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El Paso Swells As More Migrants Reach Texas From Mexico


We have been here along the Mexican border covering what many U.S. officials have been describing as a border crisis. Central American families in staggering numbers have been arriving at the border, surrendering, they've been allowed to cross in, and after a few days, in many cases, they've been set free into the United States to await a court date. But this has all been a strain on the U.S. government, with U.S. officials saying it's pulling resources away from other efforts. And I'm sitting here in a hotel room with someone who's been helping us cover this. It's journalist Monica Ortiz Uribe, who is from El Paso, lives in El Paso.

Thanks for all your help this week.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: You're welcome, David. It's my pleasure.

GREENE: How close are we to the border, as we look out here?

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, as we look out of this hotel window, we can see Mexico straight ahead, less than 2 miles. That mountain range you see in the horizon, that's Mexico. And the houses just below that, that's Ciudad Juarez, our sister city.

GREENE: And you saw a helicopter pass just a few minutes ago, before we went on the air. That was, like, a Border Patrol?

ORTIZ URIBE: That's an everyday sight in El Paso. You'll see a CBP, a customs helicopter, patrolling right about - right above where the border is - divides the U.S. and Mexico, so.

GREENE: So what - I mean, all eyes have been on the border and this city in recent days. What has this been like for you, as someone who grew up here and lives here?

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, let me tell you. A couple of days ago, I took a walk over the international bridge between El Paso and Mexico, and this is a bridge that I walk over on a regular basis to report or to go grab a margarita on the other side. And let me tell you, the bridge was unrecognizable to me. At the very top, there were concrete barriers set up, and on top of those concrete barriers was a wall of barbed wire, something that I've never seen before. Now you have migrant families coming over. And it was just odd to see that this was the response - a wall of barbed wire.

GREENE: And is this where they were holding a lot of the migrants, at this bridge, for a while, before they moved them?

ORTIZ URIBE: Correct. Right beneath the bridge, you could look, just look over and see the crowds of migrant families right below you, and it was like this unsettling vision of a modern-day version of Ellis Island. You had women and children and men weary, in shoes without shoelaces, shielding their faces from the dust, on a naked lot of dirt and gravel. On one side of the holding area, there were - there was a group of customs agents wearing blue surgical gloves and a cloth mask. And this is where I say it reminded me of some version of Ellis Island because they would call out the number, the migrants would walk up and move on to another area of processing.

GREENE: You took me to a spot downtown in El Paso, a Greyhound bus station; that seems to be a place where a lot of families who have crossed over, you could find them. What was happening there, and when you went inside, who did you meet?

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, yeah. That's - that would be this - another phase on this long journey of these migrant families is the bus station in downtown El Paso. I sat down with a migrant mother and her sister and their three kids. They told me that they had hitchhiked their way through Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ORTIZ URIBE: She's telling me that when they reached the border in a remote stretch of Arizona, they came upon a pre-existing border fence, and to get through it, she says they simply dug a hole underneath and crawled through it into the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ORTIZ URIBE: They walked about 20 minutes, found the Border Patrol, turned themselves in, were held at a Border Patrol station for a couple of days, released, and then they got on a bus and were on their way to Dallas when I met them in El Paso.

GREENE: Huh, so this is actually a reminder - it's not just the families we're seeing here at this bridge in downtown El Paso. There are other ways to get across; some of them sneaking through and just surrendering themselves to any U.S. officials they can find once they get here.

ORTIZ URIBE: Because the entryway for asylum seekers is so backlogged, migrant families are looking for other ways to come across, including through remote stretches of the border, in between ports of entry, in places like Arizona and New Mexico. And cities several hours north of the border, like San Antonio and Phoenix, are also struggling to accommodate the flow of families.

GREENE: But Monica, in your city, how long can all this go on? I met a volunteer named Javier Paz (ph). He was spending his weekends just working endlessly, looking for anyone in the community who would cook food and deliver it to his organization to give to the migrants.

JAVIER PAZ: And they could cook up beans and rice and just bring them. And I was like, yes, please, you know (laughter). Like, just let me know so I can sign you up. Where can I plug you in? We need Wednesday lunch. We need a - so it's all about an ongoing system. But I just worry. I do worry that it's - that it could hit some kind of breaking point.

GREENE: So what gives? How long can this community sustain here?

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, the federal government wants to set up a processing center to receive these migrant families. It recently selected a building in West El Paso, but it was met with resistance from business leaders. The head of the chamber of commerce told the local business journal that they didn't want, quote, "a detention center in an area that has a lot of white-collar development," (ph) like hotels and shopping centers. They fear it'll interfere with the city's economic momentum.

So now the opening of the center is delayed, and meanwhile, the volunteer organizations, like the ones you met and spoke with, are shouldering - continue to shoulder the responsibility of housing, feeding and transporting these families. They're asking themselves on a weekly basis, how much longer can we keep this up? So Annunciation House, the main shelter organization here, which relies entirely on donations, is in the process of converting a warehouse into a hospitality center able to accommodate the ongoing influx of families.

GREENE: Monica, thanks so much.

ORTIZ URIBE: You're welcome.

GREENE: Monica Ortiz Uribe's a journalist here in El Paso, Texas - born and raised here and is here now working, covering this crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "THE APARTMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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