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How Border Patrol Handles The Immigrant Children Streaming Into Texas


The majority of the minors seeking asylum cross through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. NPR's John Burnett is there this week. He joins us to tell us about the huge volume of kids crossing the border and about the conditions where some of them are now being detained. And John, you're in the city of Harlingen. What are you hearing?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Audie, no one has ever seen anything like this before. Even 25 years ago, when Central Americans were fleeing the civil wars and coming to South Texas asking for amnesty, no one has seen the numbers they're seeing now. I spoke to a border patrol agent earlier today. He said that the migrants, they're crossing illegally along the river. Earlier today, there was a group of 59 who surrendered. Last week a group of 250 came over in rafts provided by the smugglers and then they surrendered to border patrol agents. And no one has seen so many kids. They say around a third of the arrivals are unaccompanied children. I spoke to a border patrol agent this morning, he told me the average age he sees is 12 to 14 years old. But on Monday, he saw a six- year-old girl caring for her four-year-old little brother who had a fever. They were completely alone. The border patrol is rushing in agents from all over the Southwest to help out. And they're frustrated because it takes so many resources to receive and process all these migrants. It takes them away from their primary duty which is patrolling the border.

CORNISH: Six years old. John, tell us more about what condition these children are in when they're arriving.

BURNETT: Well, you can understand they've been traveling from Central America for 6 to 10 days, the agents said it's grim. They're dirty, they're disheveled, some of them are sick, most of them are terrified. They're, you know, in this big room being processed by these strange agents in green uniforms. A lot of the kids tear up, they start crying when they're questioned. And these border officers, a lot, they're fathers and it tears their hearts out to see this. In terms of illness, there have been reports of diseases like chickenpox and measles. But what the agents are saying is most common is scabies, and a few agents have caught the microscopic bugs. The migrants do get a medical check when they arrive, so there's lots of antibiotics that are being administered for respiratory problems. Overcrowding is a real problem for the spread of these sorts of conditions. Just to give you an idea, there were more than 1000 immigrants crowded in the McAllen border patrol station a couple of weeks ago. There's supposed to be room for 300, so they were sitting on the floor, elbow to elbow. Today I understand it's back down to 300 or 400.

CORNISH: And how is the community down in South Texas responding to the humanitarian crisis?

BURNETT: Well, the government buses leave the border patrol stations in South Texas every day for shelters in San Antonio, and Arizona, California and Oklahoma.

And the government is paying for nonprofit groups to open these shelters as fast as possible. There's this tremendous sense of urgency down here. Right now there are 13 shelters, housing 1600 immigrants, just here in the Rio Grande Valley. In terms of local response, the Catholic church in McAllen opened its parish hall for the dozens of migrant families who were being dropped off at the Greyhound station next door with a free bus ticket. So they come into the church for diapers and food and cookies and Tylenol. A church worker said they have absolutely nothing. They need everything for the trip north, where they'll wait for their date in immigration court.

CORNISH: John, thanks so much for talking with us.

BURNETT: It's my pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett in Harlingen, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. He spoke to us about the influx of unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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