ALBUQUERQUE — The Border Patrol is taking the unusual step of shutting down its checkpoints across New Mexico and a swath of West Texas as officials scramble to respond to a surge in families requesting asylum along the Southwest border.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol said in a statement that the temporary measure was intended “to process and ensure appropriate care for those in custody.” The closing of checkpoints up to 100 miles inland from the border reflects the strain on border operations as the number of migrants entering the country, which in February reached an 11-year high, continues to climb.
The authorities closed checkpoints across the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes 121,000 square miles in New Mexico and 4,500 square miles in Texas, in order to free more agents to work directly on the border.
“To process and ensure appropriate care for those in custody, resources including personnel have been diverted from other border security priorities,” Customs and Border Protection officials said in a statement on the closings, first reported by Texas Monthly. “This is intended as a temporary measure. Checkpoints are integral to U.S.B.P.’s border security mission.”
At some of the checkpoints on major highways, orange cones could be seen blocking off access to the roads along which motorists normally are funneled to checkpoints for queries about citizenship status and visual inspection of vehicles.
Agents at the Border Patrol checkpoints arrest relatively few unauthorized migrants, and most of those who are seeking asylum quickly surrender to the authorities at the border. The agents at the checkpoints deal largely with seizures of marijuana and other drugs from motorists.
The checkpoints have emerged as a source of contention with human rights groups, which have contended that Border Patrol agents routinely ignore their legal authority during the traffic stops to search people without warrants. By law, agents must have probable cause to search the interior of a vehicle, though an alert from a drug-sniffing dog “legitimately” alerts to the presence of drugs, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Border Patrol operates about 170 checkpoints throughout the country. Checkpoints outside the El Paso sector are thought to be operating normally.
The influx of asylum seekers is placing stress on immigration officials, volunteer shelters and religious charities along much of the Southwest border, as they struggle to assist the migrants.
Border Patrol agents in El Paso said last week that they had apprehended more than 400 unauthorized immigrants during a five-minute period. Most of them were unaccompanied youths or people traveling in family units, the agency said.
“We do not have a way to care for the numbers who are coming,” the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said during a visit to South Texas this month. “We don’t have the facilities, we don’t have the legal processes, we don’t have the laws that enable us to quickly process their claims to protect them.”
Immigrants recently released by federal authorities in South Texas overflowed a respite center run by Catholic Charities this month, bathing their babies in sinks and waiting in long lines for food, bus tickets and medical attention. The immigrants, most fleeing poverty and gang violence in Central America, described the conditions they faced in custody as cold and crowded.
“It was freezing,” Cecilio, a 31-year-old from Guatemala, said while sitting behind the respite center with his 7-year-old son. The Border Patrol’s processing centers, like the one in McAllen, Tex., where immigrants are housed temporarily after being apprehended, are known in the immigrant community as “las hieleras,” or iceboxes, because they are often kept so cold.
The authorities in most cases are supposed to hold immigrants for no longer than 72 hours, yet five immigrants last week, interviewed by The New York Times, said they were held longer than that. One of them, Cecilio, who asked to be referred to by only his first name, said he and his son were in custody for eight days.
President Trump has pointed to the influx of migrants as evidence of a crisis justifying his call for building a wall on the border.
But elected officials in parts of the borderlands, including Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, say that the recent mass releases of migrants without plans for housing them amounts to a fabricated crisis aimed at mustering support for the administration’s plans.
In any case, more migrant families are continuing to make their way toward the United States. A new caravan of about 1,200 migrants began moving toward the border over the weekend from southern Mexico.
Mitchell Ferman contributed reporting from McAllen, Tex.
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