Paola Ortiz wakes in the early morning in Ciudad Juarez for what has become a daily three-hour wait to cross the U.S.-Mexico border on foot to her job at a shoe store in downtown El Paso, Tex.
Her commute has grown noticeably longer in recent months as migrants have flocked to the crossing into El Paso, and U.S. President Donald Trump has renewed his threat to shut down the border if Mexico doesn’t stop the stream of asylum seekers heading north. “It’s gotten much worse, but what can I do?” she said. “I need to work.”
Mr. Trump has backed away from his latest plan to close the country’s southern border, saying he will give Mexico a year to stop the flow of drugs and migrants into the United States or he will impose tariffs on Mexican auto imports. “If that doesn’t stop the drugs, we close the border,” he told reporters Thursday, ahead of a visit to the site of a fence reconstruction project on the California border Friday.
But in El Paso, where government leaders and cross-border commuters such as Ms. Ortiz were scrambling this week to prepare for the border to be closed, chaos and lengthy waits have become the new normal. Local officials say their city has become collateral damage in the escalating tensions at the border, caught between a surge of families and children coming to claim asylum at the city’s international bridges, and the U.S. government’s ever-changing response to the humanitarian crisis on its southern frontier.
“The solution resides in Washington, D.C., and we’re simply being squeezed as a byproduct,” said El Paso’s Republican Mayor Dee Margo. “Both sides of the aisle are culpable and both houses are culpable.”
Apprehensions at the border in the El Paso region, which covers Western Texas and New Mexico, have soared to more than 48,000 in the past five months, up from about 8,000 in the same period a year earlier. The crisis has reached a “breaking point,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) chief Kevin McAleenan told reporters in El Paso last week. Apprehensions across the entire southwest border are estimated to have hit nearly 100,000 in March – the highest monthly number in more than a decade.
El Paso is in the midst of its fourth migrant surge in recent years, with as many as 4,500 people being released into the city from immigrant detention in a single week. “This one has surpassed all the other surges we’ve had,” said Ruben Garcia, who runs Annunciation House, a Catholic organization that co-ordinates dozens of church shelters for migrants in the El Paso area.
The influx of migrants is straining resources on both sides of the border.
Nearly half of the U.S. inspection booths on the city’s bridges have closed as customs agents are being relocated to help process migrants, stretching waiting times for commercial vehicles past three hours, said Sergio Madero Villanueva, who runs the Mexican state agency that administers bridges from Juarez into El Paso. Earlier this week, CBP said it would start closing one of its bridges to commercial traffic on Saturdays because it didn’t have enough personnel.
“They told us they had authorization for 400 more CBP officers, but if you talk to some of them, they’re saying they really need 2,000,” said El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino. “We are paying the price for this on our bridges.”
In El Paso, local officials say border patrol agents have started releasing migrants with little warning, often dropping them off in large numbers at a downtown bus station as late as midnight, or in small towns with no housing or transportation more than two hours away. Some are being released without any official U.S. documents, or the typical ankle bracelets that monitor their movements.
Last week, border agents held dozens of migrant families and children in a makeshift holding pen under the international bridge, until they were abruptly moved last Saturday night. Guatemalan migrant Carlos Espinoza lived on the rocky and garbage-strewn site – a construction zone for a future toll road – for five days after U.S. officials told him all of the local detention centres and volunteer shelters were full. He had an emergency blanket for warmth, had to use portable toilets for bathrooms and was given three ham sandwiches a day for meals.
“It was horrible. You’re very exposed to the elements. The rocks were really uncomfortable and everywhere,” he said. “It was packed to the limit. People were lined up to sleep like animals.”
In neighbouring Juarez, where the city has a list of more than 7,000 people waiting for appointments to claim asylum at the U.S. border, shelters that months ago were set up to receive Mexican nationals deported from the United States are now filled to the brim with migrants from Central America and Cuba.
While the rise in asylum seekers in El Paso in recent months has sometimes overwhelmed the region’s network of shelters, Mr. Garcia points to Department of Homeland Security policy decisions that have exacerbated the shortage of manpower and space to house and process migrants.
In November, 2016, CBP opened a massive tent facility in nearby Tornillo, Tex., to deal with a similar surge in asylum seekers. The facility, built to hold up to 500 people, was “excellent, excellent, excellent,” with dining rooms and showers, Mr. Garcia told The Globe and Mail late last year. But the federal agency closed it six months later when the migrant surge slowed to a trickle.
A new privately run facility, originally intended to house 400 migrant children, opened in the same area last June. But it too closed down in January after the contractor that ran the site said the company couldn’t handle the thousands of children the U.S. government was sending there.
In February, Congress approved a US$190-million budget to lease a new permanent CBP processing facility in El Paso and had plans to open in a former Hoover manufacturing plant as early as this month. But El Paso’s business community balked at the location in a commercial and retail district on the city’s affluent west side. Then, an Arizona real estate company filed a formal appeal to bid on the contract, offering up an empty warehouse it owns on the outskirts of the city. The disputes mean the processing facility is likely now a year away from opening, Mr. Garcia said.
Annunciation House has managed the influx of asylum seekers by recruiting an expanding network of about 25 churches and faith groups that have offered to house migrants as far away as Albuquerque, N.M., more than 400 kilometres north.
Mr. Garcia has been in touch with faith groups willing to help from as far afield as Dallas, a 10-hour drive. But transportation companies contracted by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement are only authorized to drive migrants up to eight hours away.
With some small policy changes – reopening temporary CBP tent facilities, expanding the ability of U.S. border and immigration officials to transport migrants to shelters well outside of El Paso – Mr. Garcia says he believes he would be able to manage to find temporary housing for every one of the thousands of migrants who cross the border here.
“We have the ability to host them, we can receive them,” he said. “That’s what we should be doing. Pure and simple.”