New Mexico Officials Scramble To Handle Bus Loads Of Asylum-Seekers
NOEL KING, HOST:
Deming, N.M., is a little desert city. It's less than 40 miles north of the Mexican border, has about 14,000 residents, but it's getting crowded. It's one of the places where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have dropped off busloads of people who are seeking asylum. Chris Brice is the interim assistant manager of Luna County, where Deming is located. He also manages the town's shelter.
Good morning, Mr. Brice.
CHRIS BRICE: Good morning.
KING: How many people have been dropped off in your town since the buses first came through?
BRICE: A little over 3,000 now.
KING: Little over 3,000 in a town with a population of 14,000 - where are you housing people?
BRICE: We started originally in one of the big, metal buildings that comprises our fair area. And then we moved to an old World War II hangar here at the local airport as a backup.
BRICE: So we're using both now.
KING: Have federal officials said why they picked Deming?
BRICE: I don't think they picked Deming necessarily. You know, we just happen to be a big border patrol station as well as our neighboring county. They're dropping off here as well - the Hidalgo County drops here as well.
KING: How are these people - the asylum-seekers being housed in an airport hangar - how are they handling things?
BRICE: You'd be surprised. I think they're - you know, they're a little - you know, I guess they're a little worried when they first show up. But then, I think, it's actually better than most places they've been, and that's what they tell us. So they have more room and more freedom than most places they've been, so they're actually really happy.
KING: And how is the community of Deming handling this influx of new people?
BRICE: On the whole, that - it's been amazing. The volunteers, the support has been amazing. Obviously, there's a small percentage of people who are detractors and don't like the idea at all. But I think most of them are just kind of misinformed on what the status is of the asylum-seekers. And, you know, they want them all to go home, and that's just not possible. But on the whole, it's been really positive.
KING: Well, you mentioned that some residents of your community are curious about the status. I wonder, has Customs and Border Protection told you not just what you're supposed to do with these people but how long you should plan on them being there?
BRICE: Well, first of all they're - they have a legal U.S. status, so there's nothing that we're supposed to do with them.
BRICE: They could walk away at any given time and go find their own transportation and their own food and the way to their sponsor here in the United States. So, no, I mean, they don't really - they tell us that that's the case. We're really here just to help them transition to their sponsors here in the United States because 90% of them - probably more than that - are actually outside of New Mexico, so...
KING: And are people leaving? Are they getting situated and then moving on to their next destination?
BRICE: They don't - well, they don't leave of their own - they can of their own free will. But they wait until we contact their sponsor or try to set up travel arrangements. And then we typically get them to a bigger hub - a bigger transportation hub, and then they're on their way.
KING: So you're doing a lot of logistics as well. As I understand it, Deming has declared a state of emergency. What does that do for you? What does that get you, if anything?
BRICE: Well, the city - and remember I'm the county, that's the city.
KING: Mmm hmm.
BRICE: They did make an emergency declaration. That was just to free up some funding. And that was, you know, on the governor's word that we would be reimbursed in whole. And it was essentially just so we could spend money to help support these people until they're on to their next destination.
KING: OK, so your understanding is that the federal government is going to pick up the tab for this?
BRICE: No. The governor of the state of New Mexico has assured us that we will be restored for the money that we're spending. She has gone to D.C. to fight for reimbursement for the state and for local entities that are helping with this effort.
KING: She was here recently, in fact. Before I let you go, I wonder, have you been told - you've got 3,000 people come through so far - have you been told whether more are coming?
BRICE: Every day - every day there's...
KING: Every day.
BRICE: ...More coming, absolutely. We average about 220 to 250 a day. And they're saying that that's probably anywhere from six months to 18 to 24 months. We just don't know.
KING: Extraordinary. Chris Brice, the interim assistant manager of Luna County, N.M.
Thank you, sir.
BRICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.