EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Officials from El Paso and Juarez on Monday held the first of several planned meetings to make the best of the ongoing — and rapidly-shifting — migrant crisis on the border.
Aside from learning what each side has done so far to cope with the influx of thousands of Cubans and Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States, the overriding theme of the exchange was how to keep trade going while customs officers are reassigned to care for the migrants, leaving the ports of entry undermanned.
The pillar of the El Paso-Juarez economy is the maquiladora industry, which sustains 300,000 direct jobs in the region as well as a wide network of suppliers, logistics and transportation companies on both sides of the border. The migrant crisis has stung the pocketbook not only of maquilas, but also the Detroit automotive industry whose auto parts are assembled in Juarez.
“Two weeks ago I talked to (Department of Homeland Security Acting) Secretary McAleenan to stress the importance of staffing international bridges and avoiding delays,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said. “Staffing levels have improved, but they’re not where they need to be yet.”
At the height of the migrant surge (in May apprehensions topped 144,000), commercial trucks were stuck at international crossings for up to 16 hours. “Any delay in delivery costs us $150,000 a minute, so it’s very costly to our industry when we’re not able to get the product to its destination in time,” said Gustavo Gonzalez, president of Southwest Maquila Association.
Now the average wait for commercial truck traffic in El Paso-Juarez is 2.5 hours. “We can live with 2.5 hours for now, but going back to 13- to 16-hour waits would mean a total collapse. … We would like to go back to the days when it took under an hour for our trucks to get across,” he said.
The reason commercial bridge traffic has sped up (regular passenger traffic at ports of entry remains stuck at two hours-plus) is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been able to reassign some officers due to decreasing migrant traffic from the south, a fairly recent phenomenon.
On June 7, Mexico gave in to a very public threat from the Trump administration to stop migrant caravans from Central America or face escalating tariffs on all exports to the United States, which included products assembled at maquilas. Mexico deployed its new National Guard to the border with Guatemala on June 18, and a few days later sent soldiers to patrol the Juarez side of the Rio Grande.
“It has been precisely 45 days since the accord, and migrant traffic is down 36 percent,” said Mexican Labor Undersecretary Horacio Duarte.
With Mexico keeping migrants from completing the trip to the United States and with Juarez taking in “returnees” sent from the U.S. under the Migrant Protection Protocol program, El Paso Border Patrol stations aren’t as overcrowded as before.
“We don’t operate detention centers but we do have temporary holding facilities in our Border Patrol stations and, yes, our numbers are way down,” said Aaron Hull, chief patrol agent for the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. “We are glad to see that the (migrant) traffic has decreased. It makes it better from a law-enforcement standpoint and makes it better from a humanitarian standpoint.”
CBP and its agencies, like the Border Patrol, have weathered a storm of criticism in the past few months over alleged mistreatment, neglect and lack of basic supplies for detained migrants, including children. While the agency and DHS officials have vigorously disputed some of the most inflammatory allegations, officials from McAleenan on down have publicly admitted their resources — in terms of personnel and structure — were overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants.
“When the numbers get that high, we have to hold people in our custody for that much more amount of time. We were not designed to do that,” Hull said on Monday. He added that the $4.6 billion Border Supplemental Bill passed by Congress a few days ago “has helped a lot.”
“It’s provided resources for us to hand over (the children) because, as you know, by law we have to do that. It’s really a resource issue and a numbers issue. Right now, the numbers being down is a good thing,” Hull said.
Mayor Margo said the binational group’s meetings will take place at least every three months. Friday’s meeting took place at the Mexican Consulate General in El Paso on San Antonio Street.
Problem shifting to Mexico
Duarte’s reference to the “45 days” reflects a deadline the Trump administration allegedly gave Mexico to rein in the migrant flow from Central America. Mexico avoided the punitive tariffs, but now must cope with thousands — soon tens of thousands — of migrants returned from the United States to wait months in border cities like Juarez, Tijuana, Mexicali and now Nuevo Laredo. In Juarez alone, close to 11,000 migrants have been returned this year and an average of 200 more are on the way daily.
The safety of those migrants is a central argument in U.S. immigration court to release the migrants to shelters in El Paso, not in Juarez. Asylum seekers express fear and tell anecdotes of kidnappings, robberies and rape. Juarez officials, still trying to clean up their city’s image after the drug war killings of 2008-2012, take every opportunity to stress that Juarez is not as dangerous as it’s portrayed. Migrant shelter operators have taken KTSM on tours of facilities now equipped with closed-circuit television cameras, volunteer security details and controlled public access. As Juarez closes in on 800 murders for the current year, the Chihuahua state deputy attorney general insists most victims were in the drug trade.
Duarte, who has been assigned by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to help deal with the migrant problem on the northern border of Mexico, said a new, government-operated, state-of-the-art migrant shelter will open in Juarez later this week.
The center on Juan Gabriel Avenue will be able to temporarily house up to 3,000 migrants returned from the United States, providing beds, food, medical exams and paperwork so they can work in Juarez while awaiting the outcome of their asylum process. “We want the migrants not to be a burden for Mexican cities, but an asset that will help us increase our productivity,” Duarte said.
In addition, Duarte said the Mexican government plans to assist private shelters in Juarez, which so far have gotten by on charity and whatever resources the City of Juarez and the State of Chihuahua have been able to provide.”
Churches, Catholic and Christian, were fundamental in helping us contain the crisis, serving as a cushion for migrants. We will strengthen the and look for more agile mechanisms so they can get more aid. That will help Juarez city government, too,” the Labor Undersecretary said.