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A dip in unauthorized border crossings has left a California migrant encampment empty

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NPR aired an investigation last month of unofficial migrant detention camps in the small California border community of Jacumba. We found hundreds of migrants being placed in dire conditions every day and local townspeople feeling overwhelmed. A woman named Karen Parker goes down to the camps almost every day to provide first aid, and she told our reporter that she treats all kinds of injuries.

KAREN PARKER: Seizures.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Diabetic emergencies.

PARKER: Yes - broken bones, burns, lots of burns.

SHAPIRO: Well, NPR immigration reporter Jasmine Garsd recently returned to these camps for an update and found a very different situation there.

GARSD: I went back before dawn, and it looked the same but with far fewer people. And it was a lot colder than the last time I visited. In one of the camps, amidst piles of trash, there were a couple dozen families, several with small children, huddled around crackling makeshift bonfires. Kurdish people, Mexican, Bangladeshi, Colombians, Dominicans - they all told me they had crossed the border a few hours earlier and were waiting to be taken by Border Patrol for processing.

ELI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Trying to warm up by a fire, a woman named Eli told me her own son was killed by the cartel back in Zacatecas, Mexico, where she's from. And she fled with six family members. They were terrified. She asked that we withhold her last name.

ELI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She said, "We just want to stay together and stay alive." It was a distressing scene, but it was very different than what I saw before in Jacumba back in December, when people were being told to stay indefinitely in these camps. But this time, Border Patrol arrived at sunrise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 914...

GARSD: The agent instructed everyone to put out their bonfires.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Turn the fires off, and then we're going to get going. Fire - turn it off.

GARSD: And a bus took everyone for processing. Once they left, the camp was deserted - just trash, empty makeshift tents and some smoldering fires. Locals told me the number of people crossing and being ushered into these camps has gone down in recent weeks.

SAM SCHULTZ: Up until a week ago, we were having people dropped off at the camps all during the day and night. At this point, they're all sneaking in before dawn, it seems like. But their numbers are just 10% of what they were before.

GARSD: That's Sam Schultz, a local volunteer. And what he's describing has happened along the border, a spike in unauthorized crossings in December and, a source told NPR, a dip in January.

SHAPIRO: That's reporting from NPR's Jasmine Garsd, who's on the line with us now. Hi, Jasmine.

GARSD: Hi.

SHAPIRO: You've also been following negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico. They've been going on since about Christmastime. Do you think the decline that you saw in Jacumba is a result of those talks?

GARSD: Well, nothing official has been announced. In fact, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has publicly criticized U.S. immigration policy. He has said that only addressing the root causes of migration - poverty, violence - will work. But NPR has been told that the Mexican National Guard is ramping up its enforcement. So suddenly, you can see the Mexican National Guard on the other side of the border fence in Jacumba. It's hardly the first time that Mexico increases enforcement following pressure from the U.S. It was a strategy during the Trump and Obama administration.

SHAPIRO: And how does it work?

GARSD: Well, let me take you to a different part of the California border.

The day after visiting the camps, I headed west to Otay, a 3,500-foot mountain which separates Mexico from San Diego. We tagged along with a group called the Borderlands Relief Collective, a humanitarian group that leaves water and first aid for migrants. This is a really different terrain than Jacumba.

JOSEPH HAUSER: It is an arduous, dangerous trek. Where we're going to go is a path typically taken by people who are not looking to be found.

GARSD: That's volunteer Joseph Hauser. He told me he's been doing this for a year now.

HAUSER: I've only really started running into people when we come out here in the last, like, month, month and a half.

GARSD: So we started driving up the mountains, and we barely made it a few miles when we were intercepted by two women and a toddler from Nigeria and Guinea. They told us they had been hiking for the last five hours.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What part of the border are you looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: San Diego.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah. You're in San Diego. Is there any water in the back of that car?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah. I have a big bottle.

GARSD: The 3-year-old was quiet. It was freezing out there. And the aid workers worried she might be in danger of hypothermia.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mama. Mama. Mama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I mean, how big are your blister patches?

GARSD: As aid workers wrapped her in an emergency thermal blanket and gave her fluids, another family came down the mountain. They were from Ecuador and had a 6-year-old. They crossed overnight.

EDWIN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: The father, Edwin, kept saying he was scared. "If I get caught, who will take care of them?" He asked that we not use their last name because they were crossing without papers. Now, Edwin told me the journey up north through Mexico was filled with National Guard enforcing immigration. He said they just wanted bribes. I asked Edwin if anyone warned him about how hard this area, Otay, is to cross. And he said yes, but...

EDWIN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "We kept hearing about how hard the border is getting. You could get deported - too many people. So we did this instead and turned ourselves over to the will of God."

SHAPIRO: Reporting there from NPR's Jasmine Garsd. And, Jasmine, how do these scenes that you have brought us from the border reflect on the larger shift that we're seeing in immigration enforcement right now?

GARSD: Well, Ari, after traveling throughout Mexico and the border for the last month or so, I can say the situation is changing quickly. And it's definitely getting a lot harder for people trying to come to the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Jasmine Garsd, thanks a lot.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.