AP NEWS

With detention space full at the Texas border, migrants get court dates and a pass into the U.S.

March 25, 2019

LAREDO - Fire Chief Steve Landin’s cell phone is pinging repeatedly these days with short, perfunctory texts from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official.

“Bus from Del Rio with 32, ETA 1500 hrs,” he read on a recent afternoon.

He immediately forwarded it to city health officials and nonprofit leaders, sparking a mobilization for resources to assist migrants released by ICE. He received another text soon after, and then another, amounting to the release of more than 100 migrants.

Similar waves of migrants are arriving by the day farther south in the Rio Grande Valley as border officials deal with a recent surge that has overwhelmed detention officials. More than 76,000 undocumented immigrants came through ports of entry or crossed the Rio Grande illegally in February, the highest number in more than a decade.

In a visit to McAllen last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said migrants are being released, with notices to appear later before immigration judges, because detention facilities are out of space. The Border Patrol has said it is devoting about a fourth of its manpower now to processing migrants for release.

The influx in Laredo began unexpectedly on Feb. 5, the day after a large caravan of 1,800 migrants arrived by buses in Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, to request asylum in the United States. After the migrants are processed by border officials there and given court dates, ICE takes them to Laredo, the nearest large bus depot.

Piedras Negras hasn’t historically been a highly trafficked route for migrants planning to enter the U.S. But immigrants appear to be choosing the city, north of Laredo, after a metering system rolled out at larger ports of entry limiting the number of migrants who would be allowed in.

“I think that route was discovered,” said Benjamin De la Garza, head of Catholic Charities in Laredo. “The word spreads very easy.”

The surge has forced shelters and churches that traditionally served the city’s homeless, Catholic Charities and Laredo’s health department to take on a whole new kind of service.

“We don’t have the power to say no, we don’t have the power to say yes, they just show up,” said Landin, who also serves as Laredo’s emergency management coordinator. “They’re dropped in our laps.”

Little notice of arrivals

Sometimes the texts from ICE will give a couple hours’ notice of the migrants’ arrival. Sometimes only a few minutes. Sometimes not at all.

As soon as they hear from Landin, Catholic Charities officials make calls to pick up sandwiches. The city dispatches medics - if they’re not at the station already, tending to a previous load —and the Holding Institute, a local shelter, assembles volunteers and loads up donations.

For weeks, the staff and volunteers have been providing humanitarian aid and screening for communicable diseases.

“Responsibilities are being unfairly passed on to charities that are just trying to love their fellow human being,” Landin said. “It’s a federal issue, but the federal government is just saying we’re going to drop them off, they’re you’re problem, they’re not our problem.”

Catholic Charities and the Holding Institute have been asking the community for more donations. Local officials say neither U.S. Customs and Border Patrol nor ICE have answered questions about why they began the releases in early February, or how long the situation will last.

“In lieu of waiting for a response, what we’ve done is taken action ourselves,” said Mike Smith, executive director of the Holding Institute. “We would like some clarity, I think we would all like some clarity, but we know this is not coming anytime soon. We just act and respond to the need and we’ll ask later.”

Strapped for resources, they sought an assist from San Antonio’s Catholic Charities, which sent volunteers and a mobile unit of supplies this month. The Laredo branch recently opened another shelter, at San Francisco Javier Catholic Church. The agency also sent out a call for support at the national level.

“Nobody knows who is the responsible party. The city says it’s the fed’s responsibility. The feds don’t respond,” Smith said.

A group of city officials flew to Washington, D.C., in early March and met with CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. They asked him to give the city more notice of the migrant arrivals, and that they be dropped off during business hours, not at night.

“It’s been very difficult for us,” said Rafael Benavides, a Laredo city spokesman. “His (McAleenan’s) office said that they’re going to look into it.”

Landin remembers the first out-of-the-blue text he received from ICE about the oncoming influx. It was Superbowl Sunday. Back in December, he said the city had met with ICE and was told that if it was to get an influx of immigrants, the city would be given 72 hours’ notice.

“So then I get a text message telling me ‘Heads up, you’re going to receive busloads of people starting Monday.’ So the 72 hours’ notice was out the window,” Landin said. “So we just said ‘Why are you sending them to Laredo? They’re not even coming to our bridge.’ And they said ‘That’s a decision above our level in ICE.’”

More than 130 immigrants arrived the first day. The daily numbers dwindled for a time at the end of February, but then picked back up in recent weeks, spiking last week to 200 a day, the highest yet.

Tickets to freedom

Families with small children, many if not most under 5 years old, fill the seats and line the walls at the Laredo bus station. The toddlers knock into each other, playing. The older kids stare wide-eyed at the vending machines as volunteers insert their money and bring them snacks.

And the infants — some only a few months old — whine fitfully in their mother’s arms, squinting from the station’s bright lights.

The families arrived with only the clothes on their backs, plastic bags of their belongings - cell phones, wedding rings, ICE paperwork - in their hands, and initial court dates scheduled a month out.

None of them were wearing ankle monitors that ICE places on some migrants to track their movements, an attempt to ensure they make their court dates.

Some of the immigrants come with colds, the flu, various infections, and in a couple suspected cases — the mumps. A few children were taken directly to the hospital, said Hector Gonzalez, director of the city’s health department.

They’re hungry, thirsty and mostly penniless. They use phones from volunteers to call family members across the country, letting them know they made it safely to the U.S. and asking them for a bus ticket to their cities.

De la Garza’s phone is filled with calls to cities across the country. There’s an “802” area code (Vermont), a “980” (Charlotte, N.C), a “702” (Las Vegas). There’s calls to Chicago, Houston, New York City.

Almost all of these migrants are from Honduras. None stay in Laredo.

“Once they’re here, basic necessities are the first thing,” De la Garza said. “First you feed them. You clothe them. You provide water and all the toiletries.”

Some families spend the night at the Holding Institute’s shelter nearby. Some, fearful of missing their bus, sleep at the station.

“The conditions were horrible,” said Heidi Guzman, 30, about the processing center she was taken to after she crossed the river and presented herself for asylum. “But I am grateful to God and this country because it’s given me a chance at asylum.”

The Honduran mother was waiting to catch a bus to Virginia with her 9-year-old son, her cousin, and his 7-year-old son.

“It looks like the entire country of Honduras has decided to come,” De la Garza said to a line of them at the station, a well-worn joke he makes to elicit a few smiles.

Across the way, Rosa Villareal was speaking to an immigrant’s family member over the phone, trying to explain how to buy a bus ticket for them.

“Laredo. Laredo bus station” Villareal repeated over and over. “And this is the number for Greyhound.”

Francisca Martinez, 50, watched Villareal anxiously, biting her nails as she spoke with her relative. When her relative finally had success searching online for how to buy her a bus ticket, the Honduran mother broke into a smile and made the sign of a cross.

“I’m a single mother, and I knew I wanted a better life for my daughter,” she said. Her daughter is 11 years old.

She and two other girls sat in seats behind her, each with their hair pulled into a long, loose braid. The ends of the braids were tied with shiny, aluminum plastic — ripped from the mylar blankets ICE gives them in their facilities, after agents stripped them of hair ties and shoelaces.

“We had a woman here who was crying and crying, because they had killed her 10-year-old daughter in Mexico,” said Elena Arredondo, a volunteer. “You hear sad stories here.”

Also at the station was a father who was waiting for news of his wife and daughter. They had traveled to the border together, then crossed separately and lost contact. He didn’t know where they were. He’d been waiting at the station for nearly a week, sitting on the chairs, eyes closed, or standing restlessly near the glass doors, gazing out at downtown Laredo.

The Catholic Charities here has six full-time staff members and relies on help from about 15 volunteers. “Thank God for them,” De la Garza said. “We get better every day.”

The city has begun offering Catholic Charities staff free parking at the station, which is owned by the city but leased by Greyhound. And various organizations have all but taken over a small office next to the vending machines at the station.

Ruth Melgar, 23, crossed the border in mid-March with her 4-year-old son Kerim. She was wearing a necklace that she had pulled from the bag of her belongings ICE had given her. It had the letter P, for Perla, her 6-year-old daughter who came with her husband in September.

Melgar said she prayed she would make it to the United States safely, so they could be reunited.

“I miss her,” Melgar said. “But I will see her soon.”

Silvia Foster-Frau covers immigration news in the San Antonio, Bexar County and South Texas area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | sfosterfrau@express-news.net | Twitter: @SilviaElenaFF