EL PASO, Texas (CN) — It’s been a busy month for Annunciation House founder and director Ruben Garcia, whose refugee support group in El Paso received 2,000 people this week — 400 more than they received the week before. All had been released from immigration jails.
“Right now we’re in surge territory, which means we open up additional hospitality centers,” Garcia said.” This particular surge is probably the heaviest surge that we’ve had in the past three years.”
The Washington Post reported that 16,658 “family units” were arrested at the border last October, a record high for one month.
In El Paso, more than 12,300 family units have been detained this year, a 43 percent increase from last year, according U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The surge has left social workers like Garcia scrambling to house refugees and immigrants amid a tense political climate being ratcheted up by statements coming from Washington, D.C., nearly 2,000 miles away.
Garcia founded Annunciation House more than 40 years ago, in a dilapidated, ramshackle building donated by the Catholic Church. “I made a deal with God,” Garcia said in an interview in 1984, when the building was full of refugees fleeing war in Central America. “I told him I’d do the work if He took care of the finances.”
Garcia said this week that Annunciation House is working with 12 to 15 temporary hospitality centers — mostly affiliated with churches — and has rented two hotels and a tent for a dining hall at a cost of about $40,000 a week.
He thinks one reason more people are crossing the border now is the alleged suspension of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in July. That policy separated thousands of children from their parents at the border. Also, he said, body smugglers, or coyotes, are keeping an eye on the nation’s political climate.
“They make note of that for families that were saying, ‘I’m afraid they’re going to take my kids.’ Well, right now they’re not taking away their kids,” Garcia said.
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced another change in policy. Previously, ICE said it would review immigrants’ travel plans to see whether they had arrangements to join family or a sponsor in the country, or release them to a non-governmental organization that could help them with food, shelter and travel. But ICE said in a statement that it “no longer has the capacity to conduct these reviews without risking violation of the Flores limitations on lengths of stay for families in both CBP and ICE custody.”
Under the Flores class-action settlement, also dating back to the 1980s, the federal government cannot hold asylum-seeking children and their parents in a detention center for more than 20 days.
Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told CNN in October that the government has run out of space for families and children who have crossed the border.
“First and foremost, it’s just a lack of facilities,” she said. “We’re out of space, unfortunately, given all of the increase in numbers.”
Garcia had to find a temporary shelter for 100 people whom ICE dropped off at a Greyhound bus station in downtown El Paso last Friday. This was a result of the change in policy, he said.
“In El Paso, it is unusual that they haven’t been handed over to us,” he said.
President Trump has ordered the Department of Defense to send 5,200 troops to the border in anticipation of a caravan of immigrants, mostly women and children, who are heading on foot from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, toward the United States. They are nearly 1,000 miles away, moving a few miles a day.
U.S. Border and Customs Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Monday that the government is tracking two caravans, of 3,000 and 3,500 people, now in southern Mexico.
McAleenan said the caravans, made up of families and unaccompanied children, plus “violent human smugglers,” presented “unique safety and border security threats.”
Trump too has said, without proof, that violent people are among those in the caravans.
“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the caravan,” Trump tweeted Monday. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
Actually, the military is prohibited from enforcing the law on U.S. soil by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Troops will not be able to arrest people; they can only assist the Border Patrol and ICE. The movement of troops to the border has been given the grand name Operation Faithful Patriot.
Most immigration experts say the large caravans were formed to protect the families from criminals and violent police in Mexico and Central America who prey upon immigrants.
McAleenan said Monday: “We have already seen the first one make unlawful entry across two international borders and the second, still in Guatemala, has deployed violent and dangerous tactics against both Guatemalan and Mexican border security teams.”
At the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry on Monday morning, Customs and Border Patrol officers conducted drills in riot gear at the crossing that connects downtown El Paso to its sister city of Ciudad Juarez.
In a video posted online by Juarez website Puente Libre, more than a dozen agents in face masks and shields are visible marching on the narrow bridge.
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Roger Maier said in a statement that the drill was part of “operational readiness exercises” related to the caravans.
“CBP is currently monitoring the situation regarding the caravan migrating from Central America toward the U.S. border,” Maier said. “We continually assess the capabilities of our facilities throughout the Southwest border and have been making — and will continue to make —necessary preparations.”
On the crowded Paso Del Norte bridge Monday afternoon, Veronica Escobar, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s seat in Congress, said she decided to come watch the drill after a friend alerted her to what was happening.
“Things are very tense right now, and I wanted to see for myself,” Escobar said.
Escobar said she’s meeting with faith-based leaders in El Paso this week to figure out ways to help Annunciation House find places for the refugees. She called the situation a “manufactured humanitarian emergency created by our government.”
“We’re ill-equipped to deal with it and we’re unwilling,” said Escobar. “The federal government is unwilling. And it’s a way of creating a sense of crisis, I believe.”