SAN BENITO, Texas — On their first night in the United States, Fausta Vasquez and her two young children slept outside on concrete, covered by Mylar blankets and flanked by the bodies of other sleeping migrants, as U.S. Border Patrol agents watched them from nearby.
After crossing the Rio Grande the night before in a rickety launch, Vasquez and her two children, Cesar Garcia, 11, and Genesis Garcia, 2, had been intercepted by U.S. Border Patrol agents and driven to a makeshift staging area under an overpass with dozens of other migrants.
Vasquez wasn’t sure she’d be allowed into the United States after her family’s 1,300-mile journey from her home in Gracias, Honduras, to the U.S.-Mexico border near Matamoros. She had heard they were letting in families with small children but Cesar was a little older.
Two days later, the family was sitting at outdoor picnic tables at La Posada Providencia migrant shelter in this border town with airline reservations to Sioux Falls, Iowa, to reunite with her husband.
“We had our doubts. Our son was older, maybe they wouldn’t let us pass,” said Vasquez, 30, who was released from federal custody until her court hearing. “But we had faith that God was with us. And everything turned out OK.”
A steady rise in the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border continues to challenge federal agents, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, which is seeing the lion’s share of the arrivals. Thousands of migrant families, unaccompanied minors and single adults have been showing up, overwhelming U.S. Border Patrol stations and prompting federal officials to open a slew of new facilities to accommodate the minors.
While much of the recent attention has focused on the children and the Biden administration’s efforts to temporarily house them, migrant families — women and men with young children — are also being released into the United States at rates that threaten to overwhelm services in border towns. Border agents are still returning many migrants — including families — to Mexico under a federal rule aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19. But many others are being processed in.
Church groups and local governments in the Rio Grande Valley have been coordinating efforts through weekly Zoom calls and providing key services — such as COVID-19 testing — as the families are apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol and quickly released into towns en route to their final U.S. destinations to await court hearings.
Federal agents were dropping off 200 families a day at the downtown McAllen bus station since February, said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. That number jumped to 750 on Monday and 600 on Tuesday, he said.
If they continue climbing, the numbers are on pace to reach or overtake the 1,200 a day that were being dropped off in McAllen in the summer of 2019 — one of the busiest years in decades for apprehensions, Darling said.
“It’s a little scary,” he said. “We don’t know what the solution is going to be. We just started with a new administration and I don’t think they know either.”
Migrants arrive fleeing violence, hurricane damage
The Biden administration has said it plans to implement a “humane, orderly and lawful” immigration system, as it rolls back what it labeled as harsher border policies of former President Donald Trump, including taking in unaccompanied minors, allowing some families with young children to enter the United States and dismantling the “Migrant Protection Protocols” program, which forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their court hearing.
Migrants said they are fleeing deteriorating conditions in Central America brought on by two hurricanes last year, ongoing gang violence and government corruption. Critics of the Biden administration also point to recent reversals in immigration policies as a draw for migrants and smugglers.
At his first press conference as president, Biden defended his policies Thursday and argued that conditions in people’s home countries are driving them to the U.S. border.
“It’s because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence,” he said. “It’s because of a whole range of things.”
In a press call with reporters Thursday, a Biden administration official said a Mexican law enacted last year that bars Mexico from detaining migrant children, even those traveling with adult relatives, is drawing families to the northern state of Tamaulipas, just on the other side of the Rio Grande Valley, in hopes of relocating to the United States. As Mexico declines to take the minors, more families with children are being released into the United States until their court hearing, especially in the area around McAllen, according to the official.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not say why U.S. officials expel some families to Mexico while others are released into the United States.
“We’ve been working around the clock to build a more orderly and humane system,” the official said.
‘We’re respectable people’
In February, federal agents encountered 100,441 migrants at the Southwest border — nearly three times the total of February 2020, according to statistics by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol.
On a recent day at the border near McAllen, Border Patrol agents in white and green SUVs rumbled down back roads, along with members of local police departments and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, as helicopters hovered overhead. White school buses traveled over levees to staging areas to transport intercepted migrants to holding stations.
Some groups of mud-splattered men, women and children, as large as 80 or 100, simply found the nearest uniformed officer and turned themselves in. Others tried to dart past the patrols through thickets of underbrush and trees.
Border agents are used to seeing both tactics, said Chris Cabrera, a McAllen-based agent and vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the department’s union. But rarely do these two tactics — surrender and evasion — happen so often and simultaneously by such relentlessly high numbers of migrants, he said.
Meanwhile, many agents are tied up processing migrants at Border Patrol facilities. One day last week, Cabrera’s station held 1,100 migrants, he said. A few days later, it saw 1,500. To deal with the overflow, agents hold some migrants at nearby baseball fields until the shelters clear out. Others are kept overnight under overpasses.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Cabrera said. “And it seems to be getting worse daily.”
Migrants who make it across the border but are returned to Mexico under the federal health rule retreat to migrant shelters in Mexico. On a recent day, the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa had 180 occupants, including 55 children, all of them arriving with relatives.
In the shelter’s large open courtyard, a group of children, aged around 4 to 14, called out names in Spanish as a volunteer pointed to countries on a map taped to a wall. Women checked their smartphones for updates on border news or hung clothes on drying lines.
Many arrived recently, buoyed by the prospect that Biden’s rule changes could pave their way to asylum in the United States.
Maria Cárdenas, 38, came from Maracaibo, Venezuela, with her husband and three children, ages 3 to 16, in January. After presenting themselves at the bridge in Reynosa, they were turned away and have been living at the Senda de Vida shelter ever since. They sleep in two camping tents and spend their days texting relatives or chatting with other migrants.
Cárdenas said she had heard of other families who crossed the Rio Grande into the United States and were later released but said they prefer to wait their turn. There is no alternative, she said.
“They need to understand we’re fleeing a criminal regime and we’re seeking opportunity,” Cárdenas said. “We’re respectable people.”
Migrants must undergo COVID-19 testing
Across the river in McAllen, Darling, the city’s mayor, said a top concern for him was testing released families for COVID-19. That task has fallen to Catholic Charities, which contracted health workers to do the screenings under a cluster of temporary tents across the street from the downtown bus station.
Each morning, Border Patrol buses pull up and dislodge groups of migrant families, who go straight into the tents. There, they’re screened for signs of the virus and given a rapid-antigen test. If negative, they’re escorted to the cavernous Catholic Charities respite center two blocks away, where migrants can shower, call family members and coordinate their trips.
For those who test positive, their entire family is quarantined in nearby hotel rooms until their symptoms vanish and they return a negative test result, Darling said. Currently, there are about 50 migrants quarantining in hotel rooms in McAllen, he said. Darling said he’s been urging Border Patrol leaders to test the migrants at their stations before dropping them off downtown.
“One thing we’re concerned about is contamination,” he said. “We wish they could be tested at the river.”
Migrants arriving at the La Posada shelter in San Benito were mostly released from the Brownsville area and are supposed to have been tested for COVID-19.
On a recent morning just past dawn, Jorge Camarillo fast-walked from one migrant family to another at the shelter, handing out flight information, advising on pro bono lawyers and answering questions about airport security and court dates.
He was on the clock.
Those migrants — newly-arrived families from Honduras — were recently released by U.S. Border Patrol after crossing into the U.S. and were on their way to new lives in New York and Iowa. In a few hours, a new batch of migrants would arrive and Camarillo and other workers at La Posada needed to make sure one group of migrants were out before the other appeared.
The 30-bed shelter, about 20 miles northwest of Brownsville, can only take so many migrants at a time. And demand lately has been soaring. Last year, staffers at the shelter welcomed about 10 migrants a month, as the pandemic effectively shut down the border. Since February, they’ve seen 20 to 30 a day.
“It’s been non-stop,” said Camarillo, a caseworker at the shelter. “And mostly families.”
Migrants often need medical help
The migrants get showers, food and a bundle of donated clothes and are screened for mental or medical concerns. Kids climbed on a shaded playground or shot basketballs on a court, while caseworkers interviewed parents: Did they need medical attention? Mental health counseling? Do they know where they’re going in the United States?
Around 90% of clients say they need some form of medical or mental help, Camarillo said.
“When clients come here, they’re still in survival mode: Where can I get food to eat? How do I keep my children safe?” he said. “Once they get to La Posada, all the real emotions pour out.”
Leonela Hercules, 31, left her hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in October 2019 with her 10-year-old daughter, Rosa, hoping to seek asylum in the United States. She crossed the U.S.-Mexico border but was returned to Mexico under the Trump-era policy where migrants had to await their court hearings in Mexico.
Her final court appearance was scheduled for March 2020 but the pandemic shut down the border, delaying her case indefinitely. Last week, she got the call she had often prayed for: She was being allowed into the United States to await her court hearing.
“We didn’t have a lot of hope,” said Hercules recently at La Posada, as she packed for the flight that would take her to New York to be with relatives. “We had faith in God above all else. And thanks to President Biden, we now have the opportunity to argue our case here in the United States.”
Across the shelter’s open grounds, Vasquez readied her paperwork and belongings for her flight later that day to Sioux Falls. She said she lost her home and most of her belongings to hurricanes Eta and Iota last year.
Then, extortion and violent threats by men who learned her husband was working in the United States prompted her to flee Honduras earlier this month. The journey was difficult, she said.
As Genesis squealed happily nearby and pushed herself down a slide, Vasquez wiped away tears as she remembered how scared she was that her children would be hurt in her home country or during the nighttime boat trip across the Rio Grande that ferried her into the United States.
“Thank God, I’m very happy,” she said. “I know that being here, that nothing’s going to happen to my children, or to me either.”
Camarillo said Vasquez’s reaction was typical — relief mingled with raw emotions. But there was no time to dwell on it. Sheets needed to be washed, rooms disinfected and care packages readied. In a few hours, more migrants would arrive.
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Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.