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Asylum-Seekers From Latin America Inundate U.S. Border At El Paso


We have some news from El Paso, Texas. Nobody spent last night there in detention under a certain highway bridge. For days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had been holding migrants behind fencing and barbed wire under that bridge. Officials argued they had no choice. So many families have arrived seeking asylum, there is no room in regular detention centers. Yearly numbers, we should be clear, are still below historic highs. But the numbers have risen dramatically so far in 2019, the numbers of migrants arriving at the border. This is the surge that has President Trump talking of closing the border.

Our co-host, David Greene, is in El Paso, Texas. David, good morning.


Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's that bridge look like now?

GREENE: Well, it looks totally different. I mean, you know, we had been hearing for days now about families with their kids just crammed under that Paso del Norte International Bridge. Some were sleeping on the dirt, in these cold nights, behind barbed wire. By midday yesterday, they were all moved out. They've been relocated.

Our producer, Danny Hajek, went down and was looking at the area - totally vacant there. You know, he saw garbage just littered on the dirt where families had been sleeping. And you know those blankets made of Mylar that look like foil that, you know, people get after they go on a marathon run? They had been keeping people warm there. And now you just saw these pieces of foil caught up in the metal fencing, just really fluttering in the wind quietly.

INSKEEP: So people were held under the bridge. The explanation was there was no place else to take them. But now they've been taken somewhere. Where?

GREENE: I mean, that's the big question. We asked the border authorities to confirm these reports that some of them have been moved to a different holding facility that's really close by, right in the same area there. And they haven't told us anything yet. But they had come under a lot of criticism for the conditions under that bridge.

And I got to say, we got here midday yesterday, and it took just one phone call to find a spot where some of the people who were under that bridge had been taken. It was this motel where a shelter organization had rented out some of the rooms. And I saw a van pull up. A Border Patrol agent unlocked this metal door on the back of the van, was guiding migrants - including little boys and girls - out. We watched maybe a dozen or so arriving at this hotel. And I want to play the voice of Suzanne Tilton (ph). She's one of the volunteers there.

SUZANNE TILTON: When they tell their stories, it is emotionally draining because you feel helpless, like you really can't do much for them other than just help them get to where they're going. We can feed them. We can make them feel loved and comfortable here and safe here. They're safe. They're fed, and they're warm. And we're going to help them reunite with their families.

GREENE: And Steve, I mean, just one detail as we were watching these families arrive and seek whatever help they could get - apparently, the border authorities, they take away your shoelaces when you arrive at the border, along with a lot of other - your personal belongings. And I saw this one little boy at the hotel who - he had tied his shoes using strips of that Mylar foil from the blankets. And just to see the relief on his face when they handed him new shoelaces - I mean, it was just really powerful.

INSKEEP: Although, how long will he and others be at that motel?

GREENE: Well, I mean, we're told maybe just a night. And - you know, and then a new group will come in, more groups each day. And here's how the system works. I mean, in the past, ICE - Immigration Customs Enforcement - would determine what happens to them. But Border Patrol's been so overwhelmed, there hasn't been any time to involve ICE in some cases. So they would release these families to a shelter organization, like the one we visited. If a family somewhere in the U.S. had sponsored them, buys them travel, they're taken to maybe an airport or bus station, given a court date and released in the United States.

But the volunteers we talked to - I mean, they're really worried. The numbers keep going up. Border Patrol might be so overwhelmed, they might not even be able to give them to these shelter organizations. They might just have to release them into the streets, effectively leaving people homeless to fend for themselves in what's really a strange country.

INSKEEP: David, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

GREENE: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's our own David Greene. He's in El Paso, Texas. We'll listen for more of his reporting in days to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.