By Simon Romero and Caitlin Dickerson
ANTELOPE WELLS, N.M. — The Border Patrol’s tiny base in the southwest corner of New Mexico is so remote that the wind howls through the surrounding basin where jaguars still stalk their prey.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of Central Americans from journeying in recent weeks to the rural outpost and other isolated points along the Southwest border, launching increasingly desperate bids for asylum in the United States.
In a two-day span in January, 362 migrants surrendered to the Border Patrol in Antelope Wells, overwhelming the small base’s capacity to process asylum requests. Last week, a new group of 306 migrants arrived at the same location, including children in need of immediate medical care — a situation officials in New Mexico say is without precedent.
Prompting these trips to ever-more-remote border locations are not only the nearly 700 miles of border wall and fencing built since 2006, but the Trump administration’s increasingly rigid immigration policies aimed at deterring the flow of migrant families, mostly from Central America, that have streamed in from Mexico since 2014.
Over the past year, the government has limited the number of asylum seekers who are allowed to present their cases each day at certain ports of entry, stationed agents on bridges to turn asylum seekers away and launched tear gas at migrants attempting to cross the border near San Diego.
The administration went even further last week, announcing that it would start requiring some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their applications are processed, which can take years. Officials plan to implement the new policy at the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego before expanding it to crossings in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Taken together, these moves effectively have forced some Central American migrants to wait for months to apply for asylum, sometimes sleeping on the street or in crowded shelters in Mexican border cities.
Frustrated and increasingly desperate, thousands of families have lately been opting to pay smugglers to take them to remote border stations where they can surrender quickly to American officials and hope to be allowed to remain in the United States while their asylum claims are processed.
In December, which saw a record number of families arriving at the border, 27,518 migrants traveling in families were apprehended in areas outside normal border stations. The El Paso sector, which includes the suddenly busy area of rural New Mexico, saw a 1,866 percent increase in family apprehensions during October and November of 2018, compared with the same period a year earlier.
Pushing migrants toward remote desert locations puts them at higher risk of dehydration, heatstroke or hypothermia. Most are choosing the more dangerous crossing routes because they have been foreclosed from seeking asylum at the more widely traveled border crossings, said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. “How else to explain the desperation of thousands of people making it to the middle of nowhere just so they can surrender to Border Patrol?”
Trump administration officials have argued that the new policies are an attempt to discourage migrants from even attempting the dangerous trips through Mexico where they are especially vulnerable to extortion and human trafficking. Officials contend that existing legislation encourages parents to bring children along on the journey.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, laid blame on the federal government having to comply with the Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement aimed at preventing lengthy detentions of migrant children, and subsequent legislation codifying parts of the settlement into federal law.
“We continue to call on Congress to address this humanitarian and security crisis that entices smugglers to bring families across the border,” Ms. Waldman said.
Border Patrol officials have put forward various theories about why crossings at remote locations are climbing that have nothing to do with the administration’s policies. Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in a conference call with reporters in December that smugglers could be trying to hold down the transit fees they pay to other criminal organizations with sway in northern Mexico by dropping migrants near remote locations like Antelope Wells.
In an interview in El Paso, Jose Romero, a supervisory agent in the Border Patrol’s sector that oversees operations in New Mexico, offered another explanation, claiming that Mexican cannabis smugglers were trying to distract agents in the field by flooding remote stations with asylum seekers.
“Our adversary is no idiot,” Mr. Romero said, adding that while agents were arresting 247 migrants in Antelope Wells one January day, traffickers were trying to smuggle hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the border in another location. “Now they know where our weak spots are,” he said.
The administration has not been unmindful of the hazards of migrants venturing into little-traveled regions. Partly in an attempt to deter such crossings and what government officials describe as “meritless” asylum claims, the administration tried last year to refuse to accept asylum applications from anyone who had not entered the country at a legal border crossing, but that policy was blocked by the courts. And Antelope Wells, though remote, is a legal border crossing.
Just how dangerous such crossings are became apparent in December, when Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala, died in United States custody after she and her father crossed the border in a group of 163 migrants that surrendered to agents at Antelope Wells. Only a few weeks later, an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died after crossing the border about three miles west of the Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso.
But the numbers have only continued to grow. Since the start of the 2019 fiscal year, the Border Patrol said, it has found at least 24 groups of 100 or more migrants that had crossed around the Bootheel, the sparsely populated area where New Mexico’s border with Mexico dips southward like a cowboy boot’s heel.
At the end of a 45-mile road from the decaying hamlet of Hachita that runs through grazing lands dotted with creosote bushes, the Border Patrol has maintained a small presence at Antelope Wells for decades. A sign says the base is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The population of Antelope Wells, once 2, sometimes soars all the way into the high single digits when more than a handful of agents are deployed here for weeklong assignments.
At another remote point to the west in Arizona, the Border Patrol reported that 376 migrants had tunneled through the sandy soil under the border fence near Yuma, earlier this month and then surrendered to agents. The group, which included dozens of children, ranks among the largest groups of families and unaccompanied children ever arrested on the border with Mexico.
Immigration activists say the increase in remote crossings is just the latest development in a decades-long effort to push immigration out of urban areas, tracing back at least to Operation Blockade, a Clinton administration initiative in 1993 to curb unauthorized crossings in the city of El Paso. Border fencing erected in Southern California and Arizona in recent years drove some of the biggest migration flows toward the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where the river marks the border and many migrants are able to cross with a short boat ride.
Busy border crossings like the one in McAllen, Tex., now have relatively elaborate infrastructure set up to handle newly arrived families seeking asylum. But no such facilities exist in this stretch of rural New Mexico, raising fears that the recent deaths of the two Guatemalan children won’t be the last.
The grim cost of United States immigration policies is hardly new. Law enforcement authorities have found the remains of about 8,000 migrants who have died while crossing the border with Mexico since the 1990s. And while undetected illegal border crossings have fallen sharply over the past decade, hundreds of migrants continue to die making the attempt each year.
At least 413 migrants were found dead along the border in 2018, according to a preliminary count by the International Organization for Migration, up from 412 in 2017 and 399 in 2016.
“We’re seeing the increase in people crossing out here, and we’re afraid,” said Amanda Adame, 39, a cattle rancher whose family lives in Hachita, about 45 miles north of Antelope Wells. “We’re fearful for the families that are going across and fearful for our own safety.”
Still, humanitarian groups say they are waging an uphill battle to save lives along the border. Some cite the conviction in January of four volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tucson on charges of abandonment of property after they left caches of food and water in an Arizona wildlife refuge where migrants have died while crossing into the United States.
“Asylum seekers shouldn’t have to cross in the middle of the desert,” said Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler, a member of the advocacy group No More Deaths in Tucson. “This is the newest stage of policies that have been sentencing migrants to death for decades.”
Simon Romero reported from Antelope Wells, N.M., and Caitlin Dickerson from El Paso.
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