EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Success is about lessons learned, and in the case of Gloria I. Chavez, 2019 was a defining moment. That is when the newly appointed U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector chief agent was assigned to manage a migrant surge the likeness of it not seen in years.
Press reports back then documented migrant adults and children packed inside El Paso area Border Patrol stations, sleeping on concrete slabs, on floors without mats and even outdoors as they waited for processing. Some migrants held in a pen under a bridge near the border with Mexico told reporters they were “treated like animals.”
Those were some of the challenges Chavez had to address at the start of her tenure here.
“The unaccompanied children, we were getting high numbers and we didn’t have a facility for them. We retrofitted a station to house these children and at the end of the day it wasn’t sufficient,” Chavez told Border Report. “Children don’t belong in Border Patrol stations; families don’t belong there. They are not adequate facilities for that vulnerable population.”
The federal government built the Central Processing Center Chavez and other border officials were urgently requesting. It provided a large, out-of-the-way, air-conditioned space were families, unaccompanied children and other populations did not have to mix. It was equipped with the technology to verify if those seeking asylum did not have a record of previous entries or criminal activity.
Today, facing a new and even bigger migrant surge from Mexico, Central and South America, Chavez has stayed on problem-solving mode partnering with city and county officials, immigration services nonprofits and even some long-time critics of the Border Patrol.
“She came here during difficult times. The Trump administration was implementing extreme measures that included the separation of families, having migrants sleep under bridges and minors passing away in custody. We had a lot of abuses,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “She brought a fresh perspective. She was open to dialogue and was sensitive to our concerns. We had a very productive relationship with Chief Chavez.”
Chavez has met regularly not only with her federal law enforcement partners, but also with local officials like County Judge Ricardo Samaniego.
At Samaniego’s request, the county this week committed $6.9 million to lease and hire a contractor to operate a new Migrant Support Services Center near El Paso International Airport for at least the next year.
Chavez has also been busy on her end. This month, she established a temporary processing center called West Bridge where migrants who illegally crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States just seconds ago are escorted to a screening tent where Border Patrol agents establish whether the migrant falls under Title 8 processing or should be expelled under the Title 42 public health order.
Larger groups – and El Paso has seen clusters of 200 to 400 people crossing the river at the same time this month – are routed to mobile processing centers (buses where agents use computers to screen people) and to air-conditioned trailers called Temporary Outdoor Processing Sites (TOPS).
It is a process she says saves time, treats the migrants humanely and reduces the need for further street releases even as the number of daily apprehensions in the El Paso Sector rises from 1,300 a day to 1,500 a day, with a couple of days nearing 2,000 encounters.
“A lot of times we have a bottleneck at the front end. We identified those challenges and started looking at creative ways to help us be more efficient,” Chavez said. “The processing is done right here. We are able to separate them into different types of lanes, so we know whether they’re going to go to our CPC or not. It’s very effective [….] we’re able to move the migrant quickly to the next step of his process.”
As she prepares to leave El Paso and take over next month as chief agent of the Rio Grande Valley Sector – the busiest migrant crossing in the nation –, Chavez hopes to apply the tactics that proved successful here.
“To be ready for a sector like the Rio Grande Valley, it’s going to be replicating some of the same principles, instituting some of the same standards that to me are very important,” Chavez said in an interview with Border Report. “While people are in our custody, we are always going to treat them with a level of dignity and respect. And the other thing we are going to prioritize is that they are safe, that they are healthy and that they are fed. And while they’re in our custody, we’re going to aim for an A-plus every day.”
Building coalitions amid historic levels of migration
Migrant encounters are up 47 percent for the year in West Texas and Southern New Mexico, fueled by continuous migration from gang and poverty-stricken areas of Central America, rural towns besieged by warring drug cartels in Mexico and political oppression in communist Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The arrival of citizens from that latter country led to a humanitarian crisis in El Paso because they lack sponsors ready to finance their stay or the network of family and clustered communities that other migrants traditionally enjoy in major U.S. cities.
Chavez worked closely with El Paso city officials who mobilized to provide bus transportation, meals and emergency hotel stays for Venezuelans released from Border Patrol custody who could not find a place in crowded local shelters.
Still, the Border Patrol foremost is a law enforcement agency.
“Border security is our number one priority, and we are going to continue to enforce immigration laws,” Chavez said. “This is a population (at the West Bridge checkpoint) that is not running from us, they are turning themselves in. In areas like Santa Teresa (New Mexico), that’s very different. We get a lot of people crossing day and night who are running from our agents, hiding from our agents. Many of them have criminal records.”