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As Border Crossings Tick Up, Migrants Bring Children, Take More Dangerous Routes

People walk near the fence of the Mexico-U.S. at Playas de Tijuana in northwestern Mexico.
Guillermo Arias
AFP/Getty Images
People walk near the fence of the Mexico-U.S. at Playas de Tijuana in northwestern Mexico.

The number of immigrants illegally crossing the southern border plummeted when Donald Trump took office. But the number is again on the rise. In response, the president plans to deploy up to 4,000 National Guard troops.

In West Texas, immigrant shelters are overflowing with recent arrivals and some migrants are trying more dangerous routes to evade capture.

The intake room at Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in downtown El Paso, is packed these days. Parents and squirming children sit with their travel bags. They are the aggravations of Donald Trump.

Thirteen-year-old Leslie Morán, with a ponytail and a Minnie Mouse shirt, says she and her father, Daniel, left Honduras because there was so much crime, and she couldn't attend school anymore.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.
John Burnett / NPR
Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.

"They threaten you and rob you," she says. "We came here so I'd have a new opportunity to study."

Her journey north, and thousands like it, have bedeviled the Trump administration, just as they did President Obama.

New figures show a mini-surge in March — a 200 percent increase in border apprehensions compared to last year. Agents detained nearly 40,000 unauthorized immigrants. Most were families or kids traveling alone from Central America.

"People have made the fundamental decision they can no longer be in their country," says Rubén Garcia, who has been the director of Annunciation House for 40 years. He says his shelter is receiving about 400 people a week.

Border Patrol Agent Rush Carter, left, and Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Stephen Crump.
John Burnett / NPR
Border Patrol Agent Rush Carter, left, and Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Stephen Crump.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement books them, straps on electronic ankle monitors, and drops them off at his center. They're given a shower, a hot meal, and a ride to the Greyhound station. They continue on to Seattle or Los Angeles or Atlanta — where they check in with ICE and wait for their day in immigration court.

Garcia says so many immigrants are traveling with their children these days --because the smugglers tell them to.

"Bring one of your kids, because you stand a better chance of not getting locked up right off the bat," he says, "And so that's part of the way the smuggler presents it."

The Trump administration asserts that some immigrants know the game.

Families and minors know that under "catch and release," they'll be able to live in the U.S. for years while their cases work their way through overloaded immigration courts.

Moreover, Trump says immigrants are coming to take advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — known as DACA — that he tried to terminate. It gives benefits to unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Chris Carlin, a public defender in the region, says that's nonsense. "I've quite literally represented thousands of defendants," he says, "I have never heard a defendant have any idea what DACA is. That is meaningless to them."

A half-dozen Central Americans interviewed at Annunciation House — to a person — said they came here to escape thuggery and joblessness in their hometowns.

They walked across an international bridge and surrendered. Others are taking greater risks. They're crossing the Rio Grande and making a dangerous trek through remote mountains and desert.

Apprehensions of minors traveling alone have jumped 83 percent over last year...in the rugged Big Bend region of West Texas.

"They're coming in droves now," says Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson. "We're see 'em 2-3 groups at a time."

He says his deputies are finding young men — dead and alive — who have hiked 100 miles across this stark landscape. In December, they discovered the remains of a 14-year-old Guatemalan boy on a ranch near Alpine.

"He'd been there a few days," he says. "It was cold, the weather was cold, there wasn't a lot of decomposing like it normally does. But, it's not pretty."

On a recent patrol along a winding gravel road near the Rio Grande, border agent Rush Carter — who rode this country as a cowboy in his former life — describes what he sees.

"Really rugged country, large mountains, deep canyons, lot of brush, lot of cactus, lot of rock. Very tough country to walk through on foot," he says.

Border Patrol agents complain that too often they're forced to spend time processing undocumented immigrants they catch. That can take an agent out of the field all day, especially if it's a kid that requires more attention.

Robert Boatright, chief patrol agent in the Big Bend region, says agents are "more methodical with the children."

"We're giving welfare checks every 15 minutes on unaccompanied children, right. We're making sure the children get fed, they may get snacks."

The Border Patrol hopes the National Guard can assist with some of these duties so that its agents can get back into the field to deal with the current surge of immigrants.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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