DEMING, N.M. — Along a barren county fairground in this sleepy desert city sits a nondescript building that illustrates the depths of the nation's migrant crisis — and the heights to which small town America can rise.
Over the last several weeks, U.S. authorities, unable to house a surge of asylum-seekers at the border, have dropped off thousands of immigrants in this city, one of the poorest municipalities in one of the nation's poorest states.
The migrants, mostly Central American families, have arrived by the busloads to find a shelter that has become the focal point of tiny Deming.
The fire department has set up shop at the shelter's intake facility to help deal with crises. Volunteers show up in droves to lend a hand. And some churchgoers have even gone so far as to open up their homes to the migrants.
Dealing with a crush of new arrivals without federal assistance, this city of 14,000 is marshaling all of its resources to cope with the crushing weight placed on its shoulders, local officials say.
"It's been one of the best things I've done as a firefighter in all my career," said Deming Fire Department Chief Raul Mercado.
Deming is not the only city in America grappling with a weekly deluge of undocumented immigrants left at bus station depots and elsewhere by the federal government.
Since the number of immigrant families seeking asylum reached record highs earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security has begun busing or flying immigrants from areas on the border where they enter to other towns deemed able to accommodate the overflowing populations. For example, Del Rio, Texas, and San Diego have also begun taking in immigrants who arrive in the Rio Grande Valley.
Migrant families are housed at the Deming shelter until they can be bused or flown to an American sponsoring them while they await an asylum hearing, usually after no more than two days at the facility.
"The phrase we like to use is, it's an unfunded federal mandate that's been placed upon our state," said Cullen Combs, the emergency manager in nearby Dona Ana County, New Mexico.
"I have a lot of personal thoughts about it, but when I see a mother with a child who's having a seizure because they have a 103 temperature, that's going to hit you," Combs said. "And that's something that, we as Americans, we're just, we're going to have an outpouring of being able to help these folks."
Last week, a month after Deming first began receiving the migrants, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, sued the directors of DHS, ICE and Border Patrol for what she called the federal government's "indiscriminate practice of releasing migrants in communities in the state's borderland area."
Grisham is seeking reimbursement for the emergency funding New Mexico has given governments in Deming and Las Cruces, as well as an injunction forcing the Trump administration to abide by the Safe Release policy.
Under the Safe Release policy, which had been used since the Obama administration during surges in border crossings, asylum-seekers were processed by immigration officials and — if they passed an initial screening where they demonstrated "credible fear" of returning home — released to family, friends or nonprofits in the U.S. to await their asylum hearings. The Trump administration ended Safe Release last October, and earlier this year, amid record numbers of migrants seeking asylum, began simply releasing migrants in various cities like Deming.
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS division that manages the Border Patrol, said the releases are a "last resort" and only done when the number of immigrants apprehended in an area in a day exceeds the bed space in border stations and immigrant detention centers.
Roughly 24 hours after the first busload of immigrants was dropped off at a Deming McDonald's on Mother's Day, the town had turned an empty building on the county fairgrounds into a migrant shelter, filled wall to wall with green cots, and growing piles of donated diapers, toiletries, and clothing for the migrants who often arrive hungry and weeks from their last shower.
"We're really good at this," said Chris Brice, who runs the shelter and also serves as Deming's jail warden and assistant county manager.
The city is spending about $15,000 a day to accommodate the migrants, Brice said.
"We don't even discuss the politics of it here," Brice added. "It's what we do or they would be out there on the street trying to find their own way. And that's unacceptable to everybody."
The support has come from a wide variety of sources in Deming, from local churches and NGOs, to individual volunteers.
"I was asleep already on Mother's Day. And then a family came to the house, knocked on the door," recalled the Rev. Manuel Ibarra, the priest at St. Ann's Church in Deming. "It was a family from Guatemala, and they were asking for shelter."
Ibarra's church has housed 300 migrants since that first day in May. On average, the church takes in 85 people each week.
Since the influx began in mid-May, the shelter on the county fairgrounds has become the unofficial home of Deming's EMTs, firefighters, and police department.
Mercado and his team turned the dilapidated World War II airplane hangar that serves as the migrant processing facility into their new office. "The first day chief and I got called out to come out, we just came by ourselves thinking, 'Well, we can knock this out,'" Mercado said. "And we saw the amount of people and we were like, 'Holy s---' Then we called back and had everybody come out and help us."
"Make no mistake, it's labor intensive," said Fire Battalion Chief Edgar Davalos, "but the whole thing is we've still got to treat them like human beings, because that's what they are. They're here legally and they're human beings, and we're going to make them as comfortable until they finish their journey as we can."
The deluge of migrants prompted the international humanitarian group Save the Children to come to Deming and set up a "child-friendly space" at the city's migrant shelter. It's the only emergency humanitarian operation Save the Children has ever set up in the U.S. that wasn't in response to a natural disaster.
The group is also working with local law enforcement to spot and support children who've been trafficked or are facing trauma, leveraging their years of experience providing assistance in disaster situations.
"They've been away from their home. They've been in detention. They don't know where they're going," said Jennifer Garner, the actress and Save the Children board member who was touring the shelter on the day NBC News visited.
"They don't speak English. They've been ill. They've gone without baths, without food, without medical care, but they're here, happy to hear me butcher 'Goodnight Moon' because they're children."
The support Save the Children provides is multipronged, but entirely funded by private donation.
Project manager Barbara Ammirati said the organization provides a wide range of resources — including medical supplies, hygiene kits and plush toys — as well as information to help them cope with their changing environments.
"Information so that children aren't frightened," Ammirati said. "They've never been in a bus station before, they've never been in an airport before."
For Betsy, a mother of two from Honduras, the child-friendly space set up by Ammirati's team was a respite for her children, ages 2 and 7.
Betsy said she was fleeing an impossible situation at home. "Lately the narcotraffickers have taken over the country, and they want us to distribute drugs for them. We refused, so they killed my brother," she said. "I'm just asking for an opportunity for my children. I don't want them to be killed."
Betsy and 16 of her immediate family members began the journey from Honduras over two months ago, often struggling to find food and shelter along the way. Only Betsy, her husband and their children made it to the shelter in Deming. Betsy's 12-year-old sister and Betsy's mother, a diabetic, were separated and detained in El Paso after the family crossed the border into the U.S..
On the day NBC News spoke to Betsy, she was booked on an afternoon bus to Miami where her brother, her sponsor in the U.S., would give her a place to stay.
Just hours before her bus was scheduled to leave Deming, Betsy still hadn't been able to contact her mother in the El Paso detention center. Neither of the women had working phones or any way to get in touch.
In March, the number of border crossings by undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of them Central Americans seeking asylum, topped 100,000. Last month, more than 140,000 crossed, overwhelming CBP officers and agents whose job it is to process immigrants and either send them to immigrant detention or release them with a court date, according to government data.
Officials in Deming and neighboring towns have been told to expect a continued flow of immigrants for months to come.
"I've heard 18 to 24 months. But that's a joke, too, because everybody points to the election cycle as when this big fix is going to happen," Brice said.
In a statement, CBP spokesman Roger Maier said, "CBP has no timeline for the continued need to release family units because apprehension levels cannot be predicted."
"Releases in excess of NGO capacity will be conducted at local transportation hubs during operating hours and NGOs are advised to help facilitate travel to the families' intended destinations," Maier added, using an abbreviation for nongovernmental organization.
CBP has been cracking down on immigrants who falsely claim the child they bring across the border is theirs. Because a federal court settlement prohibits children from being detained for longer than 20 days, DHS says adults are motivated to travel with children because they, too, will be released.
According to a spokesman for the agency, 4,800 people, or 1.4 percent of those claiming to be part of a family, have been deemed fraudulent since October 2018. That figure includes children traveling with their parents who are later determined to be over 18, and those whose grandparents claim to be their parents.
Brice, the jail warden-turned-shelter operator, said the migrants arriving in Deming have included mothers who pulled off astounding feats in aid of their children.
"We had a mom who had a paraplegic daughter — 12-year-old daughter — who carried her literally with her arms," Brice said.
Brice said there have been few complaints from the community since the first week. "We can do this indefinitely, provided we have funding to do it indefinitely," he said.
But for Brice, who spent two decades in the Navy, Deming's lack of funds isn't the town's only problem. "Usually we have a mission," Brice said, referring to military-style operations.
"We go out there, you set things up, you get rid of the water. You do whatever, but there's an endgame in mind. This is the problem: We don't have an endgame in mind. This is indefinite."