U.S. border agents redeployed to handle migrant humanitarian needs

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Central America are seen escorted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials after crossing the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this pictured taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez

(Reuters) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will pull around 750 officers off ports of entry and redeploy them to process record numbers of migrant families entering the United States at the Mexico border, the head of the agency said on Wednesday.

The agency is also redirecting service personnel and expanding food, transportation and medical contracts to meet migrants’ humanitarian needs while maintaining border security, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas.

“There will be impacts to traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade,” he said.

March is on track for the highest number of monthly border crossings in over a decade, with more than 100,000 apprehensions and encounters of people deemed inadmissible at U.S. ports of entry, McAleenan said.

Apprehensions and encounters of families were expected to reach over 55,000 people in March, McAleenan said, the highest level for any month on record, according to CBP data.

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

McAleenan said up to 40 percent of CBP personnel in sectors like El Paso were now working to care for migrants’ humanitarian needs. Smugglers are using the distraction of large groups of asylum seekers to traffic drugs and migrants seeking to evade capture, he said.

For the first time in over a decade, CBP is directly releasing migrants into the United States when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unable to provide bed space to relieve overcrowding, McAleenan said.

“We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility,” said McAleenan. “With these numbers, with the types of illnesses we’re seeing at the border, I fear that it’s just a matter of time.”

Border Patrol agents on Monday located a two-year-old Honduran child near Quemado, Texas, who appeared to be suffering from seizures and convulsions. The child was taken to the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for more advanced care, the agency said in a statement.

The hospital declined to comment on the child’s condition, due to patient privacy. Border Patrol officials were not immediately available to comment.

Two Guatemalan minors died while in U.S. Border Patrol custody in December.

The president has taken aim at the asylum system and earlier this year began sending a small number of migrants back to Mexican border towns to wait out their U.S. hearings.

As of March 26, around 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico under the program, according to a Mexican immigration official.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in San Antonio; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Leslie Adler and Rosalba O’Brien)

Weary crowds of Venezuelans rely on ‘dog cart’ transports as buses succumb to crisis

Commuters ride on a cargo truck used as public transportation in Valencia, Venezuela July 11, 2018. Picture taken July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – On a recent afternoon, a crowd of hundreds massed on the sidewalk outside an exit from the subway in the central Venezuelan city of Valencia.

But when a flatbed truck previously used to transport water bottles pulled up nearby, a ruthless scramble kicked off with pregnant women, parents holding toddlers and elderly Venezuelans all jostling to get themselves aboard.

In this once-thriving industrial city as in much of the country, public buses have gradually disappeared due to scarce or prohibitively expensive tires, motor oil, batteries and spare parts.

Cargo trucks of all shapes and sizes have taken their place, but most lack even basic safety protections for human cargo and are increasingly associated with accidents and injuries to passengers – a further sign of the deteriorating quality of life in the crisis-stricken country.

The “dog carts,” as they are informally known in Caracas, tend to squeeze standing passengers – mostly poor Venezuelans – into the backs of the large vehicles.

“It’s tough. I’m tired on the way there, tired on the way back, I feel terrible,” said exhausted homemaker Angelica Gomez, wiping sweat from her brow as she climbed into a flatbed truck with metal railings on the sides.

There are no exact records of how many cargo trucks circulate in different cities. Schedules and rates vary from one place to another as well.

Similar forms of transport have been common in developing countries and struggling economies in recent decades, but are rarely seen in oil-rich countries such as Venezuela. Other countries have also made an effort to provide safer public transit options.

The Information Ministry did not reply to an email seeking comment on this spontaneous mode of public transport.

DWINDLING FLEET

But these cargo trucks are now nearly as common as passenger buses in Venezuela, where transport union leaders say a fleet that two years ago was estimated at of 280,000 vehicles has been whittled to just 30,000.

Similar stories abound in the country of 30 million people which is reeling from a fifth straight year of economic contraction and annual inflation estimated at some 46,305 percent in June.

Opposition lawmaker Nora Bracho estimates 39 people have died and around 275 have been injured so far this year in accidents involving unlicensed modes of public transit.

Accidents are often due to poorly maintained vehicles with bald tires or insufficient oil as well as reckless drivers, according to passengers and union leaders.

In violence-rife Venezuela, the chaos on these trucks can also be targeted by criminals.

Andreina Leal, a 36-year-old hairdresser, was robbed of her cellphone and cash during a recent trip on a truck in the western state of Tachira.

“I run the risk of falling, so I hang on tightly to the truck,” said Leal as she waited for another truck to pick her up. “I was already robbed once because I was so focused on not falling.”

Mechanic Rafael Castillo, 53, decided around a month ago to use his old truck to transport people as he needed cash.

Brushing aside worries about safety, he began picking up passengers in his truck, which has metal bars on the sides behind the cab since it was previously used to transport cattle.

“This is providing relief for people,” said Castillo, as peopled climbed in. “There are no buses, this is a way for them to get home.”

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by G Crosse)

Ahead of storm, U.S. planes, trains and trucks diverted, canceled

Cars are seen along Deerfield beach near Coral Springs while Hurricane Matthew approaches in Florida

By Nick Carey

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Hundreds of flights have been canceled, Florida airports are being shuttered and train services suspended as Hurricane Matthew heads toward the U.S. southeastern coast, with passengers and goods likely to be stranded or delayed through Saturday.

Atlanta-based Delta Airlines said 130 flights were canceled on Thursday after the airline halted operations at southern Florida airports including Miami. A further 150 will be canceled on Friday as Florida airports further north such as Orlando are affected. Additional cancellations are expected for Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday, the airline said.

A spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Airlines said the company canceled 180 flights from Wednesday through Saturday affecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Jacksonville.

“This is a very fluid situation, so we are ready to change and cancel more flights as needed,” she said.

American Airlines has canceled flights in southern Florida starting Thursday afternoon, which should resume by midday on  Friday. The airline said Orlando flights will cease late on Thursday afternoon, with a reduced service resuming Saturday morning. Jacksonville flights will cease on Friday morning and  reduced service will resume on Saturday.

Southwest Airlines Co said it had canceled 60 flights for Thursday due to the hurricane.

A FedEx spokeswoman said the package delivery company is implementing unspecified contingency plans but warned of potential service delays or disruptions.

“Contingency plans are being implemented to ensure that shipments arrive at their final destinations as quickly as conditions permit,” said Glenn Zaccara, a spokesman for rival United Parcel Service Inc.

Operations on No. 3 U.S. railroad CSX Corp’s main Florida line from Auburndale into Jacksonville would cease late on Thursday afternoon, spokeswoman Melanie Cost said.

Services from Florida into Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina would be curtailed until after the storm passes, she added.

No. 4 U.S. railroad Norfolk Southern Corp is moving equipment away from Southeast coastal areas and transferring shipments inland to secured rail yards. Traffic en route to affected regions is being held at yards throughout the Norfolk Southern system to alleviate congestion in those areas.

Miami-based trucking and logistics company Ryder System Inc will close its headquarters during the storm, spokesman David Bruce said. But he added that Ryder is “repositioning rental trucks to the affected areas and working to ensure an uninterrupted fuel supply for our customers in the days after the storm passes.”

(Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)