More than 700 miles south of Oklahoma, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents are working through a surge of unaccompanied minor children and families with young children crossing into the United States.
In February border patrol agents recorded more than 100,000 encounters with people who entered the country illegally. According to the left leaning Washington Office on Latin America, that is the third highest number of interactions in the past decade.
Title 42 enacted under President Donald Trump due to COVID-19 and continuing with some exceptions under President Joe Biden, requires most apprehended migrants be immediately taken back across the border without being processed. According to immigration experts, that practice increases the likelihood enforcement actions are occurring amongst repeat offenders.
Under the new exceptions, unaccompanied children and entire families with at least one child younger than 6 years old are being processed into the United States.
In late March, CBS News reported more than 16,000 unaccompanied minors had entered federal custody, creating a crisis of capacity for the Biden administration. The previous record-high for children entering the country along the Southern Border occurred in May 2019 when more than 11,000 were apprehended and taken into custody.
March 25 and 26, U.S. Senator James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, and 18 other Republican Senators traveled to the U.S./Mexico border near McAllen Texas to get a firsthand look and the increasing crisis.
“It was pretty staggering because it is so, so many more people than it was in 2019 jammed in there together,” Lankford said. “I get why President Biden doesn't want people to see and doesn't want the media to go in because it was pretty stunning to be able to see just how jampacked people really are there.”
Lankford described children forced to take turns sleeping on the floor while others waited in chairs due to crowded living conditions at the overcapacity Donna Temporary Processing Facility. He said one pod designed to hold 80 children was holding more than 700.
The Biden administration relented to national media criticism, allowing TV cameras into the facility four days after senators, including Lankford, released cell phone video from inside the facility.
“It’s not an alarming situation in the sense that we are all in danger somehow,” director of the University of Oklahoma Center for the America’s Charles Kenney said. “But I think that there is a danger that these children will not be in the proper circumstances that they need. So, in that sense, that would be a critical dimension of this thing and that deserves every attention.”
Lankford places blame for the surge squarely on the shoulders of President Biden; however, Kenney said the causes are likely more varied. He points to the most recent surge under the Trump administration in 2019.
“That was neither the beginning nor end of the Trump administration, and so there were no big changes in who is in charge or a big change in policy, but yet there's a surge - that at least today, outpaced the current surge,” Kenney said.
Regardless the impetus for the current surge, border patrol agents are left to balance the duties of law enforcement, social worker and caregiver. Lankford said that pull on resources leaves portions of the border unprotected.
“Half of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's workforce is taking information and doing paperwork with these kids. That means half of their workforce is not on the border anymore so literally their miles and miles and miles of unprotected border,” he said.
The migrants crossing the border are predominantly from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Their stories for crossing into the United States illegally are as varied as the individuals themselves.
“We've met many families who faced real violence, who have watched children or siblings die right next to them in the car because they were caught in crossfire,” Scissortail Community Development President Robert Ruiz said. “And these are families (now) in Oklahoma they have experienced these types of traumas.”
“I think that when we think about the people who are coming to the border, it’s of paramount importance that we recognize their humanity. And when we think that, as we employ and pass policy, we go by the very simple fundamental rules that most religious traditions have, and most people have and that is to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Kenney said. “I think if we would look at our brothers and sisters who are crossing the border in that light, it might help us to respond more effectively.”
Asked about what role empath plays in the situation at hand, Lankford said, “We are extremely empathetic. We have more than 1 million people a year that we allow legally to become citizens of the United States, so we are a very open country.”