ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Meanwhile, President Trump is threatening to close the U.S.-Mexico border. Tensions are rising as large numbers of migrant families continue to cross illegally. And more are expected as a caravan of migrants from Central America moves north towards the border. U.S. Border Patrol says they are overwhelmed by the influx. We're joined now by NPR's John Burnett, who covers immigration and is with us on the line from Austin, Texas. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: On TV, we've seen dramatic images of this caravan moving up through Mexico. It's still hundreds of miles away, so why are tensions rising now?
BURNETT: Well, the fear is really surpassing reality. The size of the Honduran caravan has reportedly dropped by half, from some 7,000 to 3,500 now and expected to fall even more the farther north it gets. But that hasn't stopped all the overheated talk coming out of Washington. I mean, just to give you a flavor, Ari, listen to this exchange between Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that was on TV last night.
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MARTHA MACCALLUM: Is there any scenario under which if people force their way across the border they could be shot at?
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people. They will be apprehended, however. But I also take my officer and agent - their own personal safety extraordinarily seriously. They do have the ability of course to defend themselves.
SHAPIRO: John, how is this intense rhetoric playing out at the U.S.-Mexico border?
BURNETT: Well, so today I spoke with the mayor of Columbus, N.M., Esequiel Salas. His city's right on the border across from Palomas, Mexico. He said an armed militia from Florida is already camped out west of town patrolling private ranch land. He got a call from another militia leader from South Carolina earlier in the week. He said, quote, "if you need help with the illegals coming across, you let me know, and we'll be there." The militia leader reportedly said, if we're fired on, we'll shoot back. Salas told him, thanks but no thanks. We're fine with the Border Patrol.
SHAPIRO: We have heard about growing numbers of migrant families trying to cross the border, and this caravan that we've been talking about has not even arrived yet. Tell us about why the numbers are growing right now.
BURNETT: Well, there has been a record number of families with children turning themselves into federal agents either at the ports of entry or shortly after crossing the border illegally. The Trump administration released numbers earlier this week, and they really are startling. In July, agents arrested about 9,200 family members traveling together. In September, that number soared to more than 16,000 apprehensions. That's an 80 percent increase.
SHAPIRO: That's a huge growth. How are border agents handling that?
BURNETT: So a Border Patrol agent in South Texas told me every day they're arresting 400 to 500 immigrants just in his station, mostly adults with small kids asking for asylum. Immigration says their detention facilities are not big enough to handle these crowds, so they have to release them with a notice to appear in the already backlogged immigration courts.
This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement put a new policy into effect. ICE will no longer help immigrants with travel arrangements to a destination in the interior. And that leaves thousands of families stranded in these border towns, and the nonprofits that help them are overwhelmed. Immigrant aid groups up and down the border are overflowing. Some are paying thousands of dollars a night on motel rooms for immigrants with nowhere else to go. Critics claim the government is just dumping immigrants in the streets, making the crisis look worse.
SHAPIRO: President Trump says he has plans to deploy the military to the border to stop the caravan whenever it might arrive. Can you give us any more details about that?
BURNETT: Right. The Pentagon said today Defense Secretary Jim Mattis plans to sign deployment orders this weekend for up to 800 active-duty troops to be in place on the border by early next week. The White House has floated the idea of an executive order that would shut down the border to these Central American immigrants and deny them the ability to seek asylum. That would be an extraordinary move.
The U.S. recognizes the right of asylum in federal and international law. But we saw that this president attempted what he attempted with the travel ban, and he'll give his government emergency powers when he's worried about immigrants coming to our borders.
SHAPIRO: NPR's John Burnett speaking with us from Texas. Thanks, John.
BURNETT: You bet.
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