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El Paso, Texas, Is At The Forefront Of The Immigration Crisis


There is a crisis unfolding right in front of our eyes at the U.S.-Mexico border, and condemnation of the situation there is spreading beyond the boundaries of this country. The United Nation's human rights chief released a scathing statement yesterday. Michelle Bachelet says she is deeply shocked at the conditions at the border - children forced to sleep on floors, poor sanitation, without access to adequate food or health care. Our co-host Noel King is along that border today in El Paso, Texas, and joins us now.

Good morning, Noel.


MARTIN: So our other co-host, David Greene, was in El Paso just a few months ago, and now you are back to see what has changed, right?

KING: That's exactly right. So David's team got here in April, and at that point, migrants were being held under a bridge. It was a really terrible situation. People were sleeping on the dirt. They were sleeping behind barbed wire. So now three months later, we get here and the situation is different. It's still a humanitarian crisis, Rachel, but it's manifesting in a very different way. So to explain that, the crisis is now happening in two places. Yes, there's El Paso, but there's also the city across the border in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, which is now seeing a surge of people of its own.

MARTIN: So why? I mean, what happened in the last three months to cause that shift?

KING: It's a great question. That's exactly what we wanted to know. So we've been running around El Paso trying to figure this out. Yesterday, I went to Annunciation House, which is this big charity and shelter in El Paso. A couple months ago, when David was here, it was packed. On some days, they were offering, you know, food and beds to more than 1,000 new migrants. But the founder, Ruben Garcia, told me that, on average, that number has dropped to less than 200 a day. So I asked him what is going on here, and here's what he told me.

RUBEN GARCIA: First, you have the pressure by Trump on Mexico to stop the flow. And so right now you have what I call Mexican enforcement on steroids, OK? Second, you have what originally was referred to as Remain In Mexico, which now is - the official name is the Migrant Protection Protocol.

KING: So that is the answer to why this crisis has changed, and that's what we're going to be looking into - this policy called the Migrant Protection Protocol. It was implemented here in El Paso by the Trump administration in the spring. And we want to see what it means for migrants, for lawyers, for judges, for Border Patrol agents, even a couple of politicians.

So we have traveling with us a reporter, Monica Ortiz Uribe. She specializes in covering the U.S.-Mexico border. She's been based in El Paso for years. So you've been watching this play out for a couple of months down in El Paso. Explain exactly what MPP is and how it's been implemented here in the city.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Sure. So MPP is a program that forces migrants to wait out their day in U.S. immigration court across the border in Mexico, in cities like Juarez and Tijuana. The Trump administration claims that doing so helps root out migrants who are trying to game the system. So far, roughly 15,000 people have been sent back since the policy began earlier this year.

KING: OK. So from El Paso, the city that they're being sent to is Ciudad Juarez, which is just across the border. We're going to be spending a lot of time there this week. How does MPP look in Ciudad Juarez?

ORTIZ URIBE: It's playing out very poorly. The U.S. has shifted a significant portion of its burden over to Mexico, and if we've seen the U.S. inadequately prepared to handle the flow of migrants, Mexico is in even worse shape. There isn't enough shelter space. Families without any money or belongings are being released onto the streets with no guidance or protection. Access to American attorneys is practically a pipe dream. And Juarez is a city largely under the control of organized crime, specifically drug cartels. Numerous migrants report being kidnapped, robbed, assaulted. Some have even been murdered.

Here's how Fernando Garcia, who heads up the nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights, describes it.

FERNANDO GARCIA: They are sent to a country where they don't have any family connections. They don't have any community support. They don't have jobs. They don't have health care systems. They think (ph) they are sent to the oblivion, in a way, you know. And they are sent to Juarez, where you have - Juarez has been traditionally and historically a very violent city.

KING: And in your reporting, you've met with families who are experiencing this firsthand.

ORTIZ URIBE: Yes, I have. First off, I should say that we don't really know how CBP decides which migrants to send back to Mexico and which migrants to allow into the U.S. Lawyers and advocates who are familiar with the program say that the process is pretty much arbitrary. I've seen vulnerable people, including pregnant women, transgender migrants and those with serious health conditions, get sent back to Mexico.

Families with strong asylum cases have also been sent back. I met one such family in Juarez. The family was threatened with death because one of them is a protected witness in a murder case. And I'll play you a clip from our interview.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) As soon as a protected witness in Honduras leaves the courthouse, gangs are waiting to kill them.

ORTIZ URIBE: They have police reports and news articles to back up their claim, and the family has been waiting in Mexico for almost three months now. Their first court date is scheduled this week, and it's just the beginning of a very lengthy process. And if the judge doesn't allow them back into the U.S., where they have family and might be eligible for a work permit, they have to find a way to survive in Mexico.

KING: So you describe access to an attorney as a pipe dream. We talked to Melissa Lopez. She heads up the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services organization. They provide legal aid to migrants. And I asked her how many cases her organization, along with two other nonprofit legal providers, have been able to take on following the implementation of MPP.

MELISSA LOPEZ: I think we've taken 10 to 15 cases out of 7,000.

KING: Ten to 15 out of 7,000 people in Juarez.

LOPEZ: Correct.

KING: Why?

LOPEZ: Because of the resources. It's a question of resources. And I think, you know, that the notion that people will have to go to court and represent themselves is just incredibly scary. Like, I've lost sleep worrying about everything that's not happening.

KING: So she's talking about people going to immigration court and representing themselves. Tell us, based on what you've seen, how that actually works in practice and what it means for the prospect of a person being granted asylum if they don't have a lawyer.

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, it makes their case less likely to be successful. A lawyer can guide you in terms of what you need to present to the judge to have a convincing case. Without a lawyer, it's unlikely you'll be successful in your asylum claim.

KING: That was Monica Ortiz Uribe. She's a reporter based in El Paso. So Rachel, we'll be here all week. We're going to go down to the immigration court here in the city and look at what happens to people who don't have lawyers. We'll bring you stories from Juarez about the people who are being sent back. You know, I met people who have been dropped off literally in the streets at night, with no place to stay. Yesterday, I stumbled on a group of migrants who were living in the basement of a hotel. There's one woman travelling with her 12-year-old son. The two of them are sharing a twin mattress.

So a lot of desperation here. We're going to be bringing you those stories this week.

MARTIN: Noel King on NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CRYSTAL SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Monica Ortize Uribe