'We get the brunt': In Texas border towns in the Rio Grande Valley, life intertwines with migrant surge

‘We get the brunt’: In Texas border towns in the Rio Grande Valley, life intertwines with migrant surge

June 3, 2021
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McALLEN, Texas – Holding a small cell phone, 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 […]

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McALLEN, Texas – Holding a small cell phone, 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 as her black face mask, with the phrase “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 in downtown McAllen.

Hernandez, 27, and her daughter were among five families awaiting their next stop after a more than 1,000-mile journey into the United States 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 here 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 U.S.

As a result, "The Valley" as locals call it, is playing an outsized role in helping care for migrants once they are out of Customs and Border Protection custody. Local organizations and governments have stepped up to provide food, clothing, COVID-19 tests and an opportunity to reach their families for the next leg of their journey.

Though the White House has acknowledged border communities are important to handling an influx of new arrivals at the border, community leaders and officials want more communication from Washington as localities shoulders 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 their buses, which take them on the next phase of their trip to their sponsors or families.

While the Biden administration is turning away the majority of migrants, unaccompanied children and some families are being 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.

For Hernandez and her daughter, their final destination 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 the hospital and she died from cancer. Now, she said her father is also sick and they cannot pay his medical bills.

Because she had a brother in the United States, and she saw that some people were being allowed into the country, she took the chance to come to the U.S. 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 like Hernandez make it to the U.S., they join the hundreds of others in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Rio Grande Valley sits along the U.S.-Mexico border, encompassing much of South Texas and extending to the Gulf of Mexico. But the line between Mexico and the United States is blurred in the Valley. Many residents are of Mexican descent and speak Spanish, while there's a strong sense of American pride. Writer Gloria Anzaldúa, who was 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 places like McAllen and its evident how the city, everyday life and the migrants are intertwined.

Not more than 10 miles from downtown is the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the past several months, thousands of migrant children, families and adults have come to the southern border in hopes of getting into the United States in an unprecedented surge in the early months of 2021.

Earlier this year, families with young children would wait days under the Anzalduas Bridge on the outskirts of Mission, Texas, a town over from McAllen, to be processed. But after families were processed, they would be put in a CBP van and driven to downtown McAllen, where there are dozens of local stores, restaurants and bars.

Amid the shopping and eating, small groups of migrant families could be seen being escorted between a COVID-19 testing site, a non-profit 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 HHS to house unaccompanied migrant children – are less than two blocks from an elementary school, with several single family homes surrounding the compound.

The Rio Grande Valley is seeing some of the largest numbers of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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

The Biden Administration has said that children are no longer being kept in CBP custody for more than an average of 24 hours. The majority of children are also no longer in CBP custody and have been transferred to HHS custody.

The Biden administration has also had to grapple with Mexico not accepting some families who have young children in certain areas along the U.S.-Mexico 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, saids. "We can have policies in place that are compassionate, humane and orderly," he added, but said other solutions need to be put in place to address migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Catholic Charities

Many people that local officials care for are migrant families, including children who are anywhere between a couple months old and 6 years, like Hernandez and her daughter.

In fact, the majority of encounters that border patrol officials had in the month of 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. In addition, 21,216 adults and 9,186 unaccompanied children were apprehended by border patrol officials. The total number of migrants apprehended by border patrol in April reached a record high, with 178,662 individuals encountered.

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

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

Catholic Charities has been a key organization in helping care for migrant adults and families coming to the United States through the southern border since 2014. Once migrants have been processed by CBP, they are then transferred to Catholic Charities, where they get tested for COVID-19. Although most individuals only stay at the organization for 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 United States.

Earlier this year, the organization was only receiving individuals who were 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 begin letting individuals who were subject to that policy into the United States.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pimentel had a new obstacle. She said when some migrants were first being released from CBP custody, she was told they were not being tested for COVID-19. So she started working with the city to help secure test strips for migrants coming to Catholic Charities to not only protect the families, who would go on to travel by bus or train, but to also protect 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 was running the testing site initially, where volunteers were trained to administer the test. However, the Department of Homeland Security has since stepped in and now runs the site.

The region is also now preparing for small groups of migrants who would have been turned away under Title 42, a Trump-era law that allows CBP to expel migrants over COVID-19 concerns. In the past year, many migrants who have been turned away due to Title 42 have faced violence in Mexican border towns, where they often stay. Many adults who have been turned away by the policy have repeatedly tried to come back to the U.S.

'They play a really tremendous role'

The Catholic Charities Respite Center sits on the corner diagonally across from the McAllen bus station, just blocks from City Hall, which house's Mayor Darling's office. The sweltering sun beamed down on the 101 degree day as a handful of protestors chanted outside the building. Holding signs in support of former President Donald Trump, and blasting conservative commentator Alex Jones’ radio show, the protestors 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 protestors, many residents went about their day.

Amid the shops and restaurants, border patrol vans could be seen periodically dropping off families in front of Catholic Charities, while a volunteer led other children and adults to white tents across a local highway, Business 83, to get tested for COVID-19. One Friday evening in mid-April, more than 100 migrants were tested and walked across the busy highway to the bus station.

While many migrants test negative for COVID, some have tested positive and the whole family is set up in a hotel room to quarantine for two weeks, before being tested again. The cost comes out of the city's pocket.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki in April said that local governments and nongovernmental organizations play "an incredibly important role” as they help 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.

Although the Biden Administration has tried to quickly address the increase of migrants at the border, local officials have said that they want to see more communication and input on their plans from the Biden administration. Some local officials such as mayors and community leaders said they don’t necessarily have to see Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, who is focusing on working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to mitigate migration, come to the Rio Grande Valley.

‘High-level chess’: How Biden is navigating his relationship with Mexico’s President ‘AMLO’

Instead, they want to see more action from departments of the federal government that deal with local cities in communicating with localities.

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

Darling noted he met with Trump on occasion during several of his visits to the Rio Grande Valley, and had 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 both the Trump and Obama administrations. He added that if Harris ever 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 well if you know what's going to happen, then why weren’t you more prepared for it?”

Down in Brownsville, a roughly hour-drive south from McAllen, migrant families also scattered the bus station there, awaiting a bus to take them on their next stop to a family member or sponsor.

But Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez said his city was prepared for an increase of migrants, and said in the past they have experienced larger groups of migrants who have come to the city. Like McAllen, the city has worked with local nonprofits to help give families and their children fresh clothes and food before heading out of the city.

In January, many of the migrants coming to the U.S. were were subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forces migrants to wait in Mexico for their court date. At the camp that many were waiting at in Matamoros, Mexico, they were tested for COVID before coming to the U.S. When the city of Brownsville began receiving families, Mendez said the Biden administration was quick to step in to help provide COVID testing in his city.

And unlike some other cities along the border, Mendez said he had an open line to officials in the Biden administration. In total, Mendez said that the city only paid for about a week of costs before the federal government stepped in. The city has yet to be reimbursed, but Mendez maintains 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 that 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,” and believes that would alleviate some pressure from local cities who are 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.”

As for Pimentel, she said that she believes the Biden administration’s response has been “sort of slow” to deal with the situation at the border, and that she wants to see long term solutions to help migrants come safely and efficiently to the United States.

“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 are just looking forward to getting out of South Texas. Clutching a manila folder in a ziploc bag, she and Vareli sat patiently awaiting the next part of their journey. Just hours before arriving at the respite center, the two hadn’t eaten for four days.

While 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': In Texas border towns in the Rio Grande Valley, life intertwines with migrant surge

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