Border Patrol overwhelmed by large groups of migrant families

Agents of El Paso Sector U. S. Border Patrol conduct a Mobile Field Force training exercise in the Anapra area of Sunland Park, New Mexico, as seen from the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

(Reuters) – U.S. Border Patrol said on Friday its resources were being stretched thin by larger and larger groups of Central American families left by smugglers in remote locations along the U.S. Mexico border.

So far in fiscal year 2019, which began last October, the Border Patrol has apprehended 60 groups of 100 or more migrants, compared with 13 during the entire 2018 fiscal year and just two large groups caught in the 2017 fiscal year, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official said on a call with reporters.

Until recently, most people caught crossing the border illegally were men from Mexico, but now Central American families and unaccompanied minors make up some 60 percent of those apprehended, data from the agency show.

Facilities built decades ago are struggling to cope with the influx of migrant families, many with young children, who are often in need of medical care.

“Large bus loads of individuals are being bussed up to the border and we don’t have any infrastructure in that area,” the official said on the call with reporters.

Many of the migrants who may seek passage with smugglers in their journey through Mexico cross the border and turn themselves into U.S. authorities to seek asylum in the United States, a drawn-out court process that can take months or years to resolve.

The border patrol official said smugglers drop off large groups as a diversion tactic to tie up law enforcement resources in order to move drugs across other parts of the border.

The Trump administration has tried to curb access to asylum, including by starting a program that would require applicants to wait out their legal proceedings in Mexico.

Human rights advocates say increased border security and daily quotas put on asylum requests at ports of entry are among factors pushing large groups of migrants to cross the border in risky, remote areas.

Just how dangerous these crossings can be was highlighted in December when a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died in U.S. custody after she and her father crossed in a large group in a remote area of New Mexico. Weeks later, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died after crossing the border with his father near El Paso, Texas.

Overall, illegal crossings at the southern border have dropped dramatically compared to previous decades but in recent years the number of families and unaccompanied children heading to the United States has increased.

 

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; writing by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Fleeing hardship at home, Venezuelan migrants struggle abroad, too

FILE PHOTO: Colombian migration officers check the identity documents of people trying to enter Colombia from Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Colombia (Reuters) – Every few minutes, the reeds along the Tachira River rustle. Smugglers, in ever growing numbers, emerge with a ragtag group of Venezuelan migrants – men struggling under tattered suitcases, women hugging bundles in blankets and schoolchildren carrying backpacks. They step across rocks, wade into the muddy stream and cross illegally into Colombia.

This is the new migration from Venezuela.

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

For years, as conditions worsened in the Andean nation’s ongoing economic meltdown, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans – those who could afford to – fled by airplane and bus to other countries far and near, remaking their lives as legal immigrants.

Now, hyperinflation, daily power cuts and worsening food shortages are prompting those with far fewer resources to flee, braving harsh geography, criminal handlers and increasingly restrictive immigration laws to try their luck just about anywhere.

In recent weeks, Reuters spoke with dozens of Venezuelan migrants traversing their country’s Western border to seek a better life in Colombia and beyond. Few had more than the equivalent of a handful of dollars with them.

“It was terrible, but I needed to cross,” said Dario Leal, 30, recounting his journey from the coastal state of Sucre, where he worked in a bakery that paid about $2 per month.

At the border, he paid smugglers nearly three times that to get across and then prepared, with about $3 left, to walk the 500 km (311 miles) to Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The smugglers, in turn, paid a fee to Colombian crime gangs who allow them to operate, according to police, locals and smugglers themselves.

As many as 1.9 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015, according to the United Nations. Combined with those who preceded them, a total of 2.6 million are believed to have left the oil-rich country. Ninety percent of recent departures, the U.N. says, remain in South America.

The exodus, one of the biggest mass migrations ever on the continent, is weighing on neighbors. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, which once welcomed Venezuelan migrants, recently tightened entry requirements. Police now conduct raids to detain the undocumented.

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In early October, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia’s foreign minister, said as many as four million Venezuelans could be in the country by 2021, costing national coffers as much as $9 billion. “The magnitude of this challenge,” he said, “our country has never seen.”

In Brazil, which also borders Venezuela, the government deployed troops and financing to manage the crush and treat sick, hungry and pregnant migrants. In Ecuador and Peru, workers say that Venezuelan labor lowers wages and that criminals are hiding among honest migrants.

“There are too many of them,” said Antonio Mamani, a clothing vendor in Peru, who recently watched police fill a bus with undocumented Venezuelans near Lima.

“WE NEED TO GO”

By migrating illegally, migrants expose themselves to criminal networks who control prostitution, drug trafficking and other rackets. In August, Colombian investigators discovered 23 undocumented Venezuelans forced into prostitution and living in basements in the colonial city of Cartagena.

While most migrants are avoiding such straits, no shortage of other hardship awaits – from homelessness, to unemployment, to the cold reception many get as they sleep in public squares, peddle sweets and throng already overburdened hospitals.

Still, most press on, many on foot.

Some join compatriots in Brazil and Colombia. Others, having spent what money they had, are walking vast regions, like Colombia’s cold Andean passes and sweltering tropical lowlands, in treks toward distant capitals, like Quito or Lima.

Johana Narvaez, a 36-year-old mother of four, told Reuters her family left after business stalled at their small car repair shop in the rural state of Trujillo. Extra income she made selling food on the street withered because cash is scarce in a country where annual inflation, according to the opposition-led Congress, recently reached nearly 500,000 percent.

“We can’t stay here,” she told her husband, Jairo Sulbaran, in August, after they ran out of food and survived on corn patties provided by friends. “Even on foot, we must go.” Sulbaran begged and sold old tires until they could afford bus tickets to the border.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has chided migrants, warning of the hazards of migration and that emigres will end up “cleaning toilets.” He has even offered free flights back to some in a program called “Return to the Homeland,” which state television covers daily.

Most migration, however, remains in the other direction.

Until recently, Venezuelans could enter many South American countries with just their national identity cards. But some are toughening rules, requiring a passport or additional documentation.

Even a passport is elusive in Venezuela.

Paper shortages and a dysfunctional bureaucracy make the document nearly impossible to obtain, many migrants argue. Several told Reuters they waited two years in vain after applying, while a half-dozen others said they were asked for as much as $2000 in bribes by corrupt clerks to secure one.

Maduro’s government in July said it would restructure Venezuela’s passport agency to root out “bureaucracy and corruption.” The Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“VENEZUELA WILL END UP EMPTY”

Many of those crossing into Colombia pay “arrastradores,” or “draggers,” to smuggle them along hundreds of trails. Five of the smugglers, all young men, told Reuters business is booming.

“Venezuela will end up empty,” said Maikel, a 17-year-old Venezuelan smuggler, scratches across his face from traversing the bushy trails. Maikel, who declined to give his surname, said he lost count of how many migrants he has helped cross.

Colombia, too, struggles to count illegal entries. Before the government tightened restrictions earlier this year, Colombia issued “border cards” that let holders crisscross at will. Now, Colombia says it detects about 3,000 false border cards at entry points daily.

Despite tougher patrols along the porous, 2,200-km border, officials say it is impossible to secure outright. “It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket,” said Mauricio Franco, a municipal official in charge of security in Cucuta, a nearby city.

And it’s not just a matter of rounding up undocumented travelers.

Powerful criminal groups, long in control of contraband commerce across the border, are now getting their cut of human traffic. Javier Barrera, a colonel in charge of police in Cucuta, said the Gulf Clan and Los Rastrojos, notorious syndicates that operate nationwide, are both involved.

During a recent Reuters visit to several illegal crossings, Venezuelans carried cardboard, limes and car batteries as barter instead of using the bolivar, their near-worthless currency.

Migrants pay as much as about $16 for the passage. Maikel, the arrastrador, said smugglers then pay gang operatives about $3 per migrant.

For his crossing, Leal, the baker, carried a torn backpack and small duffel bag. His 2015 Venezuelan ID shows a healthier and happier man – before Leal began skimping on breakfast and dinner because he couldn’t afford them.

He rested under a tree, but fretted about Colombian police. “I’m scared because the “migra” comes around,” he said, using the same term Mexican and Central American migrants use for border police in the United States.

It doesn’t get easier as migrants move on.

Even if relatives wired money, transfer agencies require a legally stamped passport to collect it. Bus companies are rejecting undocumented passengers to avoid fines for carrying them. A few companies risk it, but charge a premium of as much as 20 percent, according to several bus clerks near the border.

The Sulbaran family walked and hitched some 1200 km to the Andean town of Santiago, where they have relatives. The father toured garages, but found no work.

“People said no, others were scared,” said Narvaez, the mother. “Some Venezuelans come to Colombia to do bad things. They think we’re all like that.”

(Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Anggy Polanco in Cucuta, Helen Murphy in Bogota and Alexandra Valencia in Quito. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Migrants ‘knock at front door’ for asylum after Trump crackdown

A Mexican migrant child arranges freshly-washed clothing at the Senda de Vida migrant shelter in Reynosa, in Tamaulipas state, Mexico June 22, 2018. Picture taken June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

By Anthony Esposito and Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA/REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) – More Mexicans and Central Americans are lining up to make asylum requests at the U.S.-Mexico border as word spreads of a U.S. crackdown on families crossing illegally and the threat of brutal gangs lying in wait if they go it alone.

Officials at shelters in border cities as well as migrants from Mexico and Central America told Reuters there was a rising number of people waiting, often for weeks, to make asylum pleas to immigration authorities at official border crossings.

Many of the dozens of migrants interviewed by Reuters said they decided to present an official asylum request after hearing about parents being separated from children when crossing the U.S. border illegally, and about friends making successful requests.

Following an outcry at home and abroad over his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order last week to end the family separations. But over 2,000 children are yet to be reunited with their parents.

The migrants, many with children in tow, told harrowing tales of kidnapping, extortion and murder by gangs in Mexico and Central America. That threat was enough to inspire the perilous journey in hope of receiving asylum in the United States.

“They don’t go through the mountains or deserts anymore, they go to the front door,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, a migration expert at San Diego State University.

But their chances of asylum may be diminishing.

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned a grant of asylum to a Salvadoran domestic abuse victim, potentially excluding immigrants seeking refuge from sexual, gang and other forms of violence in their homelands.

Those threats were the basis of a “credible fear” argument that could prevent them from being returned.

That risk has yet to deter migrants.

WAITING GAME

Shelters run by charities in Reynosa, Tijuana and Nogales – Mexican cities separated by hundreds of miles along the border – all reported an uptick in migrant asylum seekers.

Marla Conrad, a coordinator at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, said that so far this month, she had seen about an extra 100 people lining up for asylum compared with May.

At the border in Tijuana, 26-year-old Jose Cortes from El Salvador, traveling with his 5-year-old daughter, said the waiting list to request asylum was now 1,150 people long. When he arrived two weeks ago, it had 1,000 names on it.

Migrants manage the waiting list, a task currently with Cortes. When his turn comes to cross into the United States for an asylum interview, he will pass the list to another migrant.

It is growing even as 30 to 60 people are called up daily to plead their cases with U.S. border agents.

Mexican Jacqueline Moreno, 43, said that as recently as December, her daughter managed to cross and successfully request asylum on the same day. Now, fleeing violence in her home state of Michoacan with her son, 13, Moreno said she had been waiting three weeks.

MANY MORE PEOPLE

Some migrants followed tips from their hometowns about how to seek asylum. Others paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers, or “coyotes,” who assured them a case could be made.

Many stay near the border in spartan shelters, with rows of brightly colored tents, or in dingy hotels often charging prices they struggle to pay.

Patricia Flores and her 7-year-old son are among thousands of Central Americans waiting at the border.

After witnessing a gangland killing in their neighborhood, Flores decided to pay $4,000 to a human smuggler who told her she could just get to the border and ask for asylum.

Flores has been desperately trying to get a meeting at the border but said she had been turned away by Mexican officials.

Her son described how he saw his neighbor shot in the head back in El Salvador.

“My mom said it’s our secret but if I tell anyone, I am going to go to heaven. I don’t want to,” he said, adding he was not afraid. Pointing to his green T-shirt with a cartoon on it, he said that was his “bulletproof jacket.”

Adelia Contini, from Brazil, has run a church-funded shelter for women and children in Tijuana for nine years. She too has noticed a increase in asylum seekers.

“Since 2013, we started seeing more people asking for asylum, but not as much as now,” she said. “Since January, there are many more people, more than last year.”

‘WAITING TO KILL US’

Encouraged by relatives and friends in the United States, Honduran Lorena Mejia has been waiting for two weeks in a shelter in Reynosa near the banks of the Rio Grande with her husband and four children to apply for asylum.

Returning home did not bear thinking about, Mejia said, explaining that she and her family had been threatened because they witnessed a massacre in Honduras a few years ago.

“We can’t go back there. They’re waiting to kill us,” the 31-year-old said, adding that two other witnesses had already been murdered. “We have to get in.”

Sharon Melissa Analco, 23, arrived in Tijuana on Friday with her 5-year-old daughter, fleeing kidnappers terrorizing her family in Acapulco in the violent Mexican state of Guerrero.

Analco said she had no money to pay for her stay, having expected to be able to get right into the United States. But a U.S. official turned her away at the crossing, telling her she would have to put her name on a list and wait her turn.

“I can’t wait out there,” she recalled telling the official, weeping on the plaza next to the border. “I’m in danger.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Michael O’Boyle and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Dave Graham, Daniel Flynn and Peter Cooney)

More than 6,000 migrants plucked from sea in a single day, 22 dead

Migrants in a dinghy await rescue around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya,

ROME (Reuters) – About 6,055 migrants were rescued and 22 found dead on the perilous sea route to Europe on Monday, one of the highest numbers in a single day, Italian and Libyan officials said.

Italy’s coastguard said at least nine migrants had died and a pregnant woman and a child had been taken by helicopter to a hospital on the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Sicily and the Libyan coast.

Libyan officials said 11 migrant bodies had washed up on a beach east of the capital, Tripoli, and another two migrants had died when a boat sank off the western city of Sabratha.

One Italian coast guard ship rescued about 725 migrants on a single rubber boat, one of some 20 rescue operations during the day.

About 10 ships from the coast guard, the navy and humanitarian organizations were involved in the rescues, most of which took place some 30 miles off the coast of Libya.

Libyan naval and coastguard patrols intercepted three separate boats carrying more than 450 migrants, officials said.

Monday was the third anniversary of the sinking of a migrant boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa in which 386 people died.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 132,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year and 3,054 have died.

Most depart from Libya, where political chaos and a security vacuum have allowed people smugglers to act with impunity.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Heavens)

Smugglers made over $5 billion off migrants in 2015

A Turkish Gendarme officer detains a man believed to be a smuggler as Syrian refugees who are prevented from sailing off for the Greek island of Lesbos by dinghies wait in the background near a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, March 5, 2016.

GENEVA (Reuters) – People smugglers made over $5 billion from the wave of migration into southern Europe last year, a report by international crime-fighting agencies Interpol and Europol said on Tuesday.

Nine out of 10 migrants and refugees entering the European Union in 2015 relied on “facilitation services”, mainly loose networks of criminals along the routes, and the proportion was likely to be even higher this year, the report said.

About 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015. Most paid 3,000-6,000 euros ($3,400-$6,800), so the average turnover was likely between $5 billion and $6 billion, the report said.

To launder the money and integrate it into the legitimate economy, couriers carried large amounts of cash over borders, and smugglers ran their proceeds through car dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants or transport companies.

The main organizers came from the same countries as the migrants, but often had EU residence permits or passports.

“The basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organizers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organizers and may assist in recruitment activities,” the report said.

Corrupt officials may let vehicles through border checks or release ships for bribes, as there was so much money in the trafficking trade. About 250 smuggling “hotspots”, often at railway stations, airports or coach stations, had been identified along the routes – 170 inside the EU and 80 outside.

The report’s authors found no evidence of fighting between criminal groups, but larger criminal networks slowly took over smaller opportunistic ones, leading to an oligopoly.

In 2015, the vast majority of migrants made risky boat trips in boats across the Mediterranean from Turkey or Libya, and then traveled on by road. Around 800,000 were still in Libya waiting to travel to the EU, the report said.

But increasing border controls mean air travel is likely to become more attractive, with fraudulent documents rented out to migrants and then taken back by an accompanying facilitator, the report said.

Migrant smuggling routes could be used to smuggle drugs or guns, and there was growing concern that radicalized foreign fighters could also use them to enter the EU, it said.

But there was no concrete data yet to suggest militant groups consistently relied on or cooperated with organized crime groups, it added.

($1 = 0.8837 euros)

(Reporting by Tom Miles)