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Texas Volunteers Start Pop-Up Medical Clinics To Help Screen Migrant Children

NOEL KING, HOST:

The system is clearly overwhelmed. So said Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen after she visited Texas and Arizona. Nielsen said there's been an unprecedented increase in the number of families and unaccompanied kids being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. So in cities along the border like in El Paso, community organizations have become kind of a relief valve for federal immigration authorities. Can they keep it up?

Monica Ortiz Uribe has been reporting for us from El Paso. Good morning, Monica.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

KING: So you've got nonprofit organizations, as you've been reporting, filling the void where the government cannot. How long can these groups keep that up?

URIBE: Well, that's the million-dollar question. Once the federal government processes and releases these families, yes, the responsibility has fallen on shelter organizations like Annunciation House. The director there is Ruben Garcia. He says their goal is to find enough beds for 3,000 more people per week in case the numbers go up.

RUBEN GARCIA: It's going to take activating more sites. It's going to mean finding more churches or organizations that are willing to receive refugees.

URIBE: So the key word here is willing. Annunciation House runs on the public's goodwill. That's online financial donations and an army of volunteers. If the number of migrant families starts to exceed their capacity, Garcia says they may have to turn to the city of El Paso for help, asking it to open up more shelters and provide the staff to run them.

KING: So that's sort of the official line or the way things are going at the official level. But you've also been reporting on individuals, just regular people who are stepping up to help. Give us a sense of who they are and why they're doing this.

URIBE: Sure. The variety is extraordinary. You have low-income folks who rely on a weekly food pantry for meals that have volunteered to cook for the migrants. People have flown in from as far away as Maine to help for a week or two. There's also college students who are on winter break. People go to Costco and fill a cart with diapers and jackets to take to the shelter.

And I'm told that the wife of Stanford's head football coach, in town for today's annual Sun Bowl game, brought the migrant families Popeye's chicken for lunch yesterday. One volunteer told me it's like a big Mexican family. When more people show up for Christmas, you simply find the extra room for them.

KING: So there's a lot about that that's inspiring even if the circumstances are grim. This weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was at the border. What did she do, and what came out of that trip?

URIBE: Well, we don't know all that much. The secretary never met with reporters or community organizations. DHS issued a couple of statements saying that she visited Border Patrol stations in El Paso, in Yuma. She also met with the mayor of El Paso. And in response to the deaths of the two Guatemalan children, she's asked other agencies like the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense to help look after the health of other migrant kids.

Since Christmas, the Border Patrol in El Paso has teamed up with area hospitals to do checkups on all children under age 10 who come into their custody. And also some of the families are getting medical care from volunteer doctors at the nonprofit shelters.

KING: So hopefully some improved conditions. Monica, just quickly, is what's going on along the border - is this not the same so-called catch and release policy that President Trump in the past has been very critical of?

URIBE: Yes, this policy applies to court limits on the time families and children can be detained. Therefore, they end up staying in the U.S. for months or years because the immigration courts are so backlogged.

KING: Reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso, thank you so much.

URIBE: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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