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The View From The Border


An unprecedented decline - that's what the Department of Homeland Security is saying about the numbers of people crossing the southwestern border illegally. They announced a 40 percent drop last month and credited the Trump administration's tough actions on immigration as the cause. This hour, along with my colleague John Burnett, we're going to take a closer look at the border and immigration in the United States and Mexico. We begin this hour in a small Texas town called Roma, on the edge of the Rio Grande River.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PROTECTION OFFICER #1: Is that 218 going to be a PA? Romeo 415.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We joined Border Patrol as they looked for people trying to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Along a barren dirt road, the Border Patrol agents spot a mother and son carrying nothing as they walk along the river's edge.

MARLENE CASTRO: Hello. De donde es, senora?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marlene Castro is a supervisory Border Patrol agent. And she asks the mother where she's from.

MARLENE CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro then aggressively questions her about how much she paid the coyotes, or smugglers, to bring her and her son over.

MARLENE CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

CELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The mother says she didn't pay anyone.

MARLENE CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Don't tell me you didn't pay, ma'am. Everyone pays to cross," Castro replies.

MARLENE CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro then asks the mother's underage son how much was paid for the crossing.

MARLENE CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a persistent line of questioning. So I ask...

Why is it important for you to know?

MARLENE CASTRO: We need that information for our stats, our information and pursuing the individuals that are exploiting them, abusing them and mistreating them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there is another reason that information could be important in the future. The Department of Homeland Security is considering prosecuting or deporting parents who pay smugglers to bring their children into the country. Another patrol car arrives on the scene. And as Castro goes to talk to them, I ask the mother how long she's been traveling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

CELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's telling me that she's been traveling since the middle of January, so it's been about a month and a half on the road. And it's been a difficult journey so far.

Her name is Celia. We're not using her last name at her request because she fears for her safety. She's come from El Salvador with her 17-year-old son. She begins to cry as she stands in the hot sun telling her story.

CELIA: (Sobbing, speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's telling me that the Mara Salvatruchas, which is one of the most feared gangs in El Salvador, wanted to take her 17-year-old son and make him work for the gangs. And she had him hidden at a relative's house until they could try and make the journey north so she could save him from that fate.

CELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tells me the situation is terrible in El Salvador because you can't trust the police. The police are linked to the gangs.

(Speaking Spanish).

I ask her if she would ever go back to El Salvador. She shakes her head - no. It's an irony that she is fleeing a gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The Mara Salvatruchas were initially set up by Salvadoran immigrants who had relocated to the U.S. to get away from their country's brutal civil war, a civil war in which the United States was heavily involved.

After Celia gets put in a patrol car and taken away, Marlene Castro points to a house across the river, where we see a raft.

MARLENE CASTRO: Well, see that landing right there? Look - they're pulling up the raft, so you know they just dropped the load, look.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, yeah. You can see them pulling up a raft.

MARLENE CASTRO: Those are your guys.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And those are the smugglers?

MARLENE CASTRO: Yeah. And this area...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro says the smuggling gangs exploit vulnerable migrants. She's seen cases of women and girls who've been sexually abused, men and boys who've been beaten. These are criminal organizations, she says, that must be brought to justice.

MARLENE CASTRO: We've successfully prosecuted smugglers who leave people out in the brush to die. And see, we need to come after these guys because, as much as she wants to be here, they prey on their desperation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro spots two more underage migrants, from Honduras and Guatemala, who have just crossed the river.

MARLENE CASTRO: And she calls it in. Romeo 26, Hotel four-five. (In sing-song voice) I got a Christmas present for you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Until recently, for families coming across the border, the policy was catch-and-release. They would be processed and then set free until an immigration hearing could be scheduled, possibly years into the future due to overburdened courts. Daniel Hughbanks is a supervisory Border Patrol agent who was called to the scene of the apprehensions. He tells me it's been frustrating to spend time capturing people only to see them let go.

DANIEL HUGHBANKS: For me as a Border Patrol agent, it ties people up here doing this. If we're going to let people come in and just release them, then why don't they just let them come through the port of entry and do it? It seems like we should be discouraging people from making illegal entries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration is doing just that, in part by putting pressure on families who are already living in the country illegally.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We leave Roma and go to a community center in the poor neighborhood of La Milpas in Pharr, Texas. An organization called ARISE is holding a community meeting, and it's packed full of mostly mothers and children.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The room's pretty crowded.

The organizers of the meeting hand out what they are calling preparation kits. Most of the people attending this meeting are undocumented. And what they are preparing for is possible deportation. The kits include draft custody forms. The organizers explain that it's vital for the parents to designate a legal guardian because their children could be put into foster care if they don't have one and the parents are deported. The faces of the mothers looked grave as they listen. Among them is Eva.

(Speaking Spanish).

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are not using Eva's last name as she fears she will be deported. She came to the United States five years ago fleeing violence in her native Mexico. She has six children, but it's her 9-year-old who's become terrified that she will be taken away.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the first thing her son does when he gets home from school is search for her.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if he doesn't see his mother right away, he thinks they've taken her to Mexico. So Eva tells me she always tries to be there because it's so traumatic for him.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says he tells her he can't concentrate in school because all he is thinking about is her.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tells me she doesn't know who she will designate for custody if she's taken, but she's thought about it.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't trust that many people for something like that, she says - maybe someone from my church. Eva knows how difficult a burden this will be on whomever may have to take her kids because she is already looking after the son of one of her friends who was deported. He has special needs, and it's been hard. As we're talking, She starts to cry.

EVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't want so many deportations, so much separation of families. We don't want that, she says.

DEBBIE NATHAN: People are just terrorized. Debbie Nathan is with the ACLU, and she was also at the community meeting. She runs a hotline where migrants can call to report abuse from the Border Patrol or police. She says she's hearing about an uptick in aggressive policing of neighborhoods where immigrants who are in the country illegally live.

NATHAN: People are telling me they don't go out of their houses. They used to take walks at night. They would walk the dog. They would go to the grocery store. I've heard stories about people not taking their children to well-child doctor visits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nathan says, while this has been going on for a while, it's gotten more pronounced under Trump.

NATHAN: I've been on the border, you know, on and off for many, many years. And I've never seen anything like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a temporary migrant center in McAllen, Texas, you can see the dramatic drop in people crossing the border. Sister Norma Pimentel runs the shelter. She says...

NORMA PIMENTEL: Up to the end of 2016, we were here - seeing close to 400 a day. And then with the new administration, the numbers have dropped significantly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tells me now they only see about 30 a day. But she tries to give them a warm welcome. When migrants are released from detention, volunteers greet them with applause.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The day that we were there, we found Celia and her son, the two migrants from El Salvador who had been detained by Border Patrol. They were among a new group that had just been released from ICE custody.

CELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she feels good. She's still worried about what's going to happen. The only thing she doesn't want is to go back to her country.

(Speaking Spanish).

CELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that she - her dream for this country is that her son can study, that he would be fine and safe and that she can find a job to support him.

(Speaking Spanish).


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I asked her if it was worth it, everything that she's gone through to get to this point. And she says yes, it is. We followed up, and Celia and her son made it to Los Angeles, where her brother lives. Her family told us that they are very happy to have them there. Her case is pending in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOON ATE THE DARK'S "SHE/SWIMMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.