Border to Border: Protecting the South

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From border to border and sector to sector, issues customs officers and border agents see are similar.

From drugs, human trafficking, child sex crimes, smuggling firearms or cash to illegal immigration.

Everyone assigned to protect America’s borders along Canada and Mexico start and train at the Southern border first.

Daniela Hurtado visited the El Paso sector of the southern border and our third part of our Border to Border: A Tale Of Two Crossings breaks down how officials are protecting national security in the south.

The Southern border agents patrol half of the area the North does.

In the 2,000 miles they protect, agents deal with thousands of undocumented people and narcotics daily.

They're always busy and seeking more manpower to protect the border.

El Paso is a border city with more than 630,000 people. Across the Rio Grande in Mexico is Ciudad Juarez with more than double that population. Both towns, and countries, divided by a steel fence.

"You know, it’s a community that many of times when you’re interviewing them they don’t see the separation of one or the other," said El Paso Office of Field Operations PIO Ruben Jauregui.

Before the secure fence act of 2006,El Paso Border Agent Fidel Baca say all they dividing the two countries was a barbed wire fence.

Border agents were on the fence about the barrier because it wasn't stopping criminal organizations in Mexico from coming over.

"We’re not gonna have these vehicles come across just because that steel barrier actually goes down into the ground quite a few feet with concrete and the steel. So even if you ram it going full speed with a heavy truck, you’re not going to do anything to it,” said Baca.

The 18-foot steel barriers are designed to keep criminals, narcotics, and illegal immigration out.

But even then, barriers were broken.

“Once you defeat whatever fencing is there, it’s a mad dash across that highway and you’re in a neighborhood," said Baca. "That's exactly what this 18-foot steel wall gives us; it gives us time.” he explained.

Undocumented people finding a passageway. "As soon as they seen an opening, they're going to go for it," said Baca.

Cuffed after traveling from Ecuador. "The gate was open because the construction crews were going in and out. He moved away for a second and they exploited that little window,“ said Baca.

Their story is similar to thousands who have tried to cross the southern border.

Baca said: “A lot of these people coming in from Central America through Mexico, they’re crossing an entire country. They were not very prepared for it."

The federal government says the influx of illegal crossings has decreased in the past few months.

"Part of it is just the collaboration that the U.S. government has been having with Mexico," said Baca.

Mexican officials are now guarding both of their borders.

By the numbers, the El Paso sector had more than 38,000 apprehensions in May. In August it dropped to more than 8,000. For perspective, there were 32,000 apprehensions in the area in all of 2018 fiscal year.

"That ripple effect has actually begun at that end where they’ve managed to kind of slow down the entries, allowing whatever was already on its way here to kind of simmer itself and kind of trickle in. And not see that overwhelming amount of people coming in,” said Mario Escalante, El Paso Border Patrol.

CBP says they’ve detained an overwhelming 152,000 people in the El Paso sector this year.

Escalante said: "Currently what we’re seeing is the entry of family units, unaccompanied children and that’s the part that is a bit overwhelming because it’s a demographic that we were never really prepared for.”

Some agents credit that to law changes under Flores v. Reno. Minors can't be held more than 20 days, and since 2017, neither can their parents or guardians.

"That has been exploited to a certain degree and they’ve used this as a method of coming here thinking that they’re going to be released after a certain period of time,” said Escalante.

Large crowds creating a bottleneck effect. “Tents that we had to erect we were trying to get people out of the sun and put them under the bridge," said Escalante.

Temporary holding facilities, with limited resources, having to house thousands.

"In the meantime we had to hold them until we had the ability to turn them over to someone. To someone where there was more of a detention area or more of a long-term facility that could properly house a family unit and unaccompanied children," said Escalante.

Many in this border city say those people are coming to find work and a better life.

"Vienen con la necesidad de buscar una vida mejor que Estados Unidos les de una opurtunidad para venir a trabajar aqui. Porque gente que tiene necesidad de trabajar y ganas de trabajar pero no les dan esa opurtunidad. Yo quisiera que les dieran opurtunidad porque este pais es un pais para imigrantes. Siempre a sido un pais para imigrantes,” dijo Edmundo Estrada. Translation: "They [immigrants] live with the necessity to look for a better life hoping the United States will give them the opportunity to work here. These people have the will and need to work, but don't get the opportunity to do so. I wish they gave that to them because this country is for immigrants. It's always been a country for immigrants," said Edmundo Estrada, El Paso resident.

Agents say many taking extreme measures to get over the border, like climbing homemade rope ladders, often have criminal backgrounds.

This fiscal year CBP numbers show 15,000 undocumented immigrants were prosecuted with links to criminal organizations, previous deportations, or both.

"Whoever is making those attempts is not going to be your regular person coming in to work. For the most part, those people, they paid somebody money. They want to get back into the U.S., and a lot of the times they already have those criminal convictions," said Baca. "They were deported because of the crimes committed in the U.S. and it’s those people that are really coming into the U.S. and possibly do harm.”

Cameras, man power and the wall are a part of a three-pronged approach to safeguard national security.

CBP says it’s part of $9.8 billion project to construct and renovate 509 miles of new wall in high priority locations across the southwest border.

They expect 450 miles of this construction to be completed by late next year.

Prior to renovations, people like Estrada crossed illegally.

"Yo me cruce muy joven. Y tuve la experiencia de pasar muchas cosas malas y buenas. Entonces yo le agradesco a este pais de tener la opurtunidad que ahorita tengo por que yo cruce ilegalmente. Yo fui indocumentado," dijo Estrada. Translation: "I crossed when I was young. I had good and bad experiences. I am appreciative of this country for giving me the opportunities I have now because I crossed illegally. I was undocumented," said Estrada.

Eventually, Estrada got his green card.

“Y dure trabajando y trabajando y estudiando. Y en este momento le agradesco mucho a los Estados Unidos porque ya soy ciudadano Americano. Me hice Ciudadano Americano en 1999,” dijo Estrada. Translation: "I worked and worked, and studied. Today, I’m very grateful to the United Stated because I’m a U.S. Citizen now. I became a citizen in 1999," said Estrada.

He says not all who immigrate illegally are criminals, many are simply trying to work to survive.

Estrada’s sister is one of the thousands of people who cross legally every day through the El Paso sector to work in the United States.

You’ll hear more on that story and legal immigration Thursday in our fourth part of Border to Border: A Tale Of Two Crossings series.