In his office in Nogales, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada points down the street to where dozens of U.S. soldiers are installing razor wire atop a pedestrian border crossing in the heart of the city’s small downtown. “They should not be here,” he says. “There is no invasion. This is not a war.”
Sheriff Estrada, the chief law-enforcement official of Santa Cruz County for the past 26 years, says the soldiers stationed across the town as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to defend the border against an approaching caravan of Central American migrants makes this otherwise peaceful community feel as if it is a war zone.
For Mr. Trump, who made building a wall with Mexico the central focus of his election campaign, militarizing the border is part of sweeping efforts to reshape the country’s immigration system.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chad Caldwell, who oversees those soldiers as part of an engineering battalion of more than 450 troops, says the mission to fortify the border feels far removed from the conflicts he saw in multiple tours of duty that included Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.
“It’s safer. There is not a huge threat. We’re not there afraid we’re going to get attacked,” he says. “But the engineering never changes. … A problem is a problem whether it’s in Iraq, Afghanistan or Arizona.”
The presidential order to send thousands of troops to the border is a job to do, Lt.-Col. Caldwell says, a mission as with any other.
In recent weeks, the President has sent more than 5,600 troops to the border and proposed denying citizenship to babies born to mothers who have entered the U.S. illegally.
But for Sheriff Estrada and others who live and work along the border, such measures represent a fundamental misunderstanding of life in the country’s border regions and an ineffective strategy to deal with a humanitarian crisis in Central America that has resulted in a continuous surge of refugees flocking to the United States.
Mr. Trump’s latest move came this week, when he issued a 90-day proclamation barring from making an asylum claim anyone who enters the United States from outside an official port of entry.
Immigrant-rights groups backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center immediately filed a court challenge to block the proclamation. Currently, asylum seekers can make a refugee claim no matter where they enter the United States.
It is policy changes such as these that worry officials in Mexican border communities such as Ciudad Juarez, already grappling with a backlog of hundreds of migrants camped out on a pedestrian border crossing into El Paso, Tex.
“It’s not secure, they don’t have showers, they don’t have anywhere to wash their clothes,” says Sergio Madero, who heads the Border Bridges Trust of Chihuahua, the state agency that operates Juarez’s international bridges into the United States.
Juarez has enough shelter beds and other resources to accept a caravan of thousands of migrants, but Mr. Madero wonders how long the city can manage given U.S. border officials are processing claims on the bridge at a rate of 20 people a day.
Julio Cesar Reyes, his wife and two-year-old daughter have been camping on the bridge in Juarez for three days. The family, fleeing gang violence in southern Mexico, first tried to cross at a bridge in New Mexico, but were told the border station was at capacity. “We’ll just wait here and if it’s not tonight, we’ll be here tomorrow,” he says. “If it’s not tomorrow, we’ll be here the next day.”
There are other complications beyond overcrowding at international bridges.
Under existing U.S. federal policy, asylum seekers who are caught crossing the border outside of official ports of entry are eligible to be released on bonds, paid by family members or non-profit groups. Those taken into federal custody at ports of entry aren’t eligible for bonds, meaning they can conceivably be detained indefinitely.
Nor does it appear that U.S. border crossings have the capacity to hold so many migrants.
One evening this week, Ruben Garcia took members of a U.S. congressional subcommittee on homeland security on a tour of one of two El Paso motels he has rented to house roughly 375 migrants being released by immigration officials into the city each day.
Mr. Garcia runs Annunciation House, a network of migrant shelters. He tells the Washington staffers about a tent facility to process asylum seekers that immigration officials constructed at a commercial border crossing in nearby Tornillo two years ago, complete with dorms, dining halls and shower facilities.
The tent city was shuttered five months later, when the flow of migrants began to slow. Since then, as the number of asylum seekers has started to soar once again, immigration officials have opted to detain migrants in overcrowded holding cells, sometimes for weeks. Among those whom Annunciation House has received from detention are three babies with pneumonia, a young girl with the chicken pox and 11 pregnant women.
Last week, only days before the U.S. midterm elections, Mr. Garcia got word from local immigration officials that their policies were changing once again to comply with a court order restricting detentions to 72 hours.
Now, migrants are being dropped off at the downtown bus station – thousands a week – so many that Annunciation House’s volunteers are having trouble getting enough Greyhound bus tickets.
Two years after Mr. Trump was elected on a promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, little has changed with how the United States deals with the crisis at its southern border, Mr. Garcia says, beyond the politics of fear.
“If I’m a smuggler, what I’m saying to you as I sell my product is: If you’re thinking of coming, now is the time to come,” he says. “Because in spite of all the rhetoric, they still can’t detain people.”
With files from Adrian Morrow