Relief Workers Struggle to Cope With Flood of Migrants From Central America

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McAllen, Texas — Piles of diapers, boxes of donated clothes, and rows of cots fill the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in this small city near the Mexican border. The scene here looks like a humanitarian relief effort following a natural disaster. But it’s a different kind of crisis that has city workers and volunteers rushing to respond.

A recent surge of Central American migrants crossing illegally into the United States is testing the capacity of area service-providers. Church groups, community members and the local government are scrambling to find a way to help the new arrivals, many of whom are women and young children fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — Central America’s notoriously unstable “northern triangle.”

“This is similar to how our operations would be when there is a hurricane coming,” said Josh Ramirez, director of health for the city. “We set up temporary shelters and provide facilities to provide medical care and so on.”

Border Patrol has apprehended more than 181,000 non-Mexican immigrants (known in government-speak as OTMs, or ‘Other Than Mexicans’) crossing the Southwest border over the past nine months, part of a sharp rise in unauthorized migration from Central America over the past several years. The Rio Grande Valley, a section of the border that runs through South Texas, has seen the most dramatic spike in apprehensions of non-Mexican crossers. Government numbers already show a 41.7 percent increase in detentions from last year, with still four months to go in the current fiscal year.

% represents percentage of total apprehensions

In addition to the increase in migrant traffic across the border, there’s been a notable demographic shift towards women and children, according to federal officials.

Many of those immigrants -- federal authorities won’t give exact numbers -- aren't deported immediately. Instead, they’re processed in detention centers, assigned court dates, and then released to travel throughout the United States to join family members to await immigration proceedings.

The steady influx of immigrants has turned bus terminals in places such as McAllen into transit hubs for Central American mothers and children heading northward to reunite with relatives scattered across the country.

To ease the burden the city’s burden, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has stepped in and set up shop two blocks away at Sacred Heart earlier this month, where volunteers have helped feed, clothe, bathe and provide medical care to the travel-weary migrants who pass through the city.

The church is now receiving between 80 - 200 people per day, while a second location is receiving another 70 people daily, according to Brenda Nettles Riojas, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

Monica Valdez-Freeman, who grew up in the area, came to the McAllen church to donate blankets. She has since returned repeatedly to volunteer with her mom. She says some new arrivals seem disillusioned.

“They're tired from their trip and their journey,” she told Fusion. “Their faces have sadness. You can see it ...they were expecting to be welcomed, and they're not.”

The operation has grown so extensive that the City of McAllen is providing additional resources and organizational capabilities. Ramirez, the city’s health director, estimates the effort costs the city more than $3,000 a day in operating expenses.

Without outside help, the city’s budget for relief will be exhausted in another week or two, Ramirez said.

“This is not long term; this is just a temporary band-aid,” he said. “We are reaching [out] to other nonprofit organizations like Salvation Army and Red Cross to provide additional support that they need.”

The impact of the immigrant flood tide is being felt in other border cities as well. In South Texas, government facilities that process and house migrants have been so overwhelmed that in recent weeks that hundreds of families have been flown to El Paso, on the other side of the state, for processing and release.

Ruben García, director of the Annunciation House in El Paso, has been spearheading a similar effort to care for and educate migrants, before sending them off to join their families in states as far away as Massachusetts and North Dakota.

“There are a lot of churches that have stepped forward, and to me that’s a whole story in and of itself,” García said of the effort. “This is now no longer talking about the gospel, this is acting.”

The federal government is aware of the difficult situation. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson this week stressed the need for a more adequate response for what the White House has called “urgent humanitarian situation.”

“We need to create more detention space for adults who bring their children,” Johnson said during a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said the department will search for locations to open new detention centers suitable for adults with children. The administration also wants to expand the use of detention alternatives, such as electronic-monitoring devices. He said more immigration judges and asylum officers will be sent to the border region to help speed up processing.

But so far, the flow of migrants is moving faster than the policy prescriptions. In cities like McAllen, residents have provided a stopgap response to the problem, but their efforts will grow more challenging if the flow of migrants continues to increase, as some expect.

Reporting contributed by Jordan Fabian and Jim Avila. Video by Geneva Sands, Serena Marshall and Jim Avila. Video editing by D.J. Amerson and Geneva Sands.

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