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Voices From The Southern Border: Perspectives Of Those Who Live And Work There Every Day

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

To justify the need for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump has repeatedly described the situation at the border as a crisis. But what is it like for the doctors, aid workers, judges, mayors and border patrol agents who live and work along the border every day? We talked to people from every single border state - California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas - and asked them, what are they experiencing? While the people we spoke with agree there is a crisis, they differ over the kind of crisis and how to solve it. Here's what they said.

NORMA PIMENTEL: I am Sister Norma Pimentel. And I'm director for Catholic Charities here in the Rio Grande Valley, overseeing the humanitarian response that we have here in our border. I believe that people that are not from here don't have quite a complete picture of what life is here at the border.

And unfortunately, when we hear all these narrative of the importance of wall and sending out criminals and protecting us from crime and all these ugly people that are coming, I realize that they're failing to see a part of the immigration reality that we see on a daily basis - people who are just like us, who are suffering and hurting and in need of great help. I believe what our Holy Father speaks to us about - the importance of building bridges and not walls.

DOUGLAS NICHOLLS: I'm Douglas Nicholls. I'm the mayor of City of Yuma. We have had a long history dealing with immigration. And we're in a better position now that we have a barrier that was constructed in 2006. I believe it's - would be effective in most places, although I'm not completely convinced it's for every installation. A physical barrier is a very kind of first-step deterrent. Immigration reform would be the primary (laughter) wish list item and then just more facilities, family shelters.

There - we have no ICE family shelter here in Arizona, so those individuals need to be moved to Texas. So we need those kind of facilities here. And then immigration judges are on my wish list. If we had immigration judges that were available at the border, processing could happen quicker. And we could relieve some of the flow that's coming through.

ASHLEY TABADDOR: My name is Ashley Tabaddor. And I'm the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. The crisis we see is that we have an immigration court that is structured within the Justice Department, so the court has been repeatedly used throughout the years as an extension of law enforcement policies. And we believe that that's where the crisis lies.

As long as we continue to have the immigration court within the Justice Department, we continue to have the problems that we have seen plague the court - the backlog, the compromise to the integrity of the court through the quotas that have been placed on the judges, the lack of adequate funding for interpreters or support staff, hiring a hundred judges and not having enough courtrooms or support staff for it. So we think it's really important to focus on fixing the court.

THERON FRANCISCO: My name is Theron Francisco. I am a Border Patrol agent here in San Diego. In San Diego, we're seeing a pretty big increase in the amount of family units we're apprehending and the amount of unaccompanied children. We are averaging about 154 arrests per day just in San Diego. We agree with needing a wall.

San Diego has been a prime example of how walls work. In the late to mid-80s to early '90s when there was no infrastructure at all, we had hundreds of thousands of apprehensions. Assaults were at all-time highs on agents. And through the addition of new infrastructure, updated, new technology coming in in addition to more agents, we were able to bring our numbers down. It can't be just one. It's the combination. It's that whole system that really is effective.

DEE MARGO: Dee Margo, the mayor of El Paso, Texas - the only large U.S. city on the Mexican border. We need to control our borders. No, I do not believe that a fence will suffice when it comes to protection and homeland security issues. Our fence that runs - was done during the Bush administration. And it runs through part of downtown and on the west side of our city - hasn't been so much a stop for illegal immigration as it's been for, basically, criminal activity, where we used to have folks from Mexico coming over and stealing vehicles.

But the rhetoric related to being unsafe or things like that or all this drug trade coming over, we don't have issues that - we don't have - I asked my police detail about MS-13 gang members the other day. And they thought they maybe could identify one here in El Paso. Right now we're just dealing with - primarily, the biggest challenge we have is this migrant community coming north, seeking asylum.

And the bottom line is that's not going to change until they change our immigration policies in Washington. And that's the responsibility of both sides of the aisle. And they haven't had the fortitude to deal with it for over 30 years.

LUCY HORTON: My name is Lucy Horton. I'm an infectious disease fellow at UC San Diego. I've been working in Tijuana at different shelters and camps that are currently housing the migrants. They're not able to process the asylum seekers and immigrants as quickly as they were before the shutdown, which means that they, potentially, could be facing prolonged times in the detention facilities.

The conditions are pretty squalid - people living in extreme crowding. Sanitation is terrible. Sometimes, there's no access to clean drinking water. The prolonged detention in these crowded conditions is really concerning for a spread of communicable diseases. It doesn't seem like it's as much of a security threat as a humanitarian crisis.

ESEQUIEL SALAS: I'm Mayor Esequiel Salas for the village of Columbus, N.M. There are many crises. But I don't see it as a crisis as it has been described. The crisis is further south in Honduras, Guatemala because of their economy, because of countries interfering with their country, upsetting their political systems in order to benefit from them. It causes chaos. It causes gang wars. And some of these people are fleeing - of course, all that violence. And they're coming up here. And we're just getting the waves of the whole thing. And it won't be resolved by putting up a wall. I'll tell you that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Sister Norma Pimentel, Yuma, Ariz., Mayor Douglas Nicholls, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, Border Patrol agent Theron Francisco, El Paso, Texas, Mayor Dee Margo, Dr. Lucy Horton and Columbus, N.M., Mayor Esequiel Salas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That segment was edited by Caitlyn Kim and produced by Samantha Balaban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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