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Republicans Visit U.S.-Mexico Border Amid Increase In Border-Crossing Attempts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There has been a dramatic increase in migrants attempting to cross the southern border into the U.S. - more than 100,000 just last month. The vast majority are being turned back to Mexico under Trump-era rules meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the Biden administration has made a change with big consequences. It now allows unaccompanied children or teenagers into the U.S. A record number of these young migrants are being held in detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They are arriving faster than they can be moved to more hospitable shelters as mandated by law. Republicans are calling this a crisis. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and a number of his Republican colleagues took a trip to the border of Texas, and they toured a jam-packed Border Patrol facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: Today they're beyond capacity. They're having to build into the parking lot a makeshift facility.

CHANG: Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP in El Paso has been following the story and joins us now.

Welcome.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just tell us what has been happening on the border as you see it?

KOCHERGA: We are seeing those record numbers of children and teens arriving on their own, the so-called unaccompanied minors. And they're asking for asylum. Now, under Title 42, the rule that was implemented by the Trump administration, they were sent back to Mexico. What's changed is now they're being allowed in, and that's overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and the facilities where they temporarily hold these young migrants before they can be moved to more shelters run by Health and Human Services. And one Border Patrol facility built just a year ago for more than a thousand people is now at capacity. The goal for these young migrants is to find a relative or sponsor living in the U.S. who can take them in while they wait for their day in immigration court.

CHANG: Right. OK, well, so far, what exactly is the Biden administration doing about all this?

KOCHERGA: They're sending FEMA to the border to help manage the humanitarian crisis. We're hearing some of the children may be flown out of places like El Paso to areas that can shelter them in better facilities for children. They're looking at reopening some of the facilities on the border where minors were temporarily held before they were placed with sponsors or relatives. And in El Paso, Annunciation House - a nonprofit organization that provides temporary shelter for migrants and refugee - has taken in some migrant families with children who have been released. And they have all the COVID protocols in place for those who are allowed to leave the detention and await their immigration hearings.

But, again, most of the migrants are not being allowed to be released. They're all being sent back to Mexico. And, again, it's only the youngest children and teens under 17. And the vast majority of adults and even parents with young children are being sent out of the country.

CHANG: OK, well, to be clear, migration surges have happened in previous administrations. So can you tell us what are Republicans saying about what they're finding this time around?

KOCHERGA: Well, they're - they found many of the same conditions we've seen in years past when there was an influx of migrants. They're talking about migrants being kept in facilities not designed for them, overcrowding, Border Patrol agents spending a lot of time working on paperwork to get the migrants into shelters instead of out in the field, protecting the border. And we've seen this overcrowding during the Trump administration when we saw that large influx of children and families arriving. But Republicans argue this crisis was manufactured by the Biden administration. And they say Biden - his administration created the impression that if migrants come now, the president and his administration will allow them to stay.

CHANG: But, again, if these surges have happened in the past, what do the Republicans say should be done differently this time?

KOCHERGA: Well, one congressman said he preferred President Biden to do nothing, that that would have been better. He said Title 42 was an effective tool to keep the coronavirus out and from spreading and keep people out. Of course, we know the virus - the pandemic's on both sides of the border. That really is the only change under the Biden administration.

So they also said they wanted President Biden to resume construction of the border wall. That came up repeatedly. They say a porous border is another reason people are coming in. But, again, the wall was not effective for asylum seekers because they are turning themselves in. They're not sneaking in. And so they're approaching Border Patrol agents, often on the other side of the wall, peeking in and asking for asylum.

CHANG: OK.

KOCHERGA: The Biden administration again defends the decision to let children cross, let children stay...

CHANG: We will...

KOCHERGA: ...Because they say they should be treated humanely...

CHANG: ...Have to end it there.

KOCHERGA: ...And sending them back to Mexico was cruel.

CHANG: That is Angelica Kocherga of member station KTEP in El Paso.

Thank you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.