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Immigrant Arrests Smash Records, and U.S. Border Struggles to Handle the Crush
Shelters fill up with asylum-seekers; officials shuttle families hundreds of miles to find space and build a tent city. Three children have died in federal custody.

  (News Agencies) Donna, Texas—After tens of thousands of families streamed across America’s southern border late last year, a Catholic charity in Tucson, Ariz., opened a monastery to house asylum-seeking migrants whom federal agents released. The 66,000-square-foot space is now full. The recent discovery of an unused closet caused excitement.
An additional 113,797 people in families had crossed this year by the end of March, and border agents in El Paso, Texas, housed some under a bridge. Last month, Yuma, Ariz., declared an emergency after a converted strip-mall thrift store serving as a shelter hit capacity. Last week, a giant white tent opened on the outskirts of Donna, near the Rio Grande—the government’s latest desperate attempt to house the families.
In April, a single-month record of 58,000 parents and children crossing together illegally were arrested, federal data released Wednesday show.
A deepening humanitarian crisis on the border is straining towns, aid groups and federal agencies as thousands of families, when released, immediately need shelter.
The border has seen illegal-immigrant waves before. This one is different.
Instead of the single job seekers of a decade ago who aimed to sneak in undetected, these are families openly seeking asylum—more like the groups of refugees familiar on borders elsewhere in the world, where wars, famine and genocide have created massive camps of displaced families with nowhere to go.
Families arrive at a U.S. border unprepared to absorb the sheer numbers of adults and children who are, by law, allowed to remain at least temporarily—confounding federal policy and the Trump administration. It is getting more chaotic, as Border Patrol officials shuttle immigrants hundreds of miles to find space.
According to the new federal data, 248,000 parents and children had illegally entered the U.S. by April since the federal fiscal year began in October, more than in any prior full year.
The families are mostly citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras citing gang violence, hunger, poverty and corruption. Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers have argued that legal loopholes encourage asylum seekers, but those loopholes have existed for years.
“President Trump has repeatedly exposed the loopholes littered throughout our immigration laws and offered many solutions to address them,” said a White House spokesman.
The administration has tried multiple responses: separating adults from their children, pushing Congress to change immigration law, threatening to close the border before backing down, sending troops to the border. On April 29, President Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department to start drafting regulations to speed up adjudications for asylum cases, charge migrants an application fee for asylum and deny them work permits while awaiting a decision.
“The migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis is rapidly overwhelming the ability of the federal government to respond,” White House acting Office of Management and Budget director Russell Vought told Congress last Wednesday in a request for $4.5 billion in emergency funding.
The administration’s moves so far have neither stopped families from arriving nor found a solution to the overcrowding and turmoil at the border.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration for now can resume its practice of sending some Central American asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for U.S. judge to rule in their asylum case—an unexpected victory for the administration. But that policy, which had been in effect for months before legal challenges interrupted it, has had little effect on the current crisis because of restrictions on who the government can remove.
They crossed with other Central Americans into the U.S. illegally near Calexico, Calif., a desert border town surrounded by farm and ranch lands about an hour west of the Arizona state line.
Gregorio and his group immediately sought out Border Patrol agents, surrendered and started the process of requesting asylum. While authorities can in a number of hours deport single Mexican adults entering illegally for work, the U.S. lets most families requesting asylum stay while their cases are adjudicated.
Guatemalan asylum seekers in Yuma, Ariz., board a Greyhound to Phoenix in April, heading to Alabama, Indiana, Florida and elsewhere. Medical personnel checked out the father and daughter. Immigration officials interviewed Gregorio, who told them he feared his life would be at risk if he went home. Officials approved them for the first step toward asylum.
Over the next five days authorities moved him and Mirian to multiple crowded, spartan Border Patrol facilities in California and Arizona, Gregorio said. Typically, such locations include cinder-block holding cells with a sink and toilet—no bed—or holding areas with tents. The facilities were made to hold single men for hours, not families for days.
“A lot of our stations were not built for this,” said Matthew Roggow, the Border Patrol’s acting deputy chief of the law enforcement operations directorate. “They weren’t built for this demographic.”
Then it was time for Gregorio and Mirian to be let go—and start waiting.
Asylum seekers like them spend months, sometimes years, waiting to have their cases heard in an immigration-court system backlogged with more than 869,000 cases. The trouble now: Where do they go meanwhile?
Small border cities can’t always handle the daily release of hundreds of migrant families. For Gregorio and Mirian, that meant traveling almost 300 miles to ride to Tucson, where a van later dropped them and 35 others off at the monastery-turned-shelter last month.
Gregorio, a 27-year-old Honduran, and his 1-year-old daughter, Mirian, at the monastery-turned-shelter in April.
Other Border Patrol officials last month shuttled migrants to Tucson from the border in El Paso. Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials started releasing migrants at parks and bus stations in San Diego and El Paso. Migrant-aid groups moved most of the newly freed migrants to shelters.

As Gregorio and Mirian shuffled into the monastery at the edge of a middle-class neighborhood and barely 2 miles from the sprawling University of Arizona campus, run by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, a 5-year-old Guatemalan boy riding a donated tricycle greeted them: “Bienvenidos!”
During an orientation with volunteers, the families were treated to orange and grapefruit slices, Gatorade and water. As they waited for medical screenings and a room assignment, their first questions were where they headed next.
“How far is San Antonio?” one man asked. “New Jersey?” another asked.
Gregorio would spend a day or two in the shelter before taking a bus to Woodbridge, Va., where he had relatives. He carried a slip of paper with a date to appear in a nearby immigration office, where he would begin the process of asking a judge to let them stay permanently.
Immigration researchers and federal officials say they aren’t certain why so many families are coming. Widespread hunger, gang violence, and government corruption have been factors. The spread of the internet and social media has disseminated information—and testimonials—about how to seek asylum that previous generations didn’t have.
The numbers aren’t unprecedented. In 2006, border agents arrested more than 1 million illegal immigrants, compared with 460,000 in the first seven months of this fiscal year. That earlier number was driven by single adults, mostly from Mexico.
What’s unprecedented is the numbers seeking asylum.
One previous flood of asylum seekers came during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when an estimated 125,000 Cubans arrived on U.S. shores, often in rickety boats, over about six months. They overwhelmed authorities and facilities in South Florida and forced the government to move newly arriving Cubans to temporary holding facilities at military bases around the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It became a political problem for President Carter, whose administration had been granting refugee status to any Cuban who arrived in the U.S.
The Obama administration was inundated with tens of thousand of unaccompanied migrant children and families in 2014. Children coming alone reached a high of more than 68,000 that year. While some families were sent home, most took their place in line in the massive immigration-court backlog.
Central American migrants in Antelope Wells, N.M., wait for directions from Border Patrol agents in January.
The administration called in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help manage some operations, and opened jails specifically to accommodate entire families. A judge later ruled that children with parents couldn’t be held longer than 20 days.
Obama administration officials also launched a public-relations campaign in Central America, warning migrants not to make the trip.


The Trump administration hasn’t brought in FEMA but has temporarily moved hundreds of Customs and Border Protection officers to the busiest border sectors to help process migrants. It has added more-rigorous medical screenings for young migrants in the wake of the deaths of two Guatemalan children in government custody in December.
‘Breaking point’
Kevin McAleenan, the former head of Customs and Border Protection and now interim DHS head, said in March that “a breaking point has arrived” because the system he oversees can’t cope with the numbers.
The Trump administration has met resistance to the approaches it has cycled through. It tried “zero tolerance,” prosecuting adults for illegal entry and separating them from their children but halted the practice amid an outcry. Mr. Trump backed down from his threat to close the border after U.S.-industry opposition.
The administration’s pressure on Congress to change immigration law includes raising the standards for determining a person has a credible fear of returning home and overhauling rules about how long children can be jailed without parents.
Congress hasn’t passed immigration reform this century and it is particularly unlikely with Democrats, who control the House, opposed to imposing more punitive policies. Democrats also appear skeptical about the administration’s request for $4.5 billion in emergency border spending.

Mr. McAleenan, the DHS interim head, has said that without legal changes and more resources at the border, more children are likely to die in government custody. The most recent was a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who died at a Texas hospital after becoming ill at a Department of Health and Human Services child migrant shelter.

A young Guatemalan migrant plays while his group in Yuma waits to catch the bus to Phoenix. PHOTO: CAITLIN O'HARA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A speedup in asylum-claims processing won’t change the fact that migrant families need a place to stay in the first few days after crossing the border. The new facility in Donna, along with a similar one opened in El Paso, is meant to help. The complex, on a plot surrounded by wildflowers, features a large tent that will temporarily house migrants on mats on the floor. The facility has showers, portable bathrooms and laundry facilities.

Officials admit the facilities, each intended to briefly house 500 members of families and unaccompanied children, won’t make a dent in the crisis. The Border Patrol’s Mr. Roggow said they would help alleviate crowding in patrol stations. A Homeland Security Advisory Council in a report last month recommended construction of more permanent regional processing centers.

Without legal changes, they are “nothing but a welcoming center and will have no impact on stemming the flow of these family units coming across the border in these remote locations,” said Karen Tandy, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council panel that produced the report, who headed the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

Migrant families, eager to avoid weekslong or monthslong lines at legal ports of entry such as Tijuana, head to remote border towns like El Paso, Yuma, Ariz., and Antelope Wells, N.M., where they can easily cross and flag down border agents.

When Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a state of emergency, he said it was to prompt the federal government to deal with the crisis. The city’s only shelter, a converted Salvation Army thrift store in a strip mall, had hit its capacity of 200, said Mr. Nicholls, a Republican. “We’re getting more people into the shelter than we’re able to move through in a day.”

Salvation Army Captain Jeffrey Breazeale said shelter operations were started two days after a request from the city.

In March, an El Paso processing center was so full agents created a temporary holding cell outside under a bridge. Photos of families huddled there spread online and prompted a national outcry.

Last month at a new center operated by aid group Annunciation House. PHOTO: MARK LAMBIE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A week later, Border Patrol vans dropped migrant families at an El Paso motel advertising rooms for $34.05 a night. Volunteers from the aid group Annunciation House, which rented rooms at the Mesa Inn for migrants, greeted mothers holding belongings in plastic bags with hugs at a room near the courtyard pool, where families arriving earlier milled about and played Jenga.

Annunciation House has opened a shelter in a warehouse and plans to house at least 500 people at a time there.

Teresa Cavendish, who helps run the Tucson-monastery shelter, said there are Red Cross cots in nearly every available space, including part of the sanctuary. She never imagined it would fill up.

“This place seemed enormous,” she said, “like there was no way we could possibly utilize it.”

(By Alicia A. Caldwell for Wall Street Journal. Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article)
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