ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Border Patrol is overwhelmed by the numbers of unaccompanied migrant children in its custody. Yesterday, there were nearly 5,000 sleeping in austere conditions, but there is help on the way. For the first time, the agency is fielding teams of social service workers so border agents won't have to hand out mattresses and diapers. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The graduation ceremony at the sprawling Border Patrol training academy here in Artesia, N.M., was full of pomp and fanfare. But the young men and women crossing the stage last Friday to receive their certificates were not sworn agents.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jorge J. Corona, the Rio Grande Valley sector.
BURNETT: They represent a new role for the Border Patrol. These 39 graduates will not pull on the distinctive green uniform and go patrol the netherworld between the U.S. and Mexico. They'll be assigned to work inside of stations to care for the more than 5,000 individuals who agents are apprehending every day - the biggest surge in 15 years. This is the first class of Border Patrol processing coordinators.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do solemnly swear...
UNIDENTIFIED GRADUATES: Do solemnly swear...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...That I will support and defend...
UNIDENTIFIED GRADUATES: ...That I will support and defend...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...The Constitution of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED GRADUATES: ...The Constitution of the United States.
BURNETT: Karina Garza is a 31-year-old South Texan whose first career was selling Western wear. Now she has a new kind of customer.
KARINA GARZA: With children, juveniles, you do feed them every six hours. They do get hot meals, mattresses, blankets. All the essentials and necessities that they do request is provided to them.
BURNETT: The idea to create a position for non-law-enforcement personnel to take care of detainees first came up in 2014 under President Obama when the Border Patrol was swamped with an earlier wave of kids traveling solo. The concept was not especially controversial because it served two purposes dear to Democrats and Republicans. It improved humanitarian treatment of detainees, and it strengthened border security. Agents spend long hours processing and tending to children, which is time spent away from the border.
Last week, a senior official at Customs and Border Protection confirmed to NPR that nearly a thousand people a day are sneaking across the border without getting caught because agents are busy with the high-need families and children.
JASON OWENS: I can tell you that the men and women that are out in the field right now are very excited to have the processing coordinators hit the field.
BURNETT: Jason Owens is chief of the Border Patrol training academy.
OWENS: We sign up to be law enforcement officers. We want to be out there on patrol and doing the job that we were hired to do.
BURNETT: During the last surge in 2019, the administration of former President Donald Trump was harshly criticized for his border agents detaining women and children in cages. Today the crisis has returned. Last week, reporters witnessed 4,000 children crammed into a shelter meant for 250 in Donna, Texas. But the Biden administration has told the border agency to make detention conditions less severe until the young migrants can be transferred to child-friendly shelters. U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat of El Paso, says things have changed. She remembers in 2019 how agents ran out to buy burritos at convenience stores and microwave them in the break room for kids in custody.
VERONICA ESCOBAR: It's not like that now. And so here in El Paso, there's an industrial-sized kitchen. There are two hot meals a day. There are showers. The kids are getting fresh clothes. They're getting toiletries. But these are not conditions for kids for any period of time.
BURNETT: Advocates for migrant children believe the creation of the new Border Patrol social services squad is well-meaning but ill-directed.
NEHA DESAI: From my perspective, we should be investing in initiatives that prevent children from being in CBP custody entirely.
BURNETT: Neha Desai is with the National Center for Youth Law.
DESAI: One idea that's been discussed involves having an intake center at the border that CBP can bring children to directly upon apprehension so children are never in Border Patrol stations.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol wants to quickly expand the processing coordinator program, ultimately graduating 300 a year for the next four years. But with crowds of asylum-seekers getting bigger every week, they need them now.
John Burnett, NPR News, Artesia, N.M.
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