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More Dangerous Routes Are Becoming More Common For Migrants Seeking Asylum

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As it becomes harder to claim asylum in the U.S. at ports of entry, more migrant families are taking other and more dangerous routes into the country. It's how both of the children who died last month in Border Patrol custody entered the U.S. Molly Hennessy-Fiske is a reporter for the LA Times. She recently visited the southernmost tip of New Mexico. That's where one of the children, Jakelin Caal Maquin, crossed with her father.

MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE: It's a big expanse of desert surrounded by the Little Hatchet and Big Hatchet Mountains. And the border itself is really just marked by barbed wire fence. It's a very wild place with sort of that Old West frontier feel to it.

CORNISH: The headlines to your stories use terms like dangerous, desert crossing, forbidding terrain. Can you describe why? What makes it feel different from maybe the traditional, kind of more well-traveled border crossing areas?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, part of the issue, as we've seen with the death of this 7-year-old girl, is that you're so far from any kind of medical help or civilization, that a small amount of time can make an enormous difference in terms of saving your life. And I had talked to a Border Patrol agent who had worked out there, and some of them are concerned as well and said that they have been talking for years about getting added medical resources out there and wanting to get added medical training themselves because they were concerned about not only the people who they encountered out there - the migrants - but also fellow agents in what to do in an emergency.

CORNISH: What do we know in terms of the data? Are there numbers showing that there is a shift as well?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Yes, and we've seen that over the course of the past year - that in the El Paso sector, which includes these stretches of New Mexico, they caught about 11,600 people this past November. And that's 20 times the number that they caught the previous November, about a fifth of all the migrants apprehended on the southern border.

And I had talked to some of the people who were crossing in the El Paso sector - a Guatemalan migrant father and his son. And I talked to them about the death of these children recently and asked if they would make the trip again knowing that. And they said not only would they make the trip again knowing that, but they have the rest of their family, the mom and another small child, at home who they plan to to help bring up in coming months after they've paid off their debt to the smugglers.

CORNISH: Talk about why. Why are families taking this route when U.S. policy is now clearly please go to a port of entry?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, there's a couple of contributing factors. While the policy says it's legal for you to claim asylum at a border crossing, Border Patrol and Customs have enforced this new system during the past year of metering at more crossings, including El Paso. They station Customs officers at the midpoint of the bridges. And if a family like these families who are seeking asylum approaches the midpoint of the bridge, they'll be turned

back. And Mexican officials will ask them to join a waiting list. If they're unable to claim asylum at the crossing, some of the families might try to cross in other places. Or smugglers may be diverting them out to these other areas where they can more quickly either claim asylum or cross between the bridges.

CORNISH: For asylum seekers who are crossing illegally and then presenting themselves, does it seem like a border wall would be a deterrent?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, it depends on who you ask. I went and spent some time living on the border in the Rio Grande Valley this summer with a photographer. And we talked to residents there, Border Patrol agents, to commanders. And you have some who say yes, a wall would not only deter people, but it would slow down people who are crossing. And others said they'd rather see the money spent on adding more Border Patrol agents, added lights, sensors, technology, things like that.

And then other people we talked to, especially the organizations that work with migrants there, said none of that is going to really stop people, that it would be better to, you know, devote the resources to the families that are coming who are seeking asylum.

CORNISH: Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the LA Times, thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

HENNESSY-FISKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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