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Some crossings on U.S.-Mexico border still shut as cities, agents confront rise in migrant arrivals

Published: September 22, 2023, 10:19am

EAGLE PASS, Texas (AP) — The week began in Eagle Pass with rumors that large crowds of migrants might show up. On Friday, the small Texas border city was scrambling: nearly 9,000 asylum-seekers and counting had crossed from Mexico, an international bridge remained closed and a 3-year-old boy had drowned in the Rio Grande.

“Before we would hear rumors, nothing happened,” Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber said. “But this time something happened.”

The unfolding response in Eagle Pass, where the mayor declared an emergency, illustrates how Border Patrol agents have become overwhelmed in recent days by asylum-seekers on parts of the U.S. border with Mexico. In San Diego and El Paso, Texas, officials this week also closed border crossings so agents could help with the influx.

After a dip in illegal crossings that followed new asylum restrictions in May, President Joe Biden’s administration is again on its heels. Democratic mayors and governors are seeking more relief for hosting asylum-seekers and Republicans are seizing on the issue ahead of 2024 elections.

Traffic jammed the heart of Eagle Pass on Thursday evening after officials closed down one of the city’s two international bridges to reroute agents elsewhere. Throughout the day, hundreds of migrants sat underneath the shade of the bridge as Border Patrol agents processed and transported them out in groups.

Mayor Rolando Salinas said about 2,000 migrants had crossed Thursday, about half as many as the day prior. But after emerging from a meeting with Texas state police and Border Patrol agents, Salinas said he was told large numbers could continue through the weekend.

“Hopefully that’s not the case,” he said.

The Homeland Security Department said Wednesday it would grant Temporary Protected Status to an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who were in the U.S. on July 31, easing paths to work authorization. That is in addition to 242,700 Venezuelans who already had qualified for temporary status.

The administration is also sending 800 active-duty military troops to the border, adding to 2,500 National Guard members there. Border holding facilities are expanding by 3,250 people to nearly 23,000 and extending home surveillance nationwide for families awaiting initial asylum screenings.

The administration renewed pressure — and blame — on Congress, which has long failed to agree on comprehensive changes to the nation’s immigration system. The Biden administration is now asking Congress for $4 billion in emergency funding.

Homeland Security said in a statement it was “using the limited tools it has available to secure the border and build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system.”

Theresa Cardinal Brown, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s senior advisor for immigration and border policy, said it was normal to see a dip in illegal crossings after changes like those imposed in May, but that is usually short-lived once migrants see how things play out.

“People see what happened to the last group of people that tried and they’re like, ‘Oh, well maybe it’s not as harsh as they say,’” Brown said.

The journey to Eagle Pass this week ended in tragedy for some.

On Wednesday, a 3-year-old boy crossing the Rio Grande was swept in the strong current and drowned before rescue teams could save him, said Lt. Chris Olivarez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. The body of another man in his 30s also was found by the river Thursday, Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello said.

An increase in families arriving at the border led to unacceptable conditions in two of the busiest Border Patrol sector, a court-appointed monitor reported to a federal court last week. Dr. Paul H. Wise said children as young as 8 years old were separated from parents during processing in South Texas, a practice that has been mainly used for boys 13 to 17.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was reviewing Wise’s report, noting limited, temporary separations may occur during processing for safety reasons but they are nothing like the long-term separations under former President Donald Trump. Wise said even short-term separation can have “lasting, harmful effects.”

U.S. authorities closed a bridge and international railway in Eagle Pass on Wednesday to redirect staff. Union Pacific Railroad Co. said Thursday that thousands of rail cars cross the border there daily.

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CBP told business leaders they have no estimate of when rail traffic would resume in Eagle Pass or when U.S.-bound commercial truck traffic would reopen at a bridge in El Paso. Traffic slowed at other border crossings.

In San Diego, a pedestrian crossing has been closed since Sept. 14 to direct staff to an area where migrants from Cameroon to Colombia are waiting between a double-layer border wall in San Diego. Volunteers are handing the migrants food and bottled water while they wait to be processed.

Near Jacumba Hot Springs, a town of less than 1,000 people with a small hotel and general store within boulder-strewn mountains an hour’s drive east of San Diego, migrants camps began forming last week for the first time since May.

Smugglers drive migrants to a spot in Mexico where the border wall ends. One of three camps in the Jacumba Valley is about a half-hour walk on a gravel road used almost exclusively by border agents. On Wednesday, none had stayed longer than one night, occupying tents left behind by others.

The Border Patrol gives migrants colored wristbands marking their arrival date to determine who gets shuttled first to a processing location. Campfires and juniper shrub shield migrants from evening chills. Some climbed atop boulders hoping to get a cellphone signal.

Angel Sisa, 40, left Ecuador’s coastal region with his wife and two children, ages 15 and 13, selling his general store to escape death threats from criminals demanding monthly payments. The Sisa family paid smugglers to take them by plane and bus until they reached a hotel in Tecate, the nearest town in Mexico from the roadside drop where they crossed.

They hope to settle in Minneapolis with family members who left Ecuador about a year ago.