work to become a world-renowned destination for international trade and innovation. Our bridges are a symbol of our history with Mexico, our strong binational ties and shared interests, and should not become militarized zones based on a misguided policy rooted in fear,” she said.
Escobar also said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told her this week that his agency will soon begin implementing what it calls Migrant Protection Protocols in El Paso, which means that some asylum seekers will be sent to Ciudad Juárez after making an asylum application in El Paso. Human rights groups and others have decried the policy, saying forcing asylum seekers to wait in violence-wracked border cities in Mexico is inhumane and illegal. The policy has been used on a limited basis in the San Diego-Tijuana area for several weeks.
“I told him we have seen reports that the MPP policy is going to be implemented in El Paso and wanted to confirm if that was true and he said it was. I asked him how soon it would happen and he said it would be at least a few weeks. And obviously this could change if there is an injunction and that they’ve been sued. But they’re forging ahead with the policy,” Escobar said.
Civil rights groups last week filed a lawsuit to block the policy, but the San Francisco judge hearing the case hasn’t yet ruled on their injunction request. “This is no longer just a war on asylum seekers, it’s a war on our system of laws,” Melissa Crow, Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney, said when the lawsuit was filed. “This misguided policy deprives vulnerable individuals of humanitarian protections that have been on the books for decades and puts their lives in jeopardy.”
The Trump administration says the policy is lawful. “Congress has explicitly authorized the Department of Homeland Security to return aliens arriving from a contiguous foreign territory to that territory during that alien’s immigration court proceedings,” Justice Department spokesman Steven Stafford said in a statement.
Escobar said she expressed several concerns to McAleenan about detaining migrants in Ciudad Juárez, a city with a deep history of drug- and gang-related violence.” I think it puts migrants at risk. I think they are far more vulnerable in Mexico than they are here and more likely to be harmed over there. And I told him that I was very concerned about their ability to access legal services,” she said.
Corbett spoke at a news conference on Thursday that featured a group of Catholic priests and lay people who last week visited Guatemala, one of the focal points of the ongoing exodus of families leaving impoverished and violence-torn Central American countries in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. They visited with the families of two Guatemalan children, Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who died in December while in the custody of El Paso Border Patrol sector agents.
Their deaths are being investigated but little information has been made public. The autopsy reports have not been released. “What we were able to see was emblematic and illustrative of the conditions that are driving people that are forcing migration from Guatemala to our border,” Corbett said, mentioning poverty, violence, government impunity, industrial farming of palm oil trees and climate change as factors that are driving people from Guatemala and neighboring Honduras and El Salvador.
One of the El Paso priests making the trip to Guatemala was Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas, who comforted Jakelin’s father when he said goodbye to her at an El Paso funeral home in December. “He wanted to go back to bury her. But he knew that if he went back, he would never return and his kids would not eat. That’s the decision he had to make at that moment,” Bañuelas said. “But while visiting with the families, we expressed to them that a lot of people here on the border..were praying for them and offering our prayers of condolences. But that at that moment, these children, Jakelin and Felipe, inspired in us a commitment to work for the promotion of the human rights of all immigrants, especially children coming to our borders, so that no children would have to die.”