STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Central American immigrants are surging across the U.S. border again. They're fleeing gang violence. And they're coming in numbers that rival the immigration crisis in the summer of 2014. The federal government has spent almost two years making special efforts to stop the flow. Yet, the numbers of migrant families and children apprehended along the U.S. border have doubled over this time last year.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Nothing seems to deter the onslaught of Central American immigrants. Immigration officials opened controversial family detention camps in South Texas. They publicized immigration roundups earlier this year with more to come. There's a big U.S. public relations campaign in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala telling people they're not welcome.
And recently, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Central America to deliver the message in person.
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JEH JOHNSON: I am here today to send the message that our borders in the United States are not open to a regular migration.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: Yet they're not getting the message. You see it here in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. Every day, it's full of young mothers and children who've been released by the Border Patrol. They get a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal and supplies for the journey North. Sister Norma Pimentel is director at Regional Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter.
NORMA PIMENTEL: You know, it's like 50, 60, 100, 200 backpacks that we need every day, 200 or 50 or 80 deodorants or shoes. Can you imagine coming up with 50, 60, 80 pairs of shoes every day? You know, it's amazing.
BURNETT: Immigration officials don't seem worried about a repeat of the humanitarian crisis on the border that made international news two years ago. Caught unawares, the Border Patrol packed dirty, bewildered young immigrants elbow-to-elbow into frigid cells. Today, the government has new family holding facilities. And unaccompanied kids are sent to cheery church camps.
Yet the numbers are daunting. From last October to March, agents made an average of 330 apprehensions of Central Americans a day. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, that's a 100 percent increase over the same time period a year earlier. While the Homeland Security Department does not seem alarmed by the swelling numbers, their own border officers are clearly frustrated.
Two weeks ago, the agents' union president Brandon Judd testified at a congressional hearing.
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BRANDON JUDD: What happens is if you are arrested in the United States and you ask for any sort of asylum, what we do is we will process you and we will walk you right out our front door, give you a pat on the back and say, welcome to the United states. And they're good to go.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol ends up releasing the vast majority of family members of apprehends because U.S court rulings restrict its ability to detain them. Asylum applicants are allowed to hop a bus to join family elsewhere in the U.S. where they await their hearing. Currently, nearly a half-million cases are backlogged in U.S. immigration courts with an average wait time of almost two years, though the government is trying to expedite the recent arrivals.
Critics call this policy of catch and release de facto amnesty. Chris Cabrera is a Border Patrol officer and union official in South Texas. He says his member agents are distracted by all the families surrendering to seek asylum when they should be chasing drug and human traffickers.
CHRIS CABRERA: Our agents are so caught up with rounding up the ones that are turning themselves in, corralling them and getting them to the station, that we don't have adequate resources to get the ones that are trying to get away.
BURNETT: A top Homeland Security official in Washington, speaking on background, told NPR the agency is continuing the programs it has in place. These include deporting recent arrivals, helping Central American countries fight crime, arresting human smugglers and giving money to Mexico to stop the immigrants in transit. Our message has not changed, the official stressed.
Don't come. If you do and your amnesty claim is denied, we will remove you.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).
WENDY VILLANUEVA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: No one seems to pay much attention to the government's tough talk inside the Catholic immigrant shelter on the border. Illegal crossers risk the journey from Central America because they know they'll be admitted, not locked up like immigrants from Mexico.
VILLANUEVA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Wendy Villanueva is 21 from Honduras traveling with her toddler daughter. She says they fled Colon province when gangsters extorted her small clothing business and threatened to kill her if she didn't pay up. Villanueva and her daughter took buses to the Texas-Mexico border and surrendered to U.S. agents on the International Bridge at Brownsville.
They're headed to North Carolina to join her mother and sisters who are also seeking amnesty.
VILLANUEVA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "According to our countrymen who are here and from what they learned, we expect that the authorities will also give us permission to remain here." For their part, immigrant advocates claim the administration's handling of Central Americans is already too harsh, and it should make the asylum process easier, not harder. Ben Johnson is director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
BEN JOHNSON: The violence that is driving these women and children out of their home countries has not subsided. And in many places, it has increased. And they need help.
BURNETT: While the expectation of catch and release on the U.S. border is a powerful magnet for Central American immigrants, the push factor in their home countries remains horrendous. Earlier this year, El Salvador's murder rate made it the most violent country in the world, edging out the former homicide capital, Honduras. John Burnett, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, the term "amnesty" was mistakenly used instead of "asylum" in two instances. Also, we said "unaccompanied kids are sent to well-staffed church camps." The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contacted NPR to clarify that, in fact, the facilities referred to as "church camps" were discontinued in January; the agency sends all unaccompanied child immigrants to one of 100 state-licensed shelters in 12 states.]
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