'We get the brunt': How the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border is playing out in Texas border towns

‘We get the brunt’: How the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border is playing out in Texas border towns

June 3, 2021
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McALLEN, Texas – Holding a small cellphone, Blanca Hernandez’s daughter tapped her mother on the shoulder and held it up to take a selfie, a way to pass the time as they waited for their bus in this South Texas border town. Vareli, 6, checked the photo, and her […]

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McALLEN, Texas – Holding a small cellphone, Blanca Hernandez's daughter tapped her mother on the shoulder and held it up to take a selfie, a way to pass the time as they waited for their bus in this South Texas border town.

a group of people riding skis on a snowy road: Migrants cross the street to a bus station in McAllen, Texas, on April 9. Migrants then take a bus to their asylum sponsor contact.

Vareli, 6, checked the photo, and her eyes lit up with joy, though her black face mask, the word “grateful” printed on it, hid her smile. Her mother nodded approvingly before continuing her conversation with a woman sitting next to her on the maroon bench at the bus station downtown.

Hernandez, 27, and her daughter were among five families awaiting their next stop after a more-than-1,000-mile journey into the USA on a Monday morning in mid-April, like thousands of other families escaping poverty and violence in their home countries.

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Many of them end up in McAllen, a city of nearly 142,000 in the Rio Grande Valley, the expansive southern tip of Texas that happens to be the shortest route for Central American migrants making their way to the USA.

"The Valley," as locals call it, plays an outsize role in caring for migrants once they are out of Customs and Border Protection custody. Local organizations and governments have stepped up to provide food, clothing, coronavirus tests and an opportunity to reach their families for the next leg of their journey.

Though the White House acknowledges border communities are important to handling an influx of arrivals at the border, community leaders and officials want more communication from Washington as localities shoulder the day-to-day processing of migrants.

“Because of our bus station, we get the brunt of it all,” outgoing McAllen Mayor Jim Darling told USA TODAY, noting that one night, there were at least 500 migrants waiting for buses to take them on the next phase of their trip to their sponsors or families.

Though the Biden administration turns away the majority of migrants, unaccompanied children and some families are allowed in what the White House says is a more humane approach than the policy of the Trump administration. But it has led to overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities and long processing for family units under a bridge near McAllen.

The final destination for Hernandez and her daughter was Charlotte, North Carolina, where Hernandez’s brother lives. In her home country of Honduras, she said, she worked 12-hour days but still barely had enough money to buy food for her and her daughter. She said because of their poverty, she was unable to take her mother to a hospital, and she died from cancer. She said her father is also sick, and they cannot pay his medical bills.

Because she has a brother in the USA, and she saw that some people were being allowed into the country, she took the chance to come to the USA with her daughter.

“We have been fleeing from poverty in our country. There are no sources of work, there is no income anywhere,” Hernandez told USA TODAY. “When I saw that I could not cover their medical expenses, that urged me to leave the country.”

When migrants make it to the USA, they join hundreds of others in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Rio Grande Valley sits along the U.S.-Mexican border, encompassing much of South Texas and extending to the Gulf of Mexico. The line between Mexico and the USA is blurred in the Valley. Many residents are of Mexican descent and speak Spanish, though there's a strong sense of American pride. Writer Gloria Anzaldúa, who is from the Rio Grande Valley, said living in the Valley means you're "ni de aquí, ni de allá” – neither from here, nor from there.

Spend a few minutes in McAllen, and its evident how the city, everyday life and the migrants are intertwined.

Not more than 10 miles from downtown is the border. Over the past several months, thousands of migrant children, families and adults have come in hopes of getting into the USA in an unprecedented surge.

This year, families with young children waited days under the Anzalduas Bridge on the outskirts of Mission, Texas, a town near McAllen, to be processed. After families were processed, they were put in a CBP van and driven to downtown McAllen, where there are dozens of stores, restaurants and bars.

Amid the shopping and eating, small groups of migrant families were escorted between a coronavirus testing site, a nonprofit group that provides services and a bus station where many would go to other parts of the state or even other parts of the country.

More: Two cities, separated by US-Mexico border, are in completely different stages of pandemic

In Donna, less than 15 miles from McAllen, a field of white tents sits next to a yellow apartment building. The tents – which were set up by the CBP and Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied migrant children – are less than two blocks from an elementary school. Several single-family homes surround the compound.

President Joe Biden has been heavily criticized by both sides of the aisle for his administration’s handling of the increase of migrants. During the first months of his presidency, officials experienced overcrowding in jail-like CBP facilities, such as the one in Donna, where some children were held for more than the legal limit of 72 hours.

Overcrowding in the Border Patrol facilities has decreased over the past weeks as HHS set up at least a dozen emergency influx facilities.

The Biden administration said children are no longer kept in CBP custody for more than an average of 24 hours. The majority have been transferred to HHS custody.

The administration has had to grapple with Mexico not accepting some families who have young children in certain areas along the U.S.-Mexican border, including in the Rio Grande Valley region.

"The problem is that this is completely disordered what I see on the border," Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, said. "We can have policies in place that are compassionate, humane and orderly," but other solutions need to be put in place to address migration.

Catholic Charities

Officials care for migrant families, including children a couple of months to 6 years old.

The majority of encounters that Border Patrol officials had in April were with families. According to CBP statistics, 30,437 family units were encountered in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes Brownsville, Donna and McAllen. The Border Patrol apprehended 21,216 adults and 9,186 unaccompanied children. The total number of migrants apprehended in April reached a record high: 178,662.

In McAllen, many migrants find themselves at Catholic Charities, a faith-based, nonprofit group funded by donations and run by volunteers.

In April, roughly 800 people were sent to Catholic Charities daily, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told USA TODAY. As of May, the organization had seen a decrease to 200 to 300 people daily.

Catholic Charities has helped care for migrant adults and families coming to the USA through the southern border since 2014. Once CBP processes migrants, they are transferred to Catholic Charities, where they get tested for the coronavirus. Although most individuals stay at the organization for only a couple of hours, they are given clean clothes, food and a chance to call family before heading to their next destination, which is usually with family living in the USA.

This year, the organization was receiving only individuals forced to stay in Mexico as they awaited their court hearing under a Trump-era policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols. The Biden administration announced in February it was ending the policy and would let individuals who were subject to that policy into the USA.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pimentel had a new obstacle. She said that when some migrants were released from CBP custody, she was told they were not tested for the coronavirus. She worked with the city to secure test strips for migrants coming to Catholic Charities to protect the families going on to travel by bus or train, as well as the volunteers.

“Because we do that, we have a peace of mind, and volunteers can come on here and can work without the fear that maybe families have COVID,” Pimentel said. “We don't want to spread that so that has been a big priority for me, and we successfully accomplished that.”

More: Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of Biden's harshest critics on the migrant surge, urges White House to listen to border towns

Catholic Charities initially ran the testing site, where volunteers were trained to administer the test. The Department of Homeland Security has since stepped in to run the facility.

The region is preparing for small groups of migrants who would have been turned away under Title 42, a Trump-era law that allowed CBP to expel migrants over COVID-19 concerns. In the past year, many migrants turned away because of Title 42 faced violence in Mexican border towns. Many adults repeatedly tried to come back to the USA.

'They play a really tremendous role'

The Catholic Charities Respite Center sits on a corner diagonally across from the McAllen bus station, blocks from City Hall, which house's Mayor Darling's office. The sweltering sun beamed down on a 101-degree day as a handful of protesters chanted outside the building. Holding signs in support of former President Donald Trump and blasting conservative commentator Alex Jones’ radio show, they condemned the conditions at the detention facilities for migrants and criticized Catholic Charities for taking them in during the coronavirus pandemic. While some cars slowed down to look at the protesters, many residents went about their day.

Amid the shops and restaurants, Border Patrol vans periodically dropped off families in front of Catholic Charities, while a volunteer led children and adults to white tents across a highway, Business 83, to get tested for the coronavirus. One Friday evening in mid-April, more than 100 migrants were tested and walked across the busy highway to the bus station.

When migrants test positive, they and any family traveling with them are set up in a hotel room to quarantine for two weeks, before being tested again. The cost comes out of the city's pocket.

This year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stalled efforts from DHS to get funding to cities to pay for coronavirus testing.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in April that local governments and nongovernmental organizations play "an incredibly important role” helping with coronavirus testing and paying for hotels to house migrant families who test positive.

"They play a really tremendous role in helping ensure we are working in a humane way with those who are coming to our border in a range of ways," Psaki said during a news briefing.

Local officials said they want to see more communication and input on their plans from the Biden administration. Mayors and community leaders said they don’t necessarily have to see Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, who is working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to mitigate migration, come to the Rio Grande Valley.

“We haven't haven't built that relationship up in the Biden administration,” Darling said.

Darling noted he met with Trump during several of his visits to the Rio Grande Valley and has a photo of him and the former president in his office. But the strongest relationship he had was with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the Trump and Obama administrations. He said that if Harris does come to the Valley, he hopes that she meets with local officials.

“I don't know how they weren't ready for this,” Darling said. “The president said, ‘We knew what was going to happen. It happens every winter.’ Well, I thought, if you know what's going to happen, then why weren’t you more prepared for it?”

In Brownsville, roughly an hour's drive south from McAllen, migrant families awaited a bus to take them on their next stop to a family member or sponsor.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez said his city was prepared by past experience for an increase of migrants. Like McAllen, the city has worked with nonprofit groups to give families and their children fresh clothes and food before they head out.

In January, the Migrant Protection Protocols forced migrants to wait in Mexico for their court date. At a camp in Matamoros, Mexico, they were tested for the coronavirus before coming to the USA. When Brownsville began receiving families, Mendez said, the Biden administration was quick to step in to help provide coronavirus testing.

Mendez said he had an open line to officials in the Biden administration. Mendez said the city paid for about a week of costs before the federal government stepped in. The city has yet to be reimbursed, but Mendez maintained the costs were not "significant."

"As the numbers started increasing ... we were ready, and we were in really good communication with the federal government, with the administration and its officials, to make sure that we never got overwhelmed," Mendez said.

Gonzalez, who represents the Rio Grande Valley, said the region has been “the most impacted” by the migrant surge. He noted he wants to see the administration “deal with that stream of migrants that are moving through Mexico and Central America,” which would alleviate pressure on cities helping care for migrants.

“We should be having regular meetings about how to resolve this, and I have ideas,” he said. “What I think has happened at the White House, is that a small group of folks want to steer the ship, and I just hope that at some point, they bring in a lot of members that have a lot of expertise and ideas and could be very helpful to them.”

Pimentel said the Biden administration’s response has been “sort of slow,” and she wants to see long-term solutions to help migrants come safely and efficiently to the USA.

“It's extremely controlled and slow, like drip, drip, drip,” Pimentel said. “A lot of families are hurting and suffering, and I think a solution needs to move forward faster and pathways to legalize and to understand who has the right to be in the United States. I'm hopeful and wish that this administration would move forward in doing something quicker.”

Hernandez and her daughter looked forward to getting out of South Texas. Clutching a manila folder in a zip-lock bag, she and Vareli patiently awaited the next part of their journey. Hours before arriving at the respite center, the two hadn’t eaten for four days.

Though she wouldn’t show her daughter, Hernandez said she was nervous, but excited, to start their new life in North Carolina.

“We have suffered enough,” she said. “In this country, people think we want to invade, but we don't. We want to work, because we don't have good opportunities in my country.”

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We get the brunt': How the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border is playing out in Texas border towns

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