EL PASO, Texas — Selvin Ortiz-Gonzales came to the United States to provide for his family. The 28-year-old field worker arrived in El Paso, Texas, last week with his eight-year-old son after a five-day bus trip from his home in northwestern Guatemala. He plans to send money home to his wife and two other children once he gets to Virginia, where his brother lives. He doesn’t plan to permanently settle in the United States, but to spend a few years working, sending money home, and eventually reunite with his family back in Central America.
The day after President Trump’s rally in El Paso, Ortiz-Gonzales crossed the border, along with a group of 16 other adults and children, all from Central America. They had spent the night in a safe house in Juarez, and after paying $2,000 a head they were taken to a spot on the edge of the Rio Grande and told to walk across. (In downtown El Paso, the Rio Grande isn’t much more than a stream—easy to walk across, even for children.)
All but one of the adults in the group were men, and they all had more or less the same story: they have wives and other children back in Central America, they are coming here to work and send money home, they have networks of family and friends in the United States, and they intend to return to their homes at some point after they have made enough money. All of them are claiming asylum, but none of them, based on the accounts they gave, will likely qualify for it.
If you spend enough time on the southern border, where record numbers of migrant families from Central America are turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol—including 1,800 on the day of Trump’s rally—you begin to see this pattern emerge. Media outlets often repeat the now-familiar line that Central American families are fleeing poverty and violence, which is true (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are among the most violent countries in the world). But according to federal law, suffering poverty and violence doesn’t make you a refugee.
Generally speaking, to be considered a refugee you must be unable to remain in your home country because of political persecution “or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Most of the families coming across the southern border do not fit that definition, and most will not qualify for asylum. Initially, Ortiz-Gonzales told me that his hometown of Tacaná, near the western Mexico-Guatemala border, is very dangerous, and that’s why he left. Others in the group nodded their heads in agreement. But when a Border Patrol agent asked him why, if it’s so dangerous there, he left behind his wife and two younger children, he replied that he could only afford to pay the fare for himself and his oldest son. The other men said the same.
When I began asking about their plans for life in the United States, it became clear they have come seeking economic opportunity, and they all brought at least one of their children to ensure they would be released pending an asylum hearing, a process that can take years. (Had they come alone, they would be detained while awaiting a hearing.) Upon their release, the men said they would head for points across the country: Florida, Tennessee, Minnesota, Boston, North Carolina.
A Border Wall Won’t Stop Families Seeking Asylum
For reasons that are not obvious to many Americans, a border wall will likely not do anything to turn back men like Ortiz-Gonzales or reduce the number of Central American families turning themselves in along the southern border. No amount of heightened border security—whether more fencing, more Border Patrol agents, or more technology—will make much of a difference for the simple reason that these migrants want to be caught so they can file an asylum claim. They are not trying to evade Border Patrol agents, they are seeking them out.
As for border security, all of the fencing and barriers along the southern U.S. border are entirely on American soil: you don’t need to scale a wall to get into the United States. The obvious reason for this is that the federal government can’t build on Mexican soil, but there are also tactical reasons. In many places, Border Patrol agents need access to both sides of the fence, which itself is often part of a larger levy and drainage system that requires maintenance. So when migrants reach the southern side of the fence, they have already crossed illegally into the United States.
In most places along the Texas-Mexico border, that means first crossing the Rio Grande River, which can be deceptively swift and dangerous in many places, but not in El Paso. If migrants want to be taken into U.S. custody, they need only to cross the river, walk up to the fence, and wait. I saw this happening firsthand while driving around with Border Patrol in downtown El Paso. Less than 30 minutes after Ortiz-Gonzales and his group were loaded into a Border Patrol van, we spotted a woman and a child walking along the south side of the border fence as we drove down Loop 375. Further down, we saw three teenagers on the south side of the fence.
Then we saw a group of about 15 near a gated bridge over the drainage canal. Border Patrol had already stopped to take them in, and the agents were waiting for a van to arrive. This group, like the last one, was mostly men traveling with at least one child but also included unaccompanied minors, all of them teenagers.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Carlos Antunez tells me that most of what he and his fellow agents do now is pick up and process family groups and unaccompanied minors who have turned themselves in, which involves a lot of waiting around for transport vehicles. “The other day I was out in the morning and we had a group of 75,” he says. “It took maybe about an hour and a half, two hours from where we were just to get them all to the station. We had one van available. It fits 12 people.”
Antunez says that 10 or 15 years ago, 85 percent of the apprehensions in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico, were Mexican men, and that processing them was a simple matter of filling out a few pages of paperwork and sending them back across the border as voluntary departures. “They were all returned in less than 24 hours,” he says.
Now, the numbers have flipped: 85 percent of apprehensions are Central Americans, and most of those are families traveling with children. “Our facilities are not meant to hold families,” says Antunez. “Sometimes they’re in our custody for more than 24 hours and that’s when we start having problems. For example, let’s say we apprehended 300 last night, and then this morning you have a hundred give-ups. There’s no space.”
Antunez’s example wasn’t hypothetical. The night before, a group of 316 turned themselves in to the Santa Teresa Border Patrol station, which sits on an empty stretch of flat scrubland in New Mexico, 22 miles west of El Paso. Further to the west there is nothing but desert until you reach Columbus, some fifty miles away. Agents at the station had to move all the ATVs out of the garage so 100 or so members of the group wouldn’t have to sleep outside, where temperatures dipped into the 40s. The next morning, there was no room at the Santa Teresa station for any more migrants to be housed and processed. Yet by about 10 a.m., more groups were turning themselves in.
When a large group like that crosses the border and turns themselves in, often they’ve spent days in the open desert, sometimes without food or shelter. Those who turn up at more remote stations like Santa Teresa are especially of concern. The task of identifying who needs medical care and how badly they need it is difficult, especially since Border Patrol must operate according to certain protocols. In any group, for example, the unaccompanied minors must be transported first, then families with children, then adults traveling by themselves.
Why Crossing The Border Is Dangerous for Children
In December, two children traveling with adult family members died after being taken into Border Patrol custody. The deaths sparked congressional hearings and ongoing investigations, but one crucial factor in both cases was the Border Patrol’s lack of resources to house and process large groups of families and children.
In the first quarter of this fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained more than 75,700 members of “family units” along the southwest border, accounting for nearly half of all border apprehensions. The year before, Border Patrol detained fewer than 20,000 members of family units over the same period. If the trend continues, more than 303,000 members of family units will be detained this year, compared to 107,212 last year.
U.S. Border Patrol is not equipped to handle those kinds of numbers. Border facilities were designed for short-term detention of single men—think of a jail cell in a police station. They were never intended to absorb large numbers of children and families.
Consider the case of Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old girl from Guatemala who died on December 8. She was traveling with her father as part of a group of 163 people who turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents near Camp Bounds, one of three military-style forward operating bases on the New Mexico border. The base is staffed by small, rotating crews of Border Patrol agents, and the night Caal Maquin’s group turned themselves in, there were only four agents on duty.
Camp Bounds is located in an area called in Antelope Wells, a remote stretch of desert in New Mexico’s “boothill” region. There’s nothing out there, and according to Antunez, the groups that turn themselves in at Camp Bounds tend to be large, mostly families and unaccompanied minors, and in pretty rough shape: “You can see from their clothes that they have been outside, that they’re hungry and thirsty, not like the groups we get in El Paso.” He says these are the people who can’t afford to pay smugglers as much, so instead of staying in safe houses in Juarez before being sent over into El Paso, they get sent across in more remote areas in New Mexico.
The night of December 6, when Caal Maquin’s group arrived at Camp Bounds, there was no room to house them. The nearest station that could accommodate the group was in Lordsburg, 90 miles north. Because unaccompanied children must be transported first, Caal Maquin and her father had to wait seven hours before boarding a bus to Lordsburg.
By then, her father reported to Border Patrol agents that she was not well, and the agents decided the fastest way to get her medical attention was to keep her on the bus headed for Lordsburg. By the time they arrived, 90 minutes later, she had stopped breathing and had to be revived by an EMT. From there, Caal Maquin was taken by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso, 136 miles away. She died the next day.
Mexican Cartels Control All Border Crossings
What goes unmentioned in most media coverage of family migration from Central America is the role that Mexican cartels play. Cartels control everything that happens on the south side of the border, not only the movement of drugs but also the movement of people.
As the number of U.S.-bound Central Americans traveling through Mexico has increased in recent years, cartels have turned illegal immigration into a business, extracting payments from migrants moving through their territory, taxing smugglers who move migrants, and enlisting migrants to carry drugs over the border in exchange for the right to cross. What’s more, many Central America migrants become victims of cartels and gangs through kidnapping, extortion, robbery, sexual assault, and abandonment of migrants who have paid for safe passage.
Every Central American I’ve interviewed at the border has said they paid smugglers anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 per person, sometimes more. Given the numbers of people crossing, the total amount of money involved is substantial—an entire industry. Suppose the average amount each migrant pays is $4,000. The 1,800 people traveling in family units who crossed into the U.S. last Monday paid Mexican smugglers a total of $7.2 million. That’s just for a single day, and only counting those traveling as families.
That kind of money doesn’t change hands at the border without cartels controlling it. Cartels are not mere gangs but highly sophisticated international organizations with unlimited resources at their disposal. Jeffrey Walsh, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center, told me the financial resources of the cartels are staggering. “For comparison,” he says, “if the four major Mexican cartels were a country, they would be one of the top ten richest countries in the world.”
Those resources enable cartels to exert almost complete control over the southern side of the border. Walsh, a 29-year veteran of the DEA, says the cartels’ entire business model has changed over the past ten or 15 years. Instead of bringing cocaine and other drugs up from Columbia through the Caribbean corridor to south Florida on boats and planes, the cartels realized it was safer for traffickers to get product into Mexico and move it across the southern U.S. border.
“It doesn’t matter what the commodity is—drugs, people, weapons—they can move it,” says Walsh, adding that because of the level of violence the cartels employ, freelancing on the border is almost unheard of. “You’re not going to see anyone trying anything on their own without getting the proper approvals.”
The other big change in the cartels’ business model over the past decade or so has been the systematic diversification of their income streams. Over email, Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the western hemisphere from 2001 to 2006, explained to me how the prospect of marijuana legalization in the United States pushed cartels to diversify.
“Marijuana was believed to account for 40 percent or so of the revenues of the cartels prior to decriminalization, and to employ perhaps 500,000 to 700,000 people in Mexico,” says Pardo-Maurer. “Once marijuana was legalized in a single American state… it would be impossible to distinguish legal from illegal marijuana, and the entire basis of the illegal trade would collapse.”
So the cartels began to prepare for marijuana legalization by trafficking in drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and branching out into other illegal business like gas theft, extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking. All of this triggered a dramatic rise in organized crime throughout Mexico and Central America, as the expansion of the cartels’ criminal activity led to an expansion of crime partners.
According to Pardo-Maurer, the decline of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the geographic shift in drug trafficking patterns elevated the role of Central American gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street gang, which over the past decade have taken on the role of local drug distribution cells inside the United States. Instead of cartels sending their own people into the United States to coordinate distribution, cartels now enlist these gang networks to do the work on their behalf.
The diversification has paid off. Walsh says Mexican cartels are expanding their reach and that their international operations “literally touch just about every continent on the globe now. They’re more creative and larger than they used to be.” One of the results of this expansion has been the discovery that, compared to drug trafficking, illegal immigration is a relatively easy way to make money.
‘Nobody Gets Here By Themselves’
Back in El Paso, Antunez and I drive down an access road along the border fence just west of downtown. We pass a cattle auction and a landfill. Beyond the landfill, down a steep slope just west of the point where the Rio Grande River becomes the international boundary, is an open stretch of land where a rail line swings down from around Mount Cristo Rey and skirts along the border fence. On the Mexican side is Anapra, an impoverished neighborhood in Juarez whose shacks and dirt streets come right up to the U.S. border.
Antunez tells me this used to be a dangerous area before the steel fence went in about ten years ago. He says residents of Anapra would cross over where the train tracks were closest, about 20 feet from the border, and put couches or other impediments across the tracks to force the trains to stop. “Then they would just take whatever they could off the cars, whatever they could carry back over to Juarez.”
The fence along this stretch of the border is an object lesson in what a border wall can and can’t do. If your goal is to stop cross-border train robberies, a wall will work. But it won’t stop human smuggling, especially when there’s so much money to be made for so little risk. Antunez thinks the cartels make more money smuggling people over the border in the El Paso sector than they do smuggling drugs. “The fee for one person can be as high as six or seven thousand dollars,” he says. “That’s more than one pound of marijuana or sometimes the price of a kilo of coke.”
If smugglers have paying customers who actually want to be taken into U.S. custody so they can claim asylum, the transaction becomes even more attractive because they don’t have to put themselves at risk. Smugglers used to have to cross the border to guide their charges to where they were being picked up on the U.S. side, but now they don’t have to. They just bring the group up to a crossing point and tell them when to go over.
“It’s a win-win situation for the smugglers, because they get to charge money and they don’t get arrested,” says Antunez. “And then when you talk to the migrants they say, ‘We got here by ourselves.’ No. Nobody gets here by themselves. You gotta pay a price.”
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