It was well before 9 a.m., but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement waiting room was already packed. Women held babies with one arm while filling out forms with the other. Men in dirt-caked boots rifled through dog-eared documents. Outside, in a crowded hallway on a Wednesday in April, children played underneath an “Enforcement & Removal Operations” sign.

By Michael E. Miller

At the far end of the hallway, Haydee Reyes fidgeted nervously. Two weeks earlier, her sister and 10-year-old niece had crossed the Rio Grande and asked for asylum. Now, after being released and bused to Northern Virginia, it was time for their first ICE check-in.

Reyes, a legal resident of the United States, wasn’t sure what would happen. But as she waited in the whitewashed basement in Fairfax, she witnessed a disturbing reminder of one possible outcome.

Click. Click. Click.

It was the sound of handcuffs locking into place.

As children suddenly stopped playing and the hallway grew quiet, Reyes watched as an ICE agent arrested a slender young man in a black sweater, putting him on the path to deportation. When the man’s wife began arguing with the agent, she, too, was cuffed and led away.

Over the past year, amid fierce debates over family separation, migrant caravans and billions of dollars for a border wall, the nation’s attention has been fixed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yet every day, the futures of thousands of undocumented people are decided far from that frontier, in drab suburban office complexes like this one — part of the vast and often overwhelmed system designed to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

The surge in the number of people seeking asylum, despite the Trump administration aggressive attempts to reduce immigration, has only burdened that system further.

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