EL PASO, Texas — On Wednesday, Border Patrol agents near downtown El Paso encountered a group of 1,036 migrants who had entered the country illegally — the biggest cluster the agency has ever seen. At one point in May, a holding cell designed for 35 migrants was crammed with 155. Six children have died in U.S. custody since September, three in the past month.
U.S. authorities are overstretched and overwhelmed by an unprecedented surge of Central American families arriving at the southern border. It is against that backdrop that President Donald Trump threatened this week to slap tariffs on goods from Mexico unless it cracks down on the flow of migrants.
"It is certainly a crisis at this point, and it does not lend itself to quick fixes," said Doris Meissner, who headed the former Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration and is now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
Border Patrol arrests have jumped sharply over the last year but are still well below historic highs of the early 2000s. What's different is the type of people crossing: Able-bodied Mexican men have been replaced by Central American families with children, many of them impelled to make the journey because of grinding poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Juan Carlos Santos, 34, walked past the end of a bollard-style fence in New Mexico with his 9-year-old son, Yair, and was picked up by Border Patrol agents. On Friday, he was at the El Paso Greyhound station, bound for Washington, where he has a cousin who lent him money to pay a smuggler.
Santos said he wanted to stay in Honduras but gave up after a year of unemployment. The farmworker hopes to bring his wife and 2-year-old daughter after paying his debt to his cousin.
"There's no work," said Santos, who blamed drought and other factors for a decline in the corn and coffee fields he used to harvest. "Unemployment gets to you."
The surge has shown U.S. authorities to be woefully unprepared.
The Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog reported Friday that during unannounced visits to El Paso in early May, it found a 125-person capacity holding facility had 700 people one day and 900 another day. They were packed in so tightly that some resorted to standing on toilets.
Agents told investigators that some migrants were being held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks.
"We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represents an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers. Border Patrol management on site said there is a high incidence of illness among their staff," the report said.
Along the nearly 2,000-mile Mexican border, there were 98,777 arrests in April, nearly 7 out of 10 of them people who came as families or children traveling alone. Arrests are up from 38,243 a year earlier, when about 1 in 3 were members of families or unaccompanied children.
El Paso offers the starkest illustration of the shifting landscape. Arrests there are up nearly 1,000% from a year earlier, and nearly 9 out of 10 are families or unaccompanied children.
Migrants are increasingly coming in large groups. The Border Patrol said it has encountered more than 180 groups of over 100 people since October, compared with 13 in the previous 12-month period and two the year before.
Meissner said the Trump administration's tariff ultimatum is the latest in a series of dialed-up threats after several failures, including the practice of separating families at the border.
"These shock-and-awe measures that this administration keeps trying to put into place every several months each time is making it worse," she said.
Meissner said people in Central America who are thinking of journeying to the U.S. are being told by smugglers and family members in this country: "You better come now. You never know what's coming next."