A few minutes drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, has become an unlikely way station for Central American migrants fleeing their countries and risking all for a new life in the United States. Volunteers give out pizza, clothing and arrange transport while city officials conduct COVID-19 tests.
Irela Mejia, 24, and her five-year-old son from Honduras were among those picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers while crossing the Rio Grande river onto U.S. land on a raft with dozens of other migrants.
"I came for a better future for my child," said Mejia, who is hoping to reunite with her brother in Houston and apply for asylum. She says she had already lost her job due to the COVID -19 pandemic, before two hurricanes in November devastated Honduras.
Her son turned five on the month-long trek from Honduras. They came alone, vulnerable and reliant on smugglers.
"I was very afraid," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
But her eyes light up when asked about whether Joe Biden becoming U.S. president influenced her decision to come to the border: "Yes, after he put out that immigrants could come over, I felt it would be a better future, that they might give us documents to be legal in this country."
Mejia is one of tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived at the U.S. border along Mexico in recent weeks in hopes of an easier passage into the country under Biden's administration. They have been undeterred by the government's public plea to asylum seekers: "Don't come now."
In February, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials detained just over 100,000 people crossing the border — a 28 per cent increase over January, though below the record high of 144,000 hit in February 2019. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said the number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021 is on track to hit the highest level in the last 20 years.
The surge of migrants is fast becoming an early and critical test for Biden to show he can be both firm and humane in dealing with immigration and set his administration apart from that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose policies restricted migrants from entering the U.S.
But the challenges are mounting. The Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged it is struggling to find space for more than 15,000 children under 18 travelling alone and picked up by U.S. border officials in the last several weeks.
Photos released Monday by Texas Rep. Henry Cueller, a Democrat, showed youth at a new, temporary processing centre in Donna, Texas, crowded together on sleeping mats and covered with emergency foil blankets. Reporters have not been allowed inside the facility.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said on Sunday the Biden administration is expelling "family units and single adults" but would not "expel into the Mexican desert" young and vulnerable children. He said the government is working all hours to build up capacity to house them while they are processed.
Critics attack Biden over immigration
Across the border from Brownsville, in Matamoras, the largest migrant camp on the southwest U.S. border was closed March 6 after Biden reversed Trump's Migrant Protection Protocols, or "Remain in Mexico," policy, in place since 2019.
That policy prevented asylum seekers from staying in the U.S. to pursue their claim and ordered them back to Mexico, where thousands subsequently camped along the border. Biden's swift reversal of that policy allowed migrants with active asylum claims back into the U.S. to pursue their case.
Critics, including Trump, accuse Biden of throwing open the border to migrants.
"We proudly handed the Biden Administration the most secure border in history," the former Republican U.S. president said in a statement. They've "turned a national triumph into a national disaster."
Charlene D'Cruz, an immigration lawyer who works in Brownsville and Matamoras, says the topic is a source of "pressure on every single president."
"It is in no way the crisis or the situation some Republicans are making it out to be," she said in Brownsville. "The way the previous president decided to take care of it is just to seal it [the border] until it's reached a fever pitch; it's like a tourniquet and when you let it go, of course there's going to be [a big flow]."
Cruz, who has been working with migrants for 30 years, says there were surges in 2014, 2016 and 2019 and that the latest one started in spring last year with the pandemic and natural disasters adding to the existing threats of local violence in Central American countries.
Treated with respect and dignity
Aura Cruz, a 67-year-old from Guatemala, is still stranded in Mexico. She fled with her great granddaughter, then an infant, and four other families in 2019 after the baby's mother was murdered in Guatemala. Dulce is now 2 years old, unaware of her uncertain future.
"I'm worried about the girl," said Cruz, sitting outside the empty Matamoras camp. "I [could] suddenly die, so I'm eager to keep fighting for asylum."
Global Response Management, a U.S. non-governmental organization that provides medical care and humanitarian relief, says migrants need to be given help to ensure they can seek asylum safely.
"We know more migrants are on their way, more are crossing every day," said Mark McDonald, a paramedic and assistant project director with GRM. "They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."
Getting to the root of the problem
For those who've cared for migrants for decades along the border, the surge has been predictable.
Sister Norma Pimentel manages a group of shelters in the Rio Grande Valley, including one in McAllen, Texas.
An advocate for migrants, she says restrictive policies only exacerbate the misery of migrants without stopping them from trying to cross the border.
"The reason why people come has never been addressed. The focus has been in militarizing the border, but the problem is not the border," said Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. "The problem is back home, the root causes of why these families migrate in the first place."
Dalila Moran de Asencio, 33-year-old teacher, and Edgardo Antonio Asencio, a 33-year-old public servant, and their two children fled gangs and violence in El Salvador 15 months ago. They crossed into the U.S. but were sent back under Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy. They've been living with 30 other migrants for over a year in a house managed by a Catholic charity in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
"It wasn't easy, but our lives were in danger," said Edgardo. "I never could imagine that a crime situation would force us to take such drastic decisions."
Doctors without Borders provides mental health counselling for people stuck in limbo.
"They show symptoms relating to acute stress that's associated with anxiety and depression," said psychologist Catalina Urrego Echeverri, the group's medical team co-ordinator in the area.
Dalila, whose dad died when she was 12, says her journey has been a difficult one.
"Sometimes I feel stressed and sad because I don't come from a family with a great economic situation but with a lot of sacrifices, I finished university," she said. "And I feel sad because I fought so hard and had graduated soon before I had to leave. From one day to the next we had to leave the country."
She says the change in the U.S. presidency is the first hopeful sign in over a year.
"We've seen on the news that a lot of families have already been granted access to the U.S., to seek asylum inside," she said. "We hope and trust that's our case as well."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.
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