Southern border breaking point

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 9th of July. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Well, Mary, before we get started, let’s send out a call for more pre-rolls! We’re running low.

It’s easy: Go to, click on “engage,” then “record a preroll.”

REICHARD: Everything you need to know is right there., engage, record a preroll.

BASHAM: OK, next up,  conditions at the border. Just in May alone, Border Patrol agents made nearly 1-hundred-33-thousand apprehensions at the southern border of the United States.  This, the result of a mass exodus of asylum-seekers from Central America.

REICHARD: Meanwhile, the condition of detention centers in Texas has Democratic politicians and advocates upset.  WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney joins us now to talk about the latest.

Katie, I talk about Democrats upset about conditions at border facilities, but Republicans agree that things on the border are a problem.

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: Yeah, the acting inspector general actually said—quoting here—“Our immigration system is not equipped to accommodate a migration pattern like the one we are experiencing now.”

REICHARD: So, clearly there are factors working against Customs and Border Protection, what with the mass influx of migrants. Sounds like these are record numbers? 

GAULTNEY: Well, yes and no. The number of people caught crossing the border and the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S.—both of those numbers are actually down. They peaked over a decade ago.

REICHARD: Well, to look at a lot of media reports, though, you might think otherwise!

GAULTNEY: Right, and that’s why I say yes and no. The number of children and families coming is way up.

What’s also changed is where these migrants are coming from. And I actually spoke with Victor Manjarrez about that. He spent decades as a Border Patrol agent. And now he’s at the University of Texas-El Paso, which conducts research for the Department of Homeland Security.

He told me that, historically, 97 percent of immigrants who came to the border were from Mexico. But not anymore. Now they’re coming from Central America: 

MANJARREZ: And that it’s, the processing time is considerably more than just for Mexican national. We’re talking 15, 20 minutes, for a Mexican national compared to other than Mexican nationals, several hours. And then that has had a big influence or impact on the capability or capacity of government to hold people. So no, they’re certainly not equipped to deal with non-Mexican nationals at this large scale.

Victor told me that with a Mexican national, they’re quickly given all their options: they can talk to immigration officials, a judge, talk to a counsel officer from their home country—everything. They’re in and out within one border agent’s shift.

REICHARD: But that’s not the case with people coming from Central America?

GAULTNEY: Not at all. For one thing, people from the northern triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador—they’ve come farther, and the conditions in their home country may have been worse. But for another, a lot of times their home country won’t take them back. 

And then, too, they’re filing for asylum. They’re actually presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents to apply for a legal process. And that’s overwhelming an immigration court system that was already struggling to meet the needs.

REICHARD: OK, so that explains the overcrowding at these border facilities. Tell us more about what the IG report found inside.

GAULTNEY: Auditors visited five border detention facilities and two ports of entry in South Texas, along the Rio Grande Valley. They called the facilities a “ticking time bomb” and said they worry about the health and safety of detainees and border security personnel.

For starters, detainees are packed so tightly into cells and behind fences, it’s standing room only. In some places, migrants are sleeping on the floor with only a Mylar blanket. At three facilities, many children didn’t have access to showers or clean clothes. Border agents offered detainees wet-wipes when showers weren’t available.

In many cases, migrants have only baloney sandwiches to eat and need medical attention because of the poor diet.

REICHARD: Not to mention the poor diet they likely had before they arrived. And I’m sure medical attention is hard to come by, given the strain across the entire system here.

GAULTNEY: Exactly, and you know, these are essentially designed like jails. They’re not going to be cushy. But there are basic standards that aren’t being met.

Another problem is prolonged detention. The report said that at some units, adults were held in standing-room-only cells for over a week. In another, single adults have been held for more than a month in overcrowded conditions, again without access to basic hygiene.

REICHARD: OK, and amid all this, last week we heard about a private Facebook group for border agents. What’s going on with that?

GAULTNEY: Right. Last week a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officials came to light. It posted offensive content, some of it truly horrific: mocking the deaths of migrants, making sexist and racist remarks about Latina lawmakers, with particularly harsh treatment of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And you know, many would say AOC has stoked the flames of discontent around this issue of border detention facilities—some would say unfairly—but those were beyond common decency.

DHS leadership has denounced the Facebook group and promised to hold the agents involved accountable. Democrats in Congress have also said they’ll investigate this behavior.

REICHARD: So where do things go from here? What kind of legislation is in the works to deal with what’s happening?

GAULTNEY: Congress did recently pass a $4-point-5 billion-dollar aid package to help with the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. But it’s not clear yet how that money will be used, whether it will be to improve conditions in the detention facilities, or to actually somehow stem the tide of asylum-seekers, or more quickly process the ones in custody.

Sadly, Victor Manjarrez is not optimistic that the aid money will help:

MANJARREZ: I worry those are just band-aid approaches. You aren’t really gonna solve the, uh, the long-term issue. And, I suspect in a year or two we’ll see Congress appropriate another $4.5 billion dollars.

Victor said aid money to Central America often does not make it to the poorest of the poor. It doesn’t actually improve infrastructure or create more opportunities.

So we’re kind of in a vicious cycle at this point. Victor said without a long-term plan to improve life in these migrants’ countries of origin, we can expect the problems to continue.

REICHARD: Katie Gaultney is a WORLD correspondent based in Dallas. Katie, thank you for this report.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP) A group of asylum seekers cross the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, Thursday, July 4, 2019.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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