(CELL PHONE FOOTAGE SHOWING CROWDED DETENTION CENTER)
“Cuantos dias estaban aqui? 40 days."
The reports from inside American immigrant detention centers were appalling.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) HOPE FRYE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PROJECT LIFELINE, SAYING:
"The children we saw were filthy, wearing the same wet and muddy clothes in which they traveled. Many were covered in mucus and vomit. Babies had soiled diapers. The children smelled foul."
The first accounts came from human rights activists. Then came warnings of “dangerous overcrowding” from the government’s own investigators.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) JENNIFER COSTELLO, DEPUTY INSPECTOR GENERAL AT U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION, SAYING:
“Our recent unannounced inspections revealed a situation far more grievous than previously encountered by our inspectors. For instance when our team arrived at the El Paso Del Norte processing center the facility, which has a maximum capacity of 125 detainees, had more than 750 detainees on site. The following day that number increased to 900."
In the summer of 2019, U.S. immigration officials found themselves caught between a ballooning number of Central American families seeking asylum at the border, and a Trump administration demanding a crack-down and reduction in border-crossings.
U.S. Border Patrol detention centers were built to hold small numbers of adult men.
Instead, they were used for families, including children sick and malnourished from the arduous journey.
Images from a government watchdog report showed families held without beds, without showers, sometimes without working toilets.
Strapped for space, detainees were sometimes held in ad-hoc, open-air facilities surrounded by razor wire.
Some Democratic lawmakers likened the conditions to “concentration camps.”
(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. DEMOCRATIC REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ, SAYING:
“This is a manufactured crisis because there is no need for us to do this. There's no need for us to overcrowd, and to detain, and under-resource. There is no need for us to arrest innocent people and treat them no differently than criminals when they are pursing their basic human rights."
Americans began to protest.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) LOCAL, JULIE LYTHCOT, SAYING:
"I want the federal government to know you cannot treat children in this way in my name. I'm a citizen here, do not treat children like this in my name."
Trump officials blamed Democrats in Congress for failing to fund the facilities.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE, SAYING:
“I wanted to see the overflow facility. Because we asked Democrats in Congress for more beds. And they gave us only a fraction of what the president requested.”
And they defended America’s border agents.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) ACTING U.S. SECRETARY FOR HOMELAND SECURITY KEVIN MCALEENAN, SAYING:
“The incendiary and overwrought attacks on the men and women securing our border and enforcing the immigration laws in the interior are unwarranted and damaging. The demonization of law enforcement professionals, U.S. Border Patrol agents, CBP and ICE officers from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, from all faiths and callings who have chosen a career about protecting others must stop."
As the crisis rose to a boiling point at the end of the summer, the administration was trying to push the problem south, funneling asylum seekers to wait in another country.
Spared the confines of American detention, families fleeing Central American found themselves waiting in Mexico in conditions resembling refugee camps in crime-ridden places such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
(SOUNDBITE) (SPANISH) SALVADORAN MIGRANT, JENNIFER JIMENEZ, SAYING:
"When they told me they were sending me back to (Ciudad) Juarez, it was like they threw a bucket of cold water on me. And, I felt like everything collapsed around me again. I said, my God, what am I going to do in Juarez, I don't know anyone. Mexico isn't a place I trust to go out alone with my three children."
They found themselves prey to Mexican cartels. Some were kidnapped. Others were murdered. And they faced new barriers.
Washington reached agreements with Guatemala and other Central American nations to take in asylum-seekers before they reached the U.S.
And under with the threat of American tariffs, Mexico deployed its national guard to keep migrants from crossing the U.S. border.
That produced moments such as this one, of a Guatemalan woman, with her child, pleading with a guard to let her try and enter America.
Perhaps no image epitomized for many the desperation confronting those seeking safety in the U.S. more than this one: Salvadorean migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 2-year-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande.
But the numbers have ticked down.
U.S. immigration agents on the Mexican border reported 46,000 apprehensions last November, down from 66,000 in the same month a year before.
Still, thousands are still embarking on the perilous journey north.
Last month Mexican police discovered more than sixty migrants, most from Guatemala, locked inside a truck. This shelter in Juarez tried to deliver some holiday cheer for migrant families.
While they wait on asylum claims, many reflect on their own desperate decisions.
(SOUNDBITE) (Spanish) SALVADORAN MIGRANT, WENDY, SAYING:"This is not easy, there's a sense of desperation, sometimes it hits you hard, quickly. But you have to be with your children, to weigh up the pros and cons, of returning to your country. If you have left your country because of threats, the lives of your children need to go first. And then everything else follows."
Some who risked everything to reach the United States are now stuck outside.
(SOUNDBITE) (Spanish) GUATEMALAN MIGRANT, MARIA CHAN IXCAMPARIJ, SAYING:"I fled my country with my baby. The only place I want to be is the United States. I never thought that I would be returned here to Juarez. I'm waiting to go to the United States with my baby, to give the best life to my son, so he can study."
As 2019 comes to a close, many migrant families such as these marked Christmas in Juarez, praying for a miracle.