A rising number of asylum-seekers from Central America are crossing the Texas border with Mexico, overflowing refugee centers and filling up federal processing facilities.
The number of family units – usually mothers or fathers with small children – apprehended in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley sector jumped from 49,896 in fiscal year 2017 to 63,278 in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30. That’s a 27 percent increase, according to recently released agency statistics.
Those numbers are in line with an overall rise in family unit apprehensions across the Southwest border, which increased from 41,435 in fiscal year 2017 to 50,036 this past fiscal year, a 21 percent rise. The Rio Grande Valley Sector, which covers 320 border miles and runs from Rio Grande City to Brownsville and up the coast to Corpus Christi, was far and away the biggest contributor to that total.
The wave of migrants – coming primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – arrive in large groups, sometimes 70 or 100 at a time, and are jamming federal facilities where they’re held while their asylum requests are processed.
“These numbers are not sustainable,” sector chief Manuel Padilla tweeted in October.
The surge of immigrant families comes at a time when the border and immigration are taking central roles in the political rama leading up to next week’s midterm election.
President Donald Trump has recently and repeatedly railed against a caravan made up of an estimated 4,000 Central American migrants making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum from poverty and violence in their countries. He’s alleged that criminal elements and “unknown Middle Easterners” may be in that group.
On Wednesday, Trump said he is prepared to deploy as many as 15,000 military troops to the U.S. southern border in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival.
Rochelle Garza, a Brownsville immigration attorney who represents migrants, said the debate and increased scrutiny on the border are making it harder for residents on each side of the border to cross over, disrupting communities that have lived in close harmony for generations.
“This is not political fodder – it’s real life,” Garza said. “It’s frustrating. All these folks in (Washington) make these decisions that affect us. It’s our community being torn apart.”
Many of those along the border around McAllen scoffed at the idea of sending thousands of U.S. troops to meet a caravan of travel-weary refugees who intend to immediately turn themselves into authorities when and if they reach U.S. soil.
The majority of asylum-seekers from Central America surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents in order to begin their asylum process – making them ill-advised company for criminals, said Jennifer Harbury, a civil rights attorney who works with the migrants.
“Why on Earth would they do that?” she said of the likelihood that criminals are using migrants to enter the U.S. “It’s the same as turning yourself in.”
Asked about the need for troops to combat the refugees, she added, “It’s fairy-tale stuff.”
In Reynosa, just over the Rio Grande from McAllen, Hector Silva runs the Senda de Vida migrant shelter. He said he’s felt the recent increase in migrants showing up there, mostly women and children. Some are asylum-seekers who have been deported from the U.S. and are trying to return, others made their first long trek from Central America, he said.
Many try to enter through official ports of entry at the international bridges but are being turned away by U.S. and Mexican immigration officials. They return to the shelter several days or weeks later, Silva said.
“They find different methods to cross,” he said. “If they can’t cross over the bridge, they’ll find other ways. We’ve seen a lot of desperate people.”
Sister Normal Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and director of the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, chats with a recently arrived aslyum-seeker.
Trump and other administration officials have said asylum-seekers should legally present themselves at official ports of entry rather than cross illegally over the Rio Grande. But in places like Reynosa, that has become a near-impossible feat, said Harbury, the civil rights lawyer.
Refugees seeking asylum, even if they have official transit visas to be in Mexico, are being routinely turned away at ports of entry, she said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stop the asylum-seekers a few hundred yards from the U.S. processing area and turn them over to Mexican immigration agents, who force them back into Mexico or threaten them off the bridge, Harbury said.
This forces the refugees to take the risky step of paying criminal gangs to ferry them across the river into the U.S., she said. On Tuesday, two Customs and Border Protection officers checked IDs at a checkpoint on the Mexican side of the McAllen/Hidalgo international bridge, about 200 yards from the U.S. entry point.
“Basically, no one can get across in Reynosa anymore, whether they have papers or not,” Harbury said. “It’s crazy.”
In a statement, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said CBP officers routinely check IDs to ensure asylum-seekers have “valid entry documents” and to manage space if processing areas at the port are reaching capacity.
“CBP processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency’s overall mission or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody,” the statement said.
Still, stricter U.S. policies and the specter of handing their lives over to criminal g
angs are not slowing the flow of refugees. The Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen offers asylum-seekers a place to shower, eat a hot meal and connect with family members in the U.S. after they’ve been processed and released by CBP.
Usually, the center sees between 80 and 120 refugees a day. Last week, it averaged 500 refugees a day, forcing organizers to bus some of them to a Catholic basilica in nearby San Juan, Texas.
Sixto Gutierrez, 43, awaits outside the Catholic Charaties Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. It took Gutierrez and his 17-year-old son, Cristopher, 16 days to travel from their home country of Nicaragua to the Texas-Mexico border. The pair fled Nicaragua after paramilitary troops threatened to kidnap and kill Cristopher, a student involved in government protests, Gutierrez said.
Sixto Gutierrez, 43, awaits outside the Catholic Charaties Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. It took Gutierrez and his 17-year-old son, Cristopher, 16 days to travel from their home country of Nicaragua to the Texas-Mexico border. The pair fled Nicaragua after paramilitary troops threatened to kidnap and kill Cristopher, a student involved in government protests, Gutierrez said. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
Dilmer Godoy, 27, said he spent the past month traveling to the U.S. from his hometown in the Olancho region of Honduras, with his 3-year-old son, Arlin.
The pair hitched rides on trucks, rode a train and slept in fields to reach the U.S.-Mexico border at Reynosa. He fled Honduras because he couldn’t afford payoffs to a criminal gang that threatened him and his family, he said.
Godoy said he initially wanted to enter the U.S. through a port of entry. But when two of his friends presented themselves at the bridge and were deported to Honduras, he instead paid a group $500 to ferry himself and Arlin across the Rio Grande.
It’s wrong to think the caravan and other migrant groups are bringing criminal elements to the U.S., when refugees like himself are fleeing from violence, not importing it, Godoy said.
“We come here because we know about the laws here. We know that if you commit a crime, you go to jail,” he said. “We come here for the security.”