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El Paso

‘Completely different’: How the immigration crisis has changed a year after peak

undocumented immigrant detained
KVIA
An undocumented immigrant waiting to ask for asylum in the United States is detained.

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- El Paso was the epicenter of the immigration crisis one year ago.

Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were crossing into the U.S. daily.

Today, only a few dozen migrants are crossing per day in the El Paso area.

"The population we are dealing with here today, are single adults -- the majority of them," El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Gloria Chavez said. "No more do you see the numbers of families and children coming through.”

Even before the pandemic, monthly apprehension numbers were decreasing significantly on the Southwest border.

Last May, 144,116 migrants were apprehended. That was the peak for Fiscal Year 2019. The numbers started to dwindle due to a variety of factors including restrictive immigration policies passed by the Trump Administration, as well as, increased enforcement from the Mexican National Guard.

In April 2020, 16,789 migrants were apprehended. That's an 88.6% percent decrease from May 2019.

"Humans can only endure so much," said Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

The non-profit provides legal representation to asylum seekers who were sent back to Mexico to wait for their immigration court hearings in the U.S.

“I have some clients say ‘I’ll do anything. I don’t care how long I wait. I don’t care how much I suffer, I want to have my day in court. I want to do everything I can," Rivas said. "And then, there are others that absolutely reach a breaking point.”

The Trump Administration began sending asylum seekers apprehended in El Paso back to Mexico last March. Rivas calls it a cruel policy, because it forces migrants into dangerous situations in Ciudad Juarez. It also makes it much more difficult for attorneys to represent them.

That divide has only grown with the coronavirus pandemic. She can now only communicate with her clients via phone.

"Here you have an administration who on one side wants to open the economy," she said. "But yet on the other side, Covid-19 is so dangerous that our borders need to be completely sealed.”

In March, the Department of Homeland Security amended Title 42. It's a provision in U.S. law. In an effort to prevent Covid-19 from entering through the borders, Customs and Border Protection now has the authority to quickly expel migrants they apprehend, without detaining them.

"This is why Title 42 to us has been a huge advantage. It’s limiting exposure and not spreading the coronavirus to areas unnecessarily," Chavez said. "If the person is not a significant aggravated -- like an aggravated felon or there’s a significant criminal charge -- that person is immediately placed in a transport vehicle and is transported to the nearest port of entry to be returned back into Mexico immediately from the border.”

Chavez is thankful for the policy because she said it keeps her agents and their families safe. But Rivas worries that Trump Administration will take advantage of this health crisis to further restrict immigration.

"Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and as -- I think the American public -- we’ve come closer than ever to just slightly understand the plight of a refugee," Rivas said. "This concept of needing to keep your family safe -- doing everything that you can possible to keep them safe...There’s an incredible amount of suffering right now.”

According to the Transnational Clearing House from Syracuse University, as of April there are 2,984 pending cases at El Paso immigration courts for migrants who were returned back to Mexico.

Nearly 10,000 migrants have lost their cases. For those still fighting for their case, they'll have to continue to wait. Hearings have been postponed until at least late June.

As for the Title 42 authority given to Border Patrol, it has be renewed every 30 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the agency that -- based on the pandemic -- decides whether to renew or lift the authority.

Border / News / Video

Mauricio Casillas

El Paso native Mauricio Casillas co-anchors ABC-7’s Good Morning El Paso.

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