Bodies are piling up at the U.S.-Mexico border as the summer heat and the press of both countries’ immigration policies take a toll, adding new urgency to the debate on Capitol Hill about what, if anything, should be done to stop it.
American officials recovered at least seven bodies over the last week, including three young children who appear to have died of dehydration in the sweltering Texas weather.
Mexican media, meanwhile, reported on a father and his 11-month-old daughter whose bodies were recovered on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande on Monday, a day after they were sucked under by the current, while the girl’s mother watched helplessly.
She told Mexican authorities they’d been waiting in Matamoros, across the river from Brownsville, for weeks, looking for their turn to come to the border crossing and demand asylum. They grew fed up with the delay and decided to make the crossing illegally, she said.
News of the deaths comes as Mexican officials confirmed they now have some 15,000 personnel — a mix of national guard and regular army troops — on their northern border with the U.S., and they are actively looking to block migrants from attempting to cross.
“We simply detain them and turn them over to the authorities,” Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval said, according to Agence France-Presse.
The detentions are a change in tactics for Mexico, which is moving to try to placate President Trump who has threatened to impose crippling tariffs on Mexico unless that country did more to stop the 4,000 to 5,000 Central American migrants crossing its territory each day en route to the U.S.
Mexico committed to deploying personnel to its southern border and to holding onto some Central American migrants while their immigration cases proceed in U.S. courts.
The success of the agreement is supposed to be re-evaluated in late July. The effort to prevent people at the point of crossing into the U.S. — which was not part of the publicly disclosed agreement — signals Mexico’s interest in making sure it has strong numbers to show.
Mr. Trump has said Mexico is doing more to stop the illegal migrant surge than Democrats in Congress.
That assertion will get another test this week, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, tries to rally her troops to approve a bill with $4.5 billion in emergency money for the border crisis. The bill would not do anything to change the incentives drawing people here, but it would provide better care for them once they do make it into the U.S.
The numbers — more than 140,000 were snared at the border in May alone — are so overwhelming that Customs and Border Protection is struggling just to process and release them. Officials have, for the most part, given up hope of returning them across the border or of putting them in detention until their cases can be heard by a judge.
Still, the numbers are so crushing that as of last week border facilities built to hold perhaps 4,000 people had 15,000 people in them.
The federal Health and Human Services Department, which under the law is required to care for the special class of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), is also out of space. As of earlier this month HHS had 13,700 children in its care and had fewer than 450 additional beds open — but there were 1,400 children being held by Homeland Security at the border, waiting for a transfer.
A majority of the emergency $4.5 billion Mr. Trump requested would go to replenish HHS funds. Other money would pay for more space at the border to alleviate overcrowding and process illegal immigrants.
The Senate is moving to approve a bipartisan bill that grants the president most of what he wants, with some restrictions.
House Democrats have written their own bill that is less generous to Mr. Trump, cutting out funding for the Pentagon’s troop deployment to the border, while imposing a number of new restrictions on how the government can run shelters and detention facilities for migrants in custody.
Democrats had hoped to vote on the bill Tuesday in the full House. But deep divisions reared Monday, leaving Mrs. Pelosi’s plans in doubt.
Liberal Democrats said they just don’t trust this administration enough to give them anything that appears to support Mr. Trump when it comes to the border situation.
“We cannot try to help them get out of this situation without having full comprehensive plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who urged her party’s leaders to scrap their bill altogether. “We are not just asking for simple changes to be made in this bill, but to go back to the drawing board.”
Ms. Omar, who came to the U.S. as a child refugee, said she was appalled by the conditions children are being subject to at the overcrowded border.
Democrats broke up into several meetings Monday night, trying to figure out what to do.
“No yelling, no screaming, but a lot of concern, a lot of discussion,” Rep. Tony Cardenas, California Democrat, told reporters as he emerged from one of the meetings.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, characterized the disagreement “a family conversation,” but was unable to say whether they had the votes to pass the bill right now.
The White House issued a veto threat Monday, saying Democrats’ legislation misses the mark. In addition to the new restrictions, the bill lacks money that Mr. Trump requested to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain migrants at current elevated levels.
Almost all of the people ICE detains are either new single-adult border crossers or migrants with criminal records — but Democrats want to cut ICE back to detention levels under President Barack Obama, when most illegal immigrants were given a de facto amnesty from deportation.
“By opposing detention beds — where illegal migrants are placed pending their removal — Democrat lawmakers are declaring their belief that illegal immigrants, including those who skip court hearings or commit additional crimes, should be allowed to remain in our country indefinitely,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in the veto threat statement. “The ideological aversion to our nation’s interior immigration enforcement agency must stop.”
That appeared to be aimed at Mrs. Pelosi, who on Monday morning suggested there was no need to deport illegal immigrants from inside the U.S.
“In terms of interior enforcement, what is the — what’s the point?” she wondered.
She also blasted the Trump administration’s plans to begin a major deportation operation aimed at families who jumped the border, had their court dates, were ordered deported, but have defied those orders.
“It’s so appalling, It’s outside the circle of civilized human behavior, to just — kicking down doors, splitting up families, and the rest of that, in addition to the injustices happening at the border,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Acting ICE Director Mark Morgan said Mrs. Pelosi was making up facts.
“We’re not ripping up families,” he said in an interview on Fox News. “It’s unconscionable what’s being said. It’s just not true.”
ICE civil arrest warrants also do not allow officers to kick down doors, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrant rights fact sheets. If an illegal immigrant declines to open the door for deportation officers, they do not have the right to enter, the ACLU says.
Democrats are still furious over last year’s zero-tolerance border policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of children from parents who were being prosecuted criminally for illegally entering the U.S.
That episode, combined with border deaths, colors much of the debate — and the latest rising body count was brought up as a committee debated Democrats’ border spending bill Monday.
Three bodies — all apparently adults — were recovered last week across Texas, and four more were found Sunday in Hidalgo County — a 20-year-old woman, a toddler and two infants.
The McAllen Monitor reported that the four had probably been dead for a few days, and likely died of dehydration.
The two bodies recovered on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande on Monday go to the heart of the immigration debate.
According to 21-year-old Tania Vanessa Avalos, the wife of the man and mother of the 11-month old girl who died, they had come from El Salvador to the border and had been waiting in Matamoros, Mexico, for several weeks, looking for a chance to appear at the border crossing and demand asylum.
Some border crossings are so overwhelmed by the migrant surge that the Trump administration has taken to “metering” the number of people who can present themselves each day to ask for asylum.
That policy has drawn stern criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill who say the limits are forcing migrants to try to cross illegally, rather than on the U.S. schedule.
Those claims got backing from Homeland Security’s inspector general, who in a report last year said both Border Patrol agents and migrants themselves said the metering policy sparked more increases in illegal crossings.
“One woman said she had been turned away three times by an officer on the bridge before deciding to take her chances on illegal entry,” the inspector general reported.
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