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New migrant caravan has U.S., Mexico making contingency plans

Mexico plans to set up a "containment" belt of federal forces to stem the flow of migrants from Central America, while U.S. border officials said they are temporarily reassigning several hundred border inspectors to deal with a recent spike in arrivals.

U.S. has been pressing Mexico to discourage flow of migrants before they get to Texas, Arizona borders

Central American migrants wait for food in El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

Faced with an increasing flow of Central American migrants north, Mexico plans to set up a "containment" belt of federal forces across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the narrowest part of the country's south and the easiest to control, a senior government official said Wednesday.

Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero said the situation is complicated by a caravan of roughly 2,500 migrants heading north and fears of a much larger "mother caravan" possibly forming in Honduras.

"We are going to locate our migration installations, of Federal Police and civil protection, harmoniously and with collaboration among all the federal government agencies in such a way that we have containment in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec," she said in comments a day after meeting with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. "It's going to be a big change."

Sanchez Cordero did not provide more details about how the federal forces would be deployed, but she stressed it would not mean the militarization of Mexico's border with Guatemala.

Nielsen was in Honduras for a meeting with Central American officials.

A new migrant caravan of about 2,500 people, mainly from Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, was making its way through southern Mexico this week, headed for the U.S. border.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration said it will temporarily reassign several hundred border inspectors as beleaguered forces already stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border struggle to keep pace with the growing number of migrant families who are showing up at the border in poor health and turning themselves in to agents to request asylum.

Central American migrants inside the enclosure. In contrast to previous decades, the percentage of asylum seekers who are families or unaccompanied children has increased. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the reassignment of 750 border inspectors would mean longer waits at crossings as the busy Easter holiday nears but that it was necessary to address what he called "an operational crisis." The reassigned officers will process migrants, provide transportation and perform hospital watches for migrants who require medical attention. It is unknown when they will return to their regular duties.

"There will be impacts to traffic at the border," McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas, which, after years of relative calm, has quickly emerged as the second-busiest corridor for illegal crossings after Texas' Rio Grande Valley. "There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade. There will be wait times in our pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes."

Apprehensions up greatly in 2019

McAleenan spoke in front of the metal fencing that separates El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, after a delay that followed the apprehension of several migrants who had crossed a shallow spot on the Rio Grande nearby and turned themselves in.

Arrests along the Mexican border jumped to 66,450 in February, up 149 per cent from a year earlier, while arrests in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which stretches across New Mexico and much of West Texas, were about eight times higher than they were a year ago.

March is shaping up to be even busier. McAleenan said the agency was on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry during the month, up about 30 per cent from February and about double the same period last year. About 55,000 will have arrived as families, including 40,000 children.

The commissioner said the border was at "a breaking point," language that is consistent with the administration's portrayal of a state of crisis. President Donald Trump last month declared a national emergency to obtain military funds for construction of his prized border wall.

Trump criticized Mexico and the Democrats on the issue in a tweet early Thursday and again said he would consider closing the southern border, a vague threat that is opposed by even traditional groups which support him, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Any move in that direction would also likely require congressional approval.

The political polarization continued to play out Wednesday in El Paso as a small group of protesters erected an inflatable caricature of the president and shouted in Spanish "you are not alone" to the migrants being led away.

Activists argue that the administration has engaged in a practice called metering — limiting the number that can apply for asylum at border points — which is encouraging crossings between ports of entry. Arrests are still well below highs of the 1990s and early 2000s,

But the increase in families and children, as opposed to the greater percentage of single men in the past, has tested U.S. authorities.

Customs and Border Protection is taking more than 60 migrants to the hospital each day, McAleenan said. In the previous four days, he said infants have had 105-degree fevers, a two-year-old suffered seizures in the desert and a 40-year-old man suffering organ failure refused surgery.

Staff shortages

A few hundred yards from where McAleenan spoke, about 600 migrants were held in a football field-sized pen lined with concertina wire under the shade of a bridge that connects El Paso to Juarez. When reporters arrived, migrants lined the fence and some yelled they were hungry. Minutes later, a catering van delivered ham-and-cheese and picadillo sandwiches.

The 750 inspectors will be drawn from offices across the entire U.S. border. They will remain inspectors in name but will assist in border patrol, effectively shifting work hours from ports of entry to detention work.

Nationwide, Customs and Border Protection has 23,000 officers working at 328 ports of entry, including at airports around the country. But the agency has had the most trouble recruiting officers to work at southern border, where crossings were understaffed before the current surge of migrant families, largely due to low recruitment and high rates of attrition.

In Arizona, the ports where most of the country's produce comes through have struggled with low staffing, drawing the ire of trade organizations that say it slows down commerce.

The reassignment of border inspectors follows the Border Patrol's unusual move to close all highway checkpoints in its El Paso sector, which stretches across 430 kilometres in Texas and New Mexico.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, centre, Honduran Security Minister Julian Pacheco, left, and Guatemalan Minister of Government Enrique Degenhart meet Wednesday in Tegucigalpa, Honduras to discuss migration and security in Central America. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. officials say the checkpoint closures are a temporary measure to handle the increase in families and unaccompanied children entering the country illegally.

The orange traffic cones used to divert traffic off Interstate 10 into the canopy-covered border checkpoint west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, now block the entrance, signalling to drivers that they don't have to stop.

The Border Patrol operates 34 permanent checkpoints along the entire Mexican border and another 103 "tactical" stops, often cones and signs that appear for brief periods, the Government Accountability Office said in a 2017 report.

While checkpoints account for only a sliver of Border Patrol arrests — two per cent from 2013 to 2016 — they also handled 43 per cent of drug busts during that time, according to the report.

With files from CBC News

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