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Migrant Mothers Released From Detention Receiving Help From Refugee Group

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Mennonite Pastor John Garland welcomes families arriving from the Dilley family detention center by bus in front of his church

Update: ICE response - ICE officials say the release of nearly 500 immigrants from the South Texas Family Residential Center was part of normal operations and not related to a Friday court ruling. "ICE is currently reviewing the court’s ruling on the matter of the operating license for the South Texas Family Residential Center. Operational activities continue without interruption at this time." - ICE Public Information Officer Nina Pruneda.

Original Story Below:

Hundreds of immigrant women and children continue to arrive at shelters in San Antonio after being released from federal immigration detention centers in Dilley and Karnes. The flood of asylum seekers was triggered by a judge’s order Friday that said the centers could not be classified as childcare facilities so the children must be released. San Antonio churches and non-profits are stepping up to help the immigrants connect with relatives and friends.

Every few hours over the weekend buses that sometimes transport prisoners pulled up in front of San Antonio’s Mennonite Church.  But this time the buses carried mothers and children as young as a few months old.  They were all taken into custody as they crossed into the U.S. from Mexico without having official permission to enter, then sent to federal detention centers.    

Pastor John Garland welcomes them in Spanish. He says they started arriving Friday night.

“We got a call that immigration and customs enforcement was going to drop off close to 200 people. We got some volunteers and we began setting up our church as an emergency shelter,” Garland says.

The women and children come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. All they have are the clothes on their backs, a few personal items, and the stories of why they fled their Central American homes. 

In Spanish, Anna Perez says she left El Salvador with her 12-year-old daughter to protect her. Perez says gang members wanted her to turn her daughter over to them to be used for sex. So, they fled, travelling by train and bus to the United States border where they surrendered to immigration officials and were taken to Dilley.

Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The mothers and their children wait to talk to volunteers who will help them get in touch with family.

After months of legal wrangling immigrant advocates convinced a state judge the detention centers in Dilley and Karnes- some of the largest in the country- were not satisfactory places to hold children and their mothers.  So, immigration officials are releasing immigrants like Perez. 

The asylum seekers are now in the care of RAICES, a San Antonio based immigrant and refugee assistance agency.  Justin Tullis, executive director, says they are providing food and medicine.

“And a place to stay here until they’re able to make arrangements for the next leg of their journey while they finish out their cases in the United States,” Tullis says.

Story continues below video

At the Mennonite Church pews are removed and mattresses are spread across the sanctuary floor. Children are occupied with used toys.  They thumb through picture books. RAICES is helping these immigrants find family and friends in the U.S. they can stay with.

“Some people don’t have travel arrangements so we’re contacting their families but volunteers are only here for a few hours. For example, I’ve been receiving phone calls on my phone that I leant out to people and they’re trying to get a hold of their family members,” says Luis Medina, an immigration attorney and volunteer.

Close to 500 immigrants are expected to pass through the San Antonio shelters.

Anna Perez says she and her daughter will now travel to Boston to stay with a friend she met in El Salvador. He’s bought them two plane tickets.

Another woman from Guatemala –who doesn’t want to be named - is heading to Miami. She spent 12 days in Dilley with her son after traveling through Mexico to the U.S. 

The woman said she is escaping Guatemala to get away from her uncle who wants to kill her teenage son.

Volunteers are providing translation services, food, medicine, blankets, and clothes.  The flood of people is overwhelming.  Mattresses are everywhere- in the cafeteria and the upstairs hallway. 

Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Mattresses are spread throughout a cafeteria-like room in the Mennonite church

Although the immigrants are released from federal custody, they must still check in with immigration and customs enforcement.  

“All of these folks are going to be appearing before an immigration judge and that’s to establish to the judge that they are in danger back in their country and to show the reason for the persecution that they face,” Tullis says.

It is unclear just how many detainees immigration officials released from the Karnes and Dilley Detention Centers, or what they’ll now do with other women and children illegally crossing into the United States. Immigration officials have not responded to our inquiries about how they plan to proceed.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules