SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — The statue of Mount Cristo Rey standing over this small border community is the site of an annual pilgrimage near the Texas-New Mexico state lines, where tens of thousands gather each October to celebrate their Catholic faith and honor the sacrifices it demands.
This month, however, the site bore witness to a different type of mission, one that immigrant rights groups say is borne out of necessity and desperation.
On Feb. 11, U.S. Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector apprehended 311 undocumented migrants near the site of the famed statue. That same day, more than 330 people were apprehended in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. And on Tuesday, Border Patrol agents came across 180 migrants in Sunland Park, adding to the number of large groups that sector agents have encountered this fiscal year, when such figures are tallied.
Through Wednesday, Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector have encountered at least 29 groups of migrants of 100 or more people.
As the number of families apprehended skyrockets, nonprofit and faith-based groups are scrambling to ensure that migrants seeking asylum aren’t let out onto the streets without shelter.
“We’re doing everything we can with all of our shelter network, with the Diocese of El Paso,” said Marissa Limón, the deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based community organization in the El Paso, Las Cruces and Ciudad Juárez area. “There are several shelters operating in churches but also through the diocese itself, and they are almost at capacity right now.”
The surge of migrants illegally crossing into Texas has continued even as the Trump administration has tried to crack down on asylum-seekers. The administration and Republican hardliners say the latest surges are the result of an immigration system that is easily exploited by migrants and smugglers. But some analysts think it’s the administration’s policies that are fueling the latest influx, and they say it’s unclear when the numbers will begin to fall.
From Oct. 1, when the federal government’s 2019 fiscal year began, through January, more than 25,700 family units were apprehended in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which also includes New Mexico. That’s compared with the 1,523 familiesBorder Patrol encountered during the same time frame last fiscal year, an increase of about 1,600 percent. In the Rio Grande Valley sector, which has been the nation’s busiest, about 43,600 families were apprehended. That’s a 180 percent increase from last fiscal year’s 15,570 during the same time frame.
Although the El Paso sector has always been busy, the latest surge could result from the Trump administration’s policy of stationing Customs and Border Patrol agents on international bridges to turn back potential asylum-seekers. CBP officers have said the move, known as metering, is necessary because the agency has limited space to house asylum-seekers while they wait for their claims to be processed.
“Part of the [surge] is a confluence of factors,” said Jessica Bolter, a researcher with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “Smugglers do learn quickly about the most effective routes to bring people into the country, and metering itself is likely to cause increased illegal crossings and also to cause people to go to remote ports of entry.”
In a statement about the Feb. 11 apprehensions near Antelope Wells, a CBP press officer said the smuggling of large groups could be a diversionary tactic.
“In many instances, criminal organizations are saturating areas with large groups with the belief that they can smuggle narcotics or other contraband into the United States while Border Patrol agents are occupied,” the statement asserts. “The U.S. Border Patrol will continue to enforce the rule of law.”
The Trump administration also attempted, through an executive order, to bar asylum for undocumented immigrants who cross in between the ports of entry. A federal judge has since blocked that effort, which Bolter said isn’t lost on smuggling networks.
“It drives the idea that you have to cross while you can before another restrictive policy might be issued,” she said.