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News Brief: Atlanta-Area Shootings, Border Crisis, Relief For Landlords

NOEL KING, HOST:

Police in Georgia are investigating multiple deadly shootings that took place in the Atlanta area last night.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Eight people were killed, many of them reportedly women of Asian descent. Authorities are still investigating a motive, but we will note that advocacy organizations have recently released data that shows that reports of hate crimes against Asians have surged nearly 150% in 2020.

KING: With us now is Alex Helmick, a reporter with WABE in Atlanta. Alex, I know you've had a very long night. Tell me, what do we know so far?

ALEX HELMICK, BYLINE: Well, police say four people were shot and killed north of Atlanta in Cherokee County at a place called Young's Asian Massage. Another person was shot and taken to the hospital there. Not long after that shooting, about 40 miles away in northeast Atlanta, shootings at two more spas killed another four people. The spas were across the street from each other. Police say many of the people who died appear to be Asian women.

KING: OK. Police have arrested one man. What do we know about him?

HELMICK: Twenty-one-year-old Robert Aaron Long, who's white, does not appear to have a criminal record. Police say he's from Woodstock, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta. He was arrested about 150 miles south of Atlanta in Crisp County, where he's being held. The sheriff there says state troopers arrested him after ramming his vehicle along the highway. And authorities say they have surveillance video of Long allegedly near the first parlor - that's the one in Cherokee County - around 5 o'clock yesterday evening when the shooting occurred. And Atlanta police say Long's vehicle was picked up on surveillance after that and have pieced together that Long's black SUV was in the area of the two Atlanta parlors. So officials say it's extremely likely this was the same suspect for all three shootings.

KING: Have the police said whether or not they believe this was racially motivated?

HELMICK: They have. And they say they're still investigating a motive. They have said, as we've mentioned, that most of the victims appear to be of Asian descent, but they haven't directly linked race to this shooting.

KING: OK. And, Alex, what do you know about what will happen next?

HELMICK: Well, officials say Cherokee County authorities are working with Atlanta police to further link the suspects in the shootings. And the FBI says it, too, is assisting both law enforcement agencies. And Long will likely be moved from south Georgia, presumably to either Cherokee County or Atlanta. And Atlanta police say they are planning a press conference for later this morning.

KING: And I imagine we will learn a bit more about some of the victims. WABE's Alex Helmick. Alex, thanks for your reporting. We appreciate it.

HELMICK: Thank you.

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KING: All right. President Biden said this to people who are trying to make their way through Mexico to the U.S. border.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I can say quite clearly, don't come over. What we're in the process of getting set up - and it's not going to take a whole long time - is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don't leave your town or city or community.

MARTINEZ: He was speaking in a recent interview with ABC News. The Biden administration is sending most adults and families who crossed the border back across to Mexico. Now, that is causing a humanitarian crisis there.

KING: Angela Kocherga has been covering this story. She's a reporter with member station KTEP in El Paso. Good morning, Angela.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So President Biden's message there was explicit. He is responding to real events, a surge in people coming to the border. These events tend to be cyclical. The people who are coming now, why are they coming?

KOCHERGA: Well, Noel, there are many reasons, but because it can be a long journey to get to the Mexico-U.S. border, many of these migrants tend to leave their homes - and they said they left their homes - months ago before the presidential election without knowing who won or who would have won. I spoke with Jose Hernandez who traveled from Honduras, and he's a father of two who left his family back home and is trying to send money to help support them as soon as he can enter the U.S. and find work. And he told me he had to leave Honduras because the situation is so bad there.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: And what he told me is necessity forced him to leave. The economy in his country is so terrible. There are no job opportunities, he said, and that Honduras is devastated by hurricanes that flooded nearly half of the country. And we should say he has already tried to cross into the U.S. once a few weeks ago, and he was sent back to Mexico, and he says he's going to try again.

KING: You have been covering the border region for many years. Is something different this time?

KOCHERGA: Well, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the surge of migrants is on pace to be the biggest in nearly two decades. And Customs and Border Protection say they've apprehended or expelled more than 100,000 people at the border with Mexico in February. Now, that's the highest monthly total since 2019. Many of those crossing have tried once and will try again. They're returned to Mexico. So at least 40%, according to CBP, are those that are going back and forth trying multiple times, driving up the total. The surge has come in a relatively short period of time, and that's putting a lot of pressure on local communities and authorities on the border.

And children traveling alone, they are not being sent back to Mexico. So more than 4,200 unaccompanied children are currently being held in the U.S. And according to CBP, more than 400 children are arriving at the border every day. Parents and families with children and people older than 18, adults, are being sent back to Mexico. And many who try to cross are from other countries, mostly Central America, so that's not their home country. Now, Border Patrol's processing center in El Paso that was built about a year ago to address another spike in migration during the Trump administration is already filled to capacity. It can hold about a thousand migrants. And Border Patrol is now expanding that facility into the parking lot here in El Paso to make room for more people.

KING: I want to ask you about something you said there. You said a lot of these people are from Central America. They are being sent to Mexico, which is not their country of origin. What is then happening to people once they arrive in Mexico?

KOCHERGA: Well, across the border in the city right here from El Paso, Juarez, Mexico, they've got their own surge to cope with, not only as more people arrive to try and enter the U.S., but they're also helping those who are returned to Mexico. They're providing humanitarian relief. And I went to Juarez and spoke with Enrique Valenzuela. He's the coordinator of that relief effort. And they're helping set up shelters and working with churches to help take in all the people who are prevented from entering the U.S. Here's what he had to say.

ENRIQUE VALENZUELA: We believe that at this point, we need to set up and build up more capacities. We need more shelters. And, of course, we need everything that comes with that and the health care and attention for children, of course.

KOCHERGA: So, Noel, it's not just here in Juarez. It's at many border cities all along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

KING: Angela Kocherga is with member station KTEP in El Paso.

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KING: All right. So the latest round of COVID relief passed by Congress has billions of dollars in rental assistance for people who are out of work and trying to avoid eviction.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Thing is, though, this could benefit landlords, too. Many have been struggling to keep their apartment buildings up and running, and some are helping residents try to get the new COVID relief money they're entitled to as quickly as they can.

KING: NPR's Chris Arnold has been following this story for months now. Chris, you've been talking to landlords, and what are they telling you?

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Noel. So, yes, I've been talking to them. I talked to some in Texas this week. And, you know, they say it's a big challenge just to keep the lights on and keep things running. You know, this is sort of a shocking number. Nearly 10 million Americans are still behind on their rent payments, according to the Census Bureau. So, I mean, that's just - I mean, that's scary in terms of the level of evictions we might be facing if we don't fix that. But that's also a lot of money that landlords are not getting. And I talked to Stephanie Graves who owns buildings around Houston.

STEPHANIE GRAVES: I have a small property in town. It's about 22 units, and eight residents have not been able to pay over six months on and off. We'll get a hundred dollars on a thousand-dollar rent.

ARNOLD: Now, Graves says she's not evicting anybody if they can pay a little bit of money when they can and they stay in communication with her, but that means that she's losing money and the rents that she's bringing in don't cover her mortgage and can't pay the staff.

GRAVES: Then we had the freeze in Houston, and the hot water heater gave out. And so that was a $22,000 investment we had to make with no income. And then I worry, how am I going to pay that loan if this goes on for much longer?

KING: What are she and other landlords doing to survive this?

ARNOLD: Well, at some properties, stuff's just not getting fixed. Like, she says if a security gate breaks, she doesn't have the $5,000 to fix it. The pools and the gyms are closed at some of her properties just because they don't have the money to pay for the extra cleaning and to have people say, hey, you know, don't stand so close together. And then you've got the folks who are paying rent who get mad and they're like, I'm paying for the pool, you know? And then so, like, they get mad at the, you know, grounds people or the maintenance. Anyway, so there's frustration all around. Graves and other landlords for all these reasons really want to get this money that was passed by Congress. It's upwards of $50 billion in the last two stimulus bills. So they're, like, out there knocking on doors. They're setting up computers in their offices and trying to help renters apply so that - the way it works is the renters apply and then the money flows to the landlords.

KING: And is that happening now? Are renters able to access that COVID relief money as we speak?

ARNOLD: Well, that's the thing. It's starting to happen now. Like, these portals are opening and then they're crashing and, you know, so people are able to apply, but it's going to take months for this money to flow through the states and reach many of the people who need it. Meanwhile, you know, there's a federal order aimed at preventing evictions - this is from the CDC - but that expires in two weeks. And housing groups are worried, look, that's not enough time if we allow evictions to start going ahead. So here's Peter Hepburn with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

PETER HEPBURN: What we're worried about is that if those protections are allowed to lapse, we could see, you know, a million eviction cases filed in very short order across the country.

ARNOLD: And, you know, this is happening during a pandemic and evictions spread COVID. There's been research about this. People double up and families move in together. And, you know, we're talking about 10 million people behind on their rent. That hurts people financially, too. So housing groups want to see that CDC order strengthened and extended. Basically, look, let's pause evictions a few more months and give people time to get this money.

KING: NPR's Chris Arnold. Chris, thanks so much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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