Thousands of migrant children seeking refuge are being held in crowded cells amid an increase in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite claims by Republican lawmakers during a tour of the southern border aimed at warning against rollbacks of Trump’s immigration policy, most adults at the border are still being turned away, while the Biden administration is allowing unaccompanied children to cross while their cases are processed. Thousands of the unaccompanied minors are being sent to cities across Texas to be housed and processed, including Dallas, where FEMA will hold as many as 3,000 unaccompanied teens. Fernando García, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, says that despite Republican claims about a “crisis” at the border, the situation is not new or unexpected. The Biden administration “was not ready to deal with a situation like this,” says García, “after Trump destroyed the infrastructure in the refugee asylum systems in the last four years.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
As the Biden administration begins its “Help Is Here” tour to promote the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, a delegation of Republicans, headed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, launched their own tour this week at the U.S. southern border, where as many as 4,000 migrant children who sought refuge in the United States are being held in crowded cells, many for longer than the three-day limit. On Monday, McCarthy said they toured an ICE detention center in El Paso and spoke to Fox News about visiting a Border Patrol station to speak with agents.
MINORITY LEADER KEVIN McCARTHY: When you go to Monument Three and you talk to those agents, it’s not just people from Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador. They’re now finding people from Yemen, Iran, Turkey, people on the terrorist watchlist they are catching. And they’re rushing it all at once.
AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security ordered the FEMA — that’s Federal Emergency Management Agency — to, quote, “help receive, shelter and transport the children” over the next 90 days. This is a 17-year-old Honduran migrant speaking to Reuters.
HONDURAN MIGRANT: [translated] Thank God we are here at our destination and there will be some opportunities here for us. We came here suffering. We have been on the road for a month suffering, hungry, no sleep.
AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of the unaccompanied minors are being sent to cities across Texas, including the capital of the state, Austin, and to Dallas, where FEMA will hold as many as 3,000 unaccompanied teens, mainly boys.
This comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill could vote this week on bills to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and provide legal status to farmworkers and also a path to citizenship to DACA recipients.
For more, we go to El Paso, where we’re joined by Fernando García, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Fernando. Describe the scene and what you think needs to happen.
FERNANDO GARCÍA: Listen, what we have seen, what we’re experiencing at the border, yes, is indeed a surge of families and children coming through the border, but by no means this is a crisis or a new situation, as Republicans had actually presented it. Historically, in the last 10 years, we have seen an influx of more families and more children coming through the border. Just to give you an example, in the year of 2015, we had close to 40,000 unaccompanied minors. By 2019, we had — this is a couple of years ago during the Trump administration — 70,000 unaccompanied minors. So, what we are seeing at the border is not new.
I mean, this is part of a larger problem. We had situations in Central America and in Mexico that are expelling not only children, but families. And they continue to come. I mean, they never stopped coming. What happened, for example, in last year, in 2020, instead of detaining these children, and instead of processing them and releasing them in the United States, Trump administration deported, expelled close to 10,000 children, unaccompanied minors.
So, it is not true. I mean, we don’t have the so-called crisis at the border. If anything, we have a humanitarian crisis. But more than anything, we have a crisis of how the government is responding right now. I think Biden administration is not ready, was not ready to deal with a situation like this, and specifically after Trump destroyed the systems, destroyed the infrastructure in the refugee and asylum systems in the last four years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fernando, could you talk a little bit in terms of the particular surge, this most recent surge? Are you finding the role of these criminal gangs and the coyotes who actually are stirring up migration because it’s money for them? I’m hearing now it’s $8,000, $9,000, $10,000 to pay coyotes to help people get to the border.
FERNANDO GARCÍA: I mean, that has been true for many, many years here at the border, I mean, but that is not specific for this year. I mean, how — as the border has been militarized since 1994, in the last 20 years, what we have seen is a surge in the business of coyotes and smugglers. I mean, to cross from El Paso to Juárez — or, sorry, from Juárez to El Paso, coyotes are charging thousands of dollars, because they are the ones that actually have the ways and means to bring people across. Obviously, many of them are connected to criminal organizations on the Mexican side. But this is the result — I mean, we need to be very clear about this: This is the result of the militarization of the border. The harder that it becomes to come across, this is more business for some of these smugglers in some of these criminal organizations.
And again, immigration is a historic phenomenon. People continue to come for multiple reasons — crises in Central America, not only in terms of violence, but also economic crises. But then, when they get to the border, they see that there is the construction of border walls, that there is more Border Patrol. The populated areas are sealed so that people cannot cross between Juárez and El Paso, so they have to hire some of these coyotes to actually take them farther away into the deserts, into the mountains, where these immigrants are more exposed. So, this is not new. I mean, this comes first because the border has been militarized in the last 20 years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the potential, now that there is a — the Democrats are in control, or in tenuous control, of both the House and the Senate, as well as the White House, for any kind of legal reform that would bring some order and humanity to immigration policy in the United States, what do the prospects look like right now, from what you can tell?
FERNANDO GARCÍA: Yeah, again, listen, I do believe that this administration has — they had very good intentions. Biden won this election by 70% of the Hispanics voting in this country. And in the top of the agenda of the Hispanic and Latino community, it is immigration reform. I mean, people is demanding legalization of the 11 million people already in the United States and also to establish some kind of processes where we can actually bring workers and families legally so we don’t have to continue experiencing these surges, you know, of people coming through the border. So, again, we’re expecting that to happen.
But, you know, I think I’m very concerned about how this administration, it’s not prepared, or was not prepared, to deal with the situation at the border. I mean, for four years, Trump destroyed everything at the border, I mean, dedicated so much money to the border wall that there’s no asylum officers or even asylum judges that actually can expedite the process of these children and those families. So, if this administration, if they don’t put enough resources in very quickly on the ground here — I mean, we need, like, the creation of welcoming centers, for example, where we can surround these families with services, access to healthcare, access to legal support — if we don’t do that quickly, this can become a problem, a political problem. Apparently it is already a problem for this administration. Then, whenever they’re going to get to Congress to discuss immigration reform, these Republicans will continue to actually use this situation to derail any robust and systemic immigration reform. I mean, again —
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but, Fernando, can you talk about where exactly this money should go? I mean, the idea of diverting it away from these detention centers and building up that detention infrastructure versus to nonprofits that are used to dealing humanely with migrants?
FERNANDO GARCÍA: No, this is not going to resolve. It will be resolved by nonprofits and community efforts like us. I mean, we are doing a lot. What we need is a robust investment by this government on the creation of what I mentioned, these welcoming centers. These are not detention centers run by ICE or Border Patrol or any private entity. We want institutions of the government to create welcoming centers where actually they can provide enough resources for these families and for these children, and also expand the sponsorship program, specifically having families to sponsor these children that are coming by themselves. And finally — I think we already said it — I mean, we need more resources at the ports of entry. We need more asylum officers and asylum judges. We don’t have that at the border. That’s why we’re experiencing this backlog in these detention centers housing children and families.
AMY GOODMAN: Fernando García, we want to thank you for being with us, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso, Texas.
When we come back, the latest on the calls for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign. Stay with us.