BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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BOB GARFIELD On Tuesday, President Trump stood on the White House lawn waving a single piece of paper.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP This is one page of a very long and very good agreement for both Mexico and the United States. Without the tariffs, we would have had nothing. We had nothing--[END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD For much of the past week, reporting on Trump's tariff threat diplomacy has focused on whether the president was lying completely or just partially about the fight he picked with Mexico to suppress the non-existent ‘invasion’ of Central American immigrants.
MALE CORRESPONDENT President Trump calling off a plan to impose a five percent tariff on all Mexican goods that is in exchange for pledges by Mexico to stop the flow of Central American migrants across the border.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT It takes tariffs off the table. But was Friday's agreement already a done deal? The New York Times is reporting that the actions Mexico agreed to were decided months ago. The Times says--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But while the headlines concentrate on the politics of an unprovoked trade war and the latest version of Trump-ian mendacity, mainly lost in the uproar once again, was the human reality at the border. There, says journalist Bob Moore who lives at and reports from the border for The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and other outlets, U.S. policy has trapped thousands of asylum seekers in various degrees of confinement and indefinite limbo for a couple of reasons.
BOB MOORE One is that they are caught up in a program the U.S. has had since last summer called metering where they're only allowing a handful of asylum seekers to approach ports of entry and apply for asylum. And then in recent months, the second group has been these people who have been enrolled in what the Trump administration calls Migrant Protection Protocols, more commonly called Remain in Mexico, where migrants are sent back to Mexican border cities to wait there while their asylum or other immigration claims go through U.S. courts.
BOB GARFIELD And are these like refugee camps? Are they pop up cities? What do they look like? I'll talk about Ciudad Juárez. That's a city that, under best case scenario, might have shelter space for 2,000 people. I would estimate the people caught in that entrapment zone now number somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000. So obviously, there's not room in shelters for everyone. In some cases, they're living on the streets. And that becomes a major humanitarian problem for these Mexican border cities which are generally poorer cities than what you would see in the United States. They're also very violent cities which creates additional risks for these migrants. Nanette Barragán, who's a congresswoman from California, recently pointed out--.
NANETTE BARRAGAN It is so dangerous to travel to Juárez that the State Department is telling people to reconsider travel because of violent crime and gang activities are widespread. But this is where you're sending pregnant women. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned the Migrant Protection Protocols, which is borderline Orwellian, also known as Remain in Mexico. Instead of having to deal with migrants and refugees once they cross the border, Mexico is at pains to keep them on that side. How are they doing that?
BOB MOORE Not very well. When the program was first created in January, Mexico had promised to give these people humanitarian visas that would allow them to work while they're in the country. But so far, we're not seeing any signs of that. So these people who were sort of trapped in Juárez can't work, at least not legally. There's no way to gain any income to feed their families, and we are generally talking about families. U.S. border agents, when they take people into custody they generally take their documents through the pendency of the immigration court case. So in this case they're sending people back to Mexico without documents to try to obtain work visas or to try to, for example, get access to health care. And we've had incidents in Mexico where parents have taken their children to the hospital and they're told, 'you have no proof that this is your child. You don't have any documents.'
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned metering, the process of giving access to the asylum process to a handful of asylum seekers at a time. The backlog, it's not days, not weeks, but months.
BOB MOORE The latest estimates I heard is that Juárez has probably between 4,000 and 5,000 people on the metering list. They get little wristbands with their number written on it. It early on in the practice, they had written numbers in indelible markers on people's arms. And that was a little bit too evocative of the Holocaust, I think, and so they stopped doing that.
BOB GARFIELD Then the Remain in Mexico program, waiting for a hearing just to approach the border could take you to when?
BOB MOORE The people who were being enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program in El Paso today are given court dates for July of 2020. So they would have to remain in Mexico for 13 months at a minimum before getting their initial appearance in immigration court to start a process that may take two or three years after that.
BOB GARFIELD Assuming, just for the sake of argument that the president was telling the absolute truth when he described this complex deal with Mexico to stem the influx of asylum seekers and other migrants across the border, would anything that he described have any effect on the reality, on the ground, along the border as you've just described?
BOB MOORE It's difficult to say until we see how things turn out over the next few months. But we do know that the administration's entire strategy has been, and continues to be, to deter people from leaving Central America in the first place. And we know that those deterrence efforts not only haven't worked but in some senses they've boomeranged and helped feed the exodus from the Northern Triangle. I think what's gotten lost in the political conversation about this are the lives that are directly impacted which would be the migrants themselves. And then the residents of these border communities, both Mexico and the United States, who have to take up the hard work of caring for the migrants in their community, making room for them, feeding them. There's been no conversation about that at all. And really, if it had not been for a massive volunteer response in communities like El Paso, what is clearly a humanitarian crisis could have been a humanitarian catastrophe–and we still face that risk.
BOB GARFIELD This conversation is premised on the idea that by covering the politics and the Trump-ian antics of the situation, the press was fiddling while the border was burning. That our attention, institutionally, was misdirected.
BOB MOORE Not only is the border burning, the home countries of these people, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, are deeply troubled. And there has been some very excellent journalism by Jonathan Blitzer at the New Yorker and some others that have looked at those root causes, but not enough. And certainly in our political conversation there are only a handful of members of Congress who are talking about addressing the situation on the ground in the Northern Triangle as being the most important step to take. Instead we're locked politically in this meaningless conversation largely about the wall and about border security. You know, the wall and other security efforts are meaningless in a context where people are crossing the border and turning themselves in. They're not evading capture or anything like that. And so the solutions that we've been talking about for the last year and a half, have nothing to do with the actual problem that we're experiencing.
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BOB GARFIELD Bob, I Thank you.
BOB MOORE Thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to tell our story.
BOB GARFIELD Bob Moore is a freelance journalist who writes about the border for The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and other fine publications.