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A record number of asylum-seekers are cycling through a small California border town

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's being called a humanitarian disaster, and it's happening in Southern California on the U.S.-Mexico border. A record number of asylum-seekers are showing up in a small town called Jacumba. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: On a chilly autumn morning, I'm driving through the Jacumba desert with Jacqueline Arellano. She's with Border Kindness, a humanitarian aid group. Suddenly, our drive is interrupted by two young men on the side of the road asking for help.

JACQUELINE ARELLANO: Hey, are you OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. We are OK. We just waiting.

GARSD: They're from Turkey. They just crossed the border with about 18 other people. They're exhausted. And then they ask for something I've never heard as an immigration reporter - please call Border Patrol.

ARELLANO: You want us to call...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, if you can call it. I think if they come, it's much better.

GARSD: Almost as soon as they say it, Border Patrol rolls up and takes them. As strange as it sounds, this is what they want. They've been told that if they cross and turn themselves over to Border Patrol, they're taking the first step towards getting a visa or asylum. So every day for the last few months, coyotes guide more than 300 migrants to a large gap in the border wall. And when they cross it, they find themselves in the outskirts of the tiny town of Jacumba - population around 600.

They end up at camps like this one, an open field near the highway where Border Patrol has told them to wait. About 150 adults and children huddle together for warmth. There is no shelter of any kind from the gusty wind or desert cold. A Kurdish man, Ramazan Bicer tells me he crossed early this morning. He talks about government persecution and poverty in Turkey, where he's from.

RAMAZAN BICER: My plan is just get my green card and stay here all of my life. We don't have any choice - another choice. Yeah, we don't have another choice.

GARSD: Most people in this camp this morning are Kurdish. A woman from Honduras says she left home because she received threats for being gay. She breaks down crying. She hasn't spoken to her family since she left a month ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "I won't tell them I made it," she says, "until I'm out of here."

It's a dystopian scene, one where one might expect to see the Red Cross, the National Guard, Doctors Without Borders. NPR reached out to Customs and Border Protection multiple times for an explanation, but received no response. But migrants and volunteers told NPR, every day, Border Patrol finds hundreds of people who have made their way through the gap, drops them off at these camps and tells them to stay put. They're told if they leave, they'll get deported. But the agency itself does not seem to acknowledge these camps as official, and there is barely any oversight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

GARSD: The only people coming to help are locals and volunteers. They're handing out baby formula, first aid, water and food when a Border Patrol truck shows up. The agent tells families with children to line up.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL AGENT: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: The families are taken away in a van. If they are like everyone else we spoke to, they think this is the first step towards getting legal status in the U.S. Here's what immigration lawyers told NPR is likely to happen. These people will be processed. Everyone here will be placed in removal proceedings. And because they crossed without permission, their chances of getting asylum are lower than had they come in through an official port of entry. There is confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Are you asking because of baby or - they don't - they are family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You can go. You can go if you want.

GARSD: In a few hours, another couple hundred migrants from somewhere else in the world will arrive in Jacumba. It's like a revolving door in the middle of the California desert. An older man wearing a baseball cap watches the whole thing. His name is Jerry Schuster.

JERRY SCHUSTER: They'll be here for three days, destroying my property, and they'll be gone. And I have to live with their destruction right here.

GARSD: Schuster is also an immigrant - from Yugoslavia. He bought this land some 40 years ago. Then a few months ago, he woke up to find it being used without his permission as a migrant camp by people who are hungry, thirsty, sometimes wounded. There is a disgusting port-a-potty. Those who stay overnight cut down trees for bonfires. Sometimes people come knocking on his door. Once, he says, he replied with gunshots.

SCHUSTER: They start coming there, and I got my gun and I shoot in air four times.

GARSD: Schuster says he's spoken many times to Border Patrol, the police, the fire department. He keeps getting told they can't help him. He says he's heartbroken. This ranch was his American dream.

SCHUSTER: Our government is just leaving us behind. American dream is gone. It's not here no more. That just the dream. That's always left - just the dreams.

GARSD: This sense of anxiety and dread is shared by many here in Jacumba, even those who are going down as often as they can to offer humanitarian assistance. Winter is approaching. They're worried that people will start dying.

KAREN PARKER: Scabies, parasites, necrotic scorpion bites.

GARSD: Karen Parker has lived in this area her whole life. She's a retired social worker with first aid training. She goes down to the camps as often as she can.

Seizures...

PARKER: Seizures.

GARSD: Diabetic emergencies.

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

GARSD: She says the children really get to her.

PARKER: They have every reason in the world to seek asylum on American soil. You know, my grandmother came from Ireland when she was 12 years old - by herself. And if she hadn't done that, my grandchildren wouldn't exist in America.

GARSD: But she's also angry that civilians like herself have been left to handle this alone with no help from the government.

PARKER: What the [expletive] with them? I don't know what else to say. I mean, they're not taking any kind of responsibility or accountability. They need to let people through the port of entry. They need to secure our border. I am for a secure border.

GARSD: When Karen and other volunteers step up to help at the camps, they sometimes get yelled at by other Jacumba residents. We meet one of those neighbors as volunteers load up on food and first aid supplies for the camps to use at night. A woman in a pickup truck rolls up and starts shouting. That food over there - is it for Americans? - she asks, or do you only help immigrants?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Nobody's doing nothing about it.

GARSD: She doesn't give her name. She says it's a small town and she could lose her job. The volunteers ignore her and drive to the camps. By nightfall, the temperature there has plummeted. An entirely new group of migrants has arrived - about 60 people. This time, they're mostly Chinese. Huddling for warmth, they talk about what they're fleeing from - repressive governments, cartel violence, poverty. They seem unaware that just a few hours ago, another hundred or so people from other parts of the world sat right here and had the same exact conversation. They think they are doing it the legal way, but in a few hours, they will be signed up for removal proceedings. It feels eerily cyclical. In the middle of the Southern California desert, the door keeps revolving.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Jacumba. 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.