In March 2019, a delegation of Pacific Council members traveled to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as part of the Council’s Mexico Initiative to explore immigration policy and the reality of its implementation on both sides of the border.
This delegation could not have visited the border region at a more relevant or opportune time. Each day of the visit, immigration-related headlines drove home the importance of physically visiting the border to go beyond the heated rhetoric on all sides and to witness for ourselves what is actually occurring there.
Over two days from March 28-29, delegates toured a migrant detention facility operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); met with El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, state Senator Jose Rodriguez, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services Executive Director Melissa Lopez, Border Network for Human Rights Director Fernando Garcia, and University of Chihuahua Professor Rodolfo Rubio Salas; traveled across the bridge into Mexico; and shared with reporters from several interested local media outlets their individual thoughts on and impressions of the situation.
This delegation could not have visited the border region at a more relevant or opportune time.
The delegation was led by the Honorable Michael Camuñez, a Pacific Council Director, chair of its Mexico Initiative, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce; and Dr. Patrick Schaefer, Pacific Council member and executive director of the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness at the University of Texas. Pacific Council President and CEO Dr. Jerrold D. Green also was a member of the delegation.
What follows is a summary of what delegates learned on the trip and recurring themes from their meetings.
One theme that delegates heard repeatedly from El Pasoans was, “Thank you for coming to the border region to learn about what is actually going on here.”
As the debate over President Trump’s national emergency declaration raged on, it became clear to delegates how interdependent and interconnected El Paso and Juárez really are. From a bird’s eye view, the region looks like a single integrated city. Their downtowns are within walking distance of each other via the Santa Fe Bridge.
Although there are many disagreements about whether or not the situation rises to the level of a “crisis” or “national emergency,” many of the officials that delegates spoke to agreed it is a humanitarian crisis that requires action, and that immigration reform is critical. What is clear is that rising numbers of Central American migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries and heading north to seek asylum, which has overwhelmed existing facilities and services.
In the weeks leading up to the delegation’s visit, the arrival of Central American migrants to the border surged to the point where existing detention and housing facilities became overwhelmed, including Annunciation House, a nonprofit organization that houses migrants.
As our delegates walked across the border bridge from Juárez to El Paso, they could see a large number of migrant families—including families and children—who despite the hot days and cold nights were sleeping under the bridge in the open air with silver mylar “space” blankets, exposed to the elements. There was also a pair of U.S. customs agents at the middle of the bridge checking documents and turning away asylum seekers before they could reach the physical border where they are allowed to claim asylum.
Although no one knows for sure the primary cause of this surge, there were many theories. Some said it was the warming spring weather. Others said it was the president’s threat to close the border. Many agreed that while they would not call the situation a national security crisis or even an emergency, it certainly is a problem and a humanitarian crisis.
Many officials and experts believe that migrants were fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America, and that therefore aid to those countries should be increased to address those issues. As the delegation came to a close, however, the White House announced that U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—was being cut.
Reports in the Washington Post and The New York Times noted that ICE and Border Patrol were holding migrants for longer than usual and then releasing them by the hundreds onto the streets of downtown El Paso. This was reported when administration officials including then-Homeland Security Secretary Kristjan Nielsen and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan (who has since been appointed to replace Nielsen as acting Homeland Security Secretary) visited the area.
During a tour along the border region, delegation leaders Camuñez and Schaefer told delegates that the U.S.-Mexico border is actually a great success story. “It is safer and more peaceful than most borders around the world,” they noted. “Imagine if the United States had a less friendly neighbor?” The border region itself is located in a harsh and arid desert. “It is gut-wrenching what migrants go through to get here,” said Camuñez. “Sometimes we lose sight of the humanity in this debate.”
Inside an ICE Detention Center
The ICE facility visited by our delegation was built in 1966 and is one of six facilities owned by ICE, housing about 3,000 people on any given day. Nationwide, there are some 40,000 people in custody. There were about 800 migrants at the facility delegates toured, representing 84 countries. There were no families or children at this facility, only adult males and females. Their average length of stay in the facility is 40 days.
Delegates visited a courtroom on site where migrants’ cases are heard, operated by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The court recognizes different levels of criminality; people simply crossing the border without documents are considered the lowest level. The first offense is a misdemeanor; the second offense is a felony. The vast majority of asylum seekers are non-criminals, although there are criminals represented as well.
When a person is given a deportation order, their country of origin must first agree to accept them back. Some countries are more cooperative than others. For example, Somalia would not accept people back for a long time, although now it does. Countries with poor relations with the United States, such as Iran, are less accommodating.
ICE has discretion to issue a bond to those who cross illegally and to then release them if they have family in the United States, but not if a migrant is claiming asylum at an official port of entry. This creates an incentive for migrants to cross illegally.
Migrants are able to claim asylum multiple times. If their first claim is not approved, they may try again. ICE cannot prosecute people for claiming asylum at a port of entry, only if they cross illegally. However, ICE has discretion to issue a bond to those who cross illegally and to then release them if they have family in the United States. ICE does not have discretion to issue a bond if a migrant is claiming asylum at an official port of entry. In that case, if they win their asylum case they are released, if they lose they are deported. This creates an incentive for migrants to cross illegally.
Detainees at the facility are categorized by the color of their uniforms: blue means non-criminal, orange means low-level criminal, red means convicted felon, white means they work in the kitchen, and yellow means they are volunteer workers who are paid $1 a day. What is considered “a criminal” was left vague, but multiple entry attempts were enough to meet that standard. There are not many incidences of violence in the facility because detainees know they are not staying for too long.
Delegates toured the Intercultural Building, where prayer services are held, as well as the mess hall, barracks, processing center, and medical facility. The custody officers who process migrants are contracted workers. Detainees are permitted one hour per day for recreational time; the rest of the day they spend in their barracks. They are also allowed legal research time for their cases. There are translation services available, with many detainees speaking indigenous languages. The facility has in-house medical, dental, and pharmacy services, administered by the U.S. Public Health Service.
The kitchen offers various cultural menus on a five-week cycle of meals. Detainees receive three meals a day, totaling 3,000 calories a day at a cost to the facility of $4.33 per detainee per day. Flags of every country lined the walls in the mess hall. The same-sex barracks housed about 85 detainees each, with tables and chairs in the middle and beds along the walls.
The detention center seemed orderly and professionally run, although a guard did shout at a detainee when she asked a Pacific Council delegate if he was with Human Rights Watch.
The Local Perspective
“El Paso is an unknown jewel,” Republican Mayor Dee Margo told Pacific Council delegates at El Paso City Hall.
The region is the intersection of three states—Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua—with the largest binational and bilingual workforce in the world. The El Paso-Juárez area is a single region that is highly interdependent. Of the 28 bridges linking Texas and Mexico, six are in El Paso. El Paso is the second highest crossing and the highest pedestrian crossing area along the border after San Ysidro near San Diego.
The mayor pointed out that the city and county of El Paso and a local foundation had recently approved a donation of $20,000 each—for a total of $60,000—for United Way to help with their immigration services.
Margo gained national attention following President Trump’s State of the Union address in February 2019 when the president pointed to the border fence in El Paso as promoting the safety of this city. The mayor pushed back and publicly stated that El Paso was perfectly safe before the border fence went up and that the president should not use El Paso as an example of the need for a border wall.
Margo said that the United States must do something about illegal immigration because the current situation is unsustainable. ICE, Border Patrol, and NGOs that cater to migrants are all overwhelmed. The city of El Paso recently sent buses to the Sun Metro bus station in downtown El Paso to keep migrants warm, because the station was overflowing. Officials are currently looking to build another facility in El Paso.
The mayor said the current situation is a product of the failure of both political parties in Washington, D.C., to pass immigration reform. He urged everyone to contact their members of Congress and tell them to do something about the immigration situation.
The NGO Perspective
Delegates met with Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services Executive Director Melissa Lopez and Border Network for Human Rights Director Fernando Garcia at Diocesan’s headquarters in El Paso.
Diocesan is the largest provider of low cost and free services to immigrants and refugees in this region, which includes New Mexico. In 2018, they served 21,000 people, 90 percent of them for free. Some of the services they provide include legal representation and education. They have an education program for adults in detention to represent themselves in court, and another program for people ruled incompetent to represent themselves.
The region began to see an increase of unaccompanied minors crossing the border starting in summer 2014. Diocesan provides services to about 2,500-3,000 children in a year.
Almost all of the migrants they serve end up leaving the El Paso region to other places all around the country because they will have a higher chance of successfully achieving asylum status away from the border region.
Almost all of the migrants they serve end up leaving the El Paso region to other places all around the country because they will have a higher chance of successfully achieving asylum status away from the border region, where emotions are high, judges are conservative, and about 4 percent of cases get granted asylum.
Within 100 miles of the border, immigration agents can automatically deport migrants without an appeals process, so they set up checkpoints at the 80-mile mark to carry this out.
Garcia was a journalist in Mexico before he founded Border Network to build a community and raise awareness of human rights and migrant issues.
Border Network works in conjunction with CBP on a program called Hugs Not Walls, which brings separated families together in the mostly dry Rio Grande for a few moments before they are brought to different detention facilities or elsewhere. Netflix released a documentary on the program titled “A Three Minute Hug.”
Schaefer pointed out that the legal services provided by organizations such as Diocesan and Border Network are so important because there is no law school in El Paso. The closest one is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about four and a half hours away. “In an area where knowledge of the law is so important, we don’t have the institutions to support people in need.”
The State and Federal Perspective
Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (D-TX 16) and state Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-TX 29) gave delegates their take on the border situation.
The day before Escobar met with Pacific Council delegates, she called on Secretary Nielsen to resign. Less than two weeks later, she did.
Delegates learned that Canada takes a different approach to immigration by offering them housing, jobs, and training. The representatives called on administration officials to learn the reality on the ground in border communities like El Paso, which they called vibrant, binational, and multicultural. They also called for a renewed push for immigration reform.
Delegation leader Michael Camuñez pointed out that during the recent NAFTA negotiations that resulted in the USMCA trade deal, Canada and Mexico wanted to update the “temporary entry for workers” section, which allows workers to cross the border. However, U.S. trade negotiators flatly refused to even discuss it. Camuñez said it was a once in a generation opportunity to update some outdated language, but it was not on the table.
He also pointed out the lack of adequate infrastructure at the border, which puts a huge strain on the system. He said border security can largely be addressed by technology and other ideas such as moving the actual borders deeper into each country so that trucks can be checked at pre-inspection sites and therefore won’t get stuck in border traffic for hours.
He said the Mexican government is willing to work with the U.S. government on these ideas, pointing out the fact that U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has increased in recent years. Anyone who flies into Mexico is screened with U.S. no-fly lists and security standards. And new Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is now calling for a “Marshall Plan for Central America.”
The Mexican Perspective
Delegates met with Professor Rodolfo Rubio Salas at El Colegio de Chihuahua in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
A translator was provided although several delegation members did not need the translation, a sign of the Pacific Council’s strong hemispheric ties.
Salas said the increase of Central Americans to the Juárez region has been significant, and that Juárez was not built to withstand such a surge. But there has also been an increase of migrants from Cuba, who receive special treatment from the United States compared to other nationalities.
The objective of most migrants, Salas said, is to claim asylum with the United States. However, he added that the Mexican government has not released official data on how many migrants are crossing from Guatemala to Mexico or how many of them want to claim asylum. Salas claimed the latter statistic is as high as 90 percent, and that many of them are traveling as family units because they know they have a better chance of getting asylum if they have women and children with them.
He said AMLO has a more lenient policy toward migrants than his predecessor. The new administration knows that people are in need and that the Mexican government must do something. Mexico now wants a more humanitarian image in regards to immigration. Migrants can be in Mexico for 30 days and then apply for an extension. Mexico has started a program to hire Central Americans in Chiapas and Oaxaca in southeast Mexico.
Salas pointed out that more caravans are forming—including one with 20,000 people—and on their way to the border, which the Mexican government is becoming more concerned about. The government has recently used news media to spread the message that it won’t be able to assist migrants in caravans at the Guatemalan border.
He also argued that a U.S. border wall will not do much to stem the flow of migrants or drugs.
Amid the national debate about immigration and border policy that often includes conflicting information and inflammatory rhetoric, Pacific Council delegates who traveled to El Paso and Juárez were able to gain firsthand experience and knowledge of the situation on the ground. Local residents and officials repeatedly thanked delegates for making the trip to Texas to see the border region for themselves.
The United States and Mexico would be well advised to study the successful partnership between El Paso and Juárez as they debate what to do about immigration and border policy.
The timing of this delegation was especially relevant. Although there are many disagreements about whether or not the situation rises to the level of a “crisis” or “national emergency,” many of the officials that delegates spoke to agreed it is a humanitarian crisis that requires action, and that immigration reform is critical. What is clear is that rising numbers of Central American migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries and heading north to seek asylum, which has overwhelmed existing facilities and services.
Delegates also learned about the deep historical, familial, cultural, social, political, and economic ties between El Paso and Juárez. The highly interdependent region has the largest binational and bilingual workforce in the world. There are lessons of cooperation and collaboration to be learned here; the United States and Mexico would be well advised to study the successful partnership between El Paso and Juárez as they debate what to do about immigration and border policy.
Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Check out more photos from the trip on our Flickr page.
Learn more about the Pacific Council’s Mexico Initiative.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.