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Trump Hopes U.S.-Mexico Deal Will Stem The Flow Of Asylum-Seekers


We have reported before about how the surge of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. has put a strain on federal resources. This morning, we look at how this is affecting checkpoints inland, miles away from the border, where agents say they're fighting to stay ahead of human and drug smugglers. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this story from the largest and busiest checkpoint in the southwest.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: If you head north on Texas Highway 281, an hour's drive north of the U.S.-Mexico border crossing, you're stopped at the new and expanded Falfurrias checkpoint. 281 is the central artery out of the Rio Grande Valley. Veteran Border Patrol agent Tom Slowinski says this rural road remains a main route for traffickers shepherding people or drugs north.

THOMAS SLOWINSKI: They're making a run at us every day. No other checkpoint anywhere on the southwest border catches more alien smuggling cases than this checkpoint right here.

WESTERVELT: This post is one of 34 permanent inland checkpoints across the southern border. Here, every truck or car is met by an armed, green-shirted agent who asks...

SLOWINSKI: What's your citizenship? You know, tell me where you were born.

WESTERVELT: This new checkpoint has more drug-detecting sniffer dogs and new, state-of-the-art technology to detect contraband or people. Falfurrias is the first interior checkpoint to deploy a new drive-through, vehicle-screening system called a Z Portal.

SLOWINSKI: Combination of drive-through X-ray and radiation detection - here at this checkpoint, it's set up - high capacity, high volume, high capability.

WESTERVELT: Slowinski, the patrol agent in charge here, has spent 34 years with the Border Patrol. He's seen it all - migrants crammed into trunks, the hollowed-out car batteries and dolls and other novel hiding spots for drugs. But he's not sure he's seen this much strain on manpower and resources. In March, Customs and Border Protection temporarily closed six interior checkpoints to move more agents to the border. They remain shuttered today. Slowinski says Falfurrias has also had to give up personnel to help out at migrant intake and processing stations to the south.

SLOWINSKI: It's a constant reevaluation of the chess pieces. All the stations are impacted. It's a lot more people to process. It's a lot more people to take care of in custody. It's just a lot more work to handle the volume and the tempo when your holding cells are constantly full.

WESTERVELT: Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents on the border say they, too, have felt an indirect impact from the shifting of resources south.

WILL GLASPY: Seizures of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl have increased.

WESTERVELT: That's Will Glaspy, the DEA special agent in charge of a giant slice of South Texas, including most of the state's border with Mexico. He says the increase in hard drugs couldn't come at a worse time, as these inland checkpoints are now a little more vulnerable.

GLASPY: Any time you don't have those there as a secondary line of defense - a linebacker, if you will - some illegal contraband is going to make it into the United States that these checkpoints would pick up.

WESTERVELT: Glaspy also says there is evidence, anecdotal as it is, that Mexican drug cartels are taking advantage of the influx of migrants. While border agents are busier than ever processing people, the cartels, he says, are seizing an opening to send more meth, heroin and fentanyl north through established ports of entry.

GLASPY: It's kind of hard to quantify a negative. But on many occasions, all they're simply doing is divert the attention of the Border Patrol agents, and then run narcotics in an area behind the agents.

WESTERVELT: President Trump has long pressed for extra money for border protection and a giant border wall - a campaign promise - to stop migrants and drug smugglers. But DEA and border agents we talked with say these inland checkpoints and border ports are what need more funding not necessarily a wall.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Falfurrias, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.