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Dispatches From The Southern Border


Federal officials are expected to announce this week that the number of migrants crossing the southern border declined sharply in June. The number had been escalating for months, as thousands of children and families flee violence and poverty in Central America. Homeland Security officials credit the recent drop, in part, to more help from Mexico. NPR's Joel Rose visited the border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. And he joins us now.

Joel, what did you see?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, Mexico has deployed National Guard and other military forces to patrol the nation's borders, and they're easy to spot. I mean, we saw them forming a human shield, guarding the international bridges between Juarez and El Paso and, really, all along the Rio Grande. One day, we came upon a group of National Guard and police who were patrolling together in the mountains, west of downtown Juarez. That's a popular spot for migrants to try to cross. And you can hear the Federal Police officer here yelling to National Guardsmen who are up on the hill.


ROSE: they're trying to catch these migrants who are scattered on the hillside and below in the canyons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you know, Joel, Mexican critics say these resources are being used to do the U.S. Border Patrol's job, and it's very controversial. What exactly are these Mexican National Guard and police doing there?

ROSE: That's a really good question. The soldiers say they are not there to arrest these migrants, just to protect them and to encourage them to register with immigration authorities back in downtown Juarez. But it's clear that they're trying to deter these migrants from crossing illegally into the U.S. And while we were watching, the military officers detained a migrant family; a mother traveling with a teenager and a 3-year-old child from El Salvador. My producer and I spoke to the mother, who says her name is Sanda (ph) but declined to give us her last name. She said she didn't know what would happen to her next. The only thing she did know is that she is too frightened to go back to El Salvador.

SANDA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: She said that the gangs in her neighborhood have threatened her and her son and that if they didn't join them, they would kill them. As we talked, she was sitting at the foot of the tall, metal fence - the border wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico. And she was just sort of staring through the metal slats into the U.S. with tears running down her face.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how much of an impact is this action by Mexico actually having?

ROSE: Well, the numbers are down. U.S. officials think Mexican cooperation is one of the big reasons why and so do some of the human smugglers or coyotes. I talked to one smuggler, who didn't want to use his real name for the obvious reasons. Here is what he had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Basically, he says he's having a hard time getting the job done. He has never seen the military on the Juarez-El Paso border, much less this much of a police presence. And he says it's all making it harder for him to smuggle people over the wall and into the U.S.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we know that increased enforcement in populated areas drives migrants to more remote crossings. What did you hear about that?

ROSE: Well, apprehensions are up all across the border, including in very remote areas like Big Bend in Texas and in the boot heel of New Mexico. I asked the coyote about that as well. And he said that the military presence in Juarez will probably push more migrants to cross in these remote and desolate areas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: He expects these migrants will suffer more because crossing in these areas can take up to a week in brutal heat during the day and much cooler temperatures at night. He expects more migrants are likely to die out there in the desert and in the tumbleweeds, as he put it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What else is Mexico doing?

ROSE: Well, Mexico has agreed to allow the U.S. to expand the Remain in Mexico program. More than 15,000 migrants have been sent back, according to Mexico, to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. U.S. officials believe that's another big factor in why the number of migrants crossing declined in June because it's deterring migrants from coming in the first place. And there are more than 6,000 migrants who've been returned to Juarez alone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that program has come under a lot of criticism as well.

ROSE: Yes, certainly. It's officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, but immigrant advocates say that that name is really a misnomer because migrants are not safe in Juarez. Advocates have documented cases of kidnapping and violence. I talked to one migrant from Cuba, who had a black eye and cuts on his chin and face. He says he was jumped in broad daylight in Juarez when he went to pick up money that his sister had wired to him from Miami. A lot of migrants told me that they're afraid to leave the migrant shelters where they've been staying because they could easily also become targets of violence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Joel Rose.

Joel, thank you so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.