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El Paso strained by government shutdown, migrant policies

By Patrick Timmons
El Paso strained by government shutdown, migrant policies
U. S. customs and border officers are working without pay -- in El Paso, Texas, and other border cities -- during the government shutdown. File Photo by Hector Dayer/EPA-EFE

EL PASO, Texas, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- A week into the new year, El Paso, Texas, is feeling the twin strains of the U.S. immigration crackdown and the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Customs and Border Patrol agents are working without pay. Asylum seekers are being released into the city, adding to the influx of contract workers at the "tent city" for migrant children in nearby Tornillo, which is slated to close soon.

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Add to that anxiety over President Donald Trump's threats to close the border and El Paso is wary of what's coming next.

El Paso in the spotlight

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The city of about 700,000 depends on its minutes-from-Mexico location for its bi-national identity. People are sensitive to President Donald Trump's border policies, each one placing El Paso in the spotlight.

Last summer, El Paso's federal courthouse became a hotspot for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions' zero tolerance policy to prosecute all unlawful border crossers. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security piloted family separation in West Texas in fall 2017.

At the height of family separations, the shelter for unaccompanied migrant children opened at Tornillo. Its budget request would balloon to $367 million for the final quarter of 2018, giving it the capacity to hold 3,000 in tents.

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In December, two Guatemalan children -- Jakelin Caal, 7, and Felipe Gomez, 8 -- died days apart in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol in the El Paso sector, a region that covers all of New Mexico and West Texas.

The cause of Jakelin's death has not been confirmed; Felipe died of influenza. Currently, El Paso and nearby Las Cruces, N.M., are experiencing the second-highest levels of flu activity in the country, according to the Walgreens flu index. On Monday, an elderly man died in an El Paso hospital from the flu and three people have died so far this flu season in New Mexico.

As El Paso's residents reeled from the deaths of the migrant children, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement office began releasing hundreds of asylum seekers onto city streets. The drop-offs at a local park and the Greyhound bus station forced El Paso's shelters and aid organizations to scramble to find temporary housing, food and bus tickets to reunite the migrants with family and friends elsewhere in the country. ICE said it had no room in detention facilities for migrant families.

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Annunciation House, the largest and oldest shelter for migrants in West Texas, reports spending more than $150,000 a week to house hundreds of migrants in the city's hotels and motels. A local charitable organization, the El Paso Community Foundation, has donated at least $40,000 to Annunciation House.

The federal government will not reimburse the city for expenses associated with the mass release of migrants into El Paso.

The border crisis has also ended a popular bi-national tradition: the Juárez/El Paso 10K run. Originally scheduled for November, it was postponed until the new year as Customs and Border Protection agents were deployed to San Diego and Arizona to prepare for the migrant caravan. Now it has been canceled altogether.

Tornillo closing

Meanwhile, the Tornillo shelter is slated to close next week, its population in rapid decline as 100 children a day are taken to El Paso's airport to be sent to sponsors. On Tuesday, its population is expected to decline to around 500 children, down from a high of almost 3,000 in December.

"Our goal is to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible -- for both the unaccompanied alien children and all the personnel who have worked faithfully for months providing excellent care for these vulnerable children," the Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families told UPI in an email.

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Almost 7,000 children have passed through Tornillo in the past seven months, costing U.S. taxpayers more than $144 million. In December, DHHS decided to relax background checks for sponsoring households, giving the first sign it would no longer send unaccompanied children to Tornillo. As of Monday, 700 children remained there.

The federal government's contract with Tornillo's operator, Baptist Children and Family Services, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, expires Jan. 31. The city's hotels and motels gave it the best occupancy rates in Texas of 2018 because they housed the Tornillo workers.

Shutdown strains the city

The government shutdown over funding the border wall is straining an already stretched city. Tens of thousands of federal government employees live and work in El Paso. Many are either furloughed or, like CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, must work without pay through the shutdown.

These agents have to process more than 40 million lawful northbound crossings from Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso on the city's four international bridges. If border wait times increase because of understaffing at international bridges, El Paso's economy bears the brunt.

Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex alliance, a non-profit group promoting regional integration and development across the border, said that for every four created in Juarez, one is created in El Paso.

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"Mexican nationals account for as high as 30 percent of El Paso's retail trade," Barela said.

El Paso is the 20th largest city in the United States and takes second place only to Tijuana-San Diego as one of the world's busiest border crossings.

"Policies about the border developed in Washington, D.C., are not only detrimental to us, but detrimental to the entire United States, even though we boast among the safest communities in the entire country," Barela said.

Anxious for 2019

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen two weeks ago. While he tweeted his thanks to Nielsen for her visit, he also said, "Our federal officials should visit the border when making decisions about our immigration system."

Trump plans to visit another Texas border city, McAllen, on Thursday.

The economic and social interdependence of people on both sides of the border means that if Trump closes the southern boundary, it will have a dramatic effect on El Paso.

"Mexico needs to be treated like an economic and strategic ally, not a foe," Barela said. "The symbiotic relationship of the United States and Mexico is very obvious here, at the border. But that symbiotic relationship also extends into the United States. They extend in very dramatic ways to Midwestern states, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio. Over 700,000 jobs in those five states are directly reliant on trade with Mexico."

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