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Immigration Lawyers, Judges Deal With Extreme Burnout As Migration Crisis Continues


The number of migrants taken into custody at the southern border has dropped significantly. New numbers from the Department of Homeland Security out this week show a 28% fall in the number of apprehensions in June compared to May. A reporting team from NPR has been on the border this week in the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. And they've learned that one of the main reasons for this reduction is the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy. Now, under that policy, migrants are now waiting in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration court. Morning Edition host Noel King has been leading this coverage.

Hey there, Noel.


CORNISH: Now, I understand you have been looking at how this immigration crisis is affecting people on the border. So far, what have you found?

KING: Well, what I found is that this is a very hard situation for everyone involved and that it is taking a real psychological toll on people here. So, Audie, let me start with the migrants. These are people who crossed into the U.S. and then were sent to Mexico, even though they are not Mexican. So I traveled to Juarez to meet some of them. This is not a safe city. People told me they've been robbed. They've been chased. They've been threatened by cartel members, and a lot of them are living in conditions that are just appalling.

You know, I walked into a hotel in downtown Juarez. I'd been told that migrants were staying there. They were staying there. There were 20 people who were sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the basement. It was dark down there. It was hard to breathe. I talked to a 12-year-old boy. His name is Julio. And he told me, I left Honduras with my mom because a gang was trying to recruit me. I was really scared. Now, this is a kid, Audie. And he really believed that he was going to get asylum in the United States.

JULIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: So you can hear this kid just broke down. He said, "when we got to the United States, the border agents didn't even ask us anything about ourselves. They just sent us to Mexico, and I don't know what to do."

CORNISH: There are concerns, clearly, about the emotional health of a child in that situation. But I understand you saw that not just with migrants.

KING: No, I saw this with lawyers too. These are people who are working for nonprofits, so they're not doing this for money. This is their life. This is their calling. That's how a lot of them, you know, define it. The Remain in Mexico policy has really complicated things. So, Audie, imagine that you are a lawyer in El Paso. Your client is living in Mexico. This is a logistical nightmare. There is something like 9,000 migrants who have been sent to Juarez, and lawyers who represent them pro bono say that in total, they've been able to take on a few dozen cases. So this week, I talked to three attorneys - Melissa Lopez, Linda Rivas and Taylor Levy. Here they are.

MELISSA LOPEZ: I feel very much at this point like I'm on the brink of burnout. And, you know, I've been not sleeping for a little while now. And I can't see my heart giving up, but I could see my body saying enough is enough.

LINDA RIVAS: How much longer can we do this? And are we really making a difference?

TAYLOR LEVY: I'm definitely having trouble sleeping. I mean, it's incredibly difficult. It's - sometimes, it just feels absolutely unbearable. It feels like we can never do enough. We're trying to do just this little amount that we can, but the need is staggering.

CORNISH: Noel, given the backlog of immigration cases, is this affecting judges as well?

KING: Oh, my God. Yes, 900,000 cases in that backlog. Judges are incredibly stressed. I went to immigration court yesterday to put this in perspective. And a single judge was considering 80 cases. That took him half the day. I talked to Ashley Tabaddor. She's the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. And I asked her, what are your colleagues telling you?

ASHLEY TABADDOR: Our judges are absolutely burned out. They call and reach out to us on a regular basis, and they are just burned out. Our judges are doing the best they can, but we are really facing unprecedented times.

KING: And just lastly, Audie, Border Patrol agents down here say the same thing - burnout, burnout, burnout.

CORNISH: That's Noel King reporting from El Paso, Texas. Thanks so much.

KING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.