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As Homeland Security Chief Visits Valley, Activists Assist Migrants Freed From Custody

Reynaldo Leaños Jr.
Texas Public Radio
Gabriela Zavala and Cindy Candia-Luna, a cofounder of Angry Tias and Abuelas, helped migrants in McAllen.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, visited the Rio Grande Valley Thursday and met with local and state law enforcement. The visit came just days after Border Patrol in the Valley began releasing asylum-seeking migrants from detention, citing overcrowded facilities.

Nielsen met with more than two dozen sheriffs in McAllen for about an hour. On the agenda -- 287 (g) -- a program that allows local and state law enforcement to work with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

She has been a steadfast supporter of President Donald Trump’s controversial National Emergency Declaration and broader border agenda. At a press conference, she told reporters she rejected the idea that this was a manufactured crisis.

“This is truly an emergency. Our system is breaking, the flow is different, the flow is increasing — it’s not just a security crisis that I covered in part today, but it’s a humanitarian crisis.”

The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector has seen an increase of apprehensions in recent months. Across some parts of the southern border, apprehensions were at a 10-year high...and in some cases they were still far lower than they were in the early 2000s.

Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Ronald D. Vitiello said they were doing everything possible to abate what they called a crisis.

“What you’re seeing is cause the system is maxed out. What’s happening now under this law. If you send or bring a child to the border, they get released. What we’re trying to do is try to get Congress to change that law.”

Earlier this week CBP announced they would begin releasing migrant families in the Valley with what it  called a Notice to Appear document, instead of undergoing long detention periods. That’s been compared to the so-called “catch and release” policy President Trump criticized in the past. Nielsen said it was different.

“We don’t have facilities to hold the numbers we are seeing. We’re out of detention space, so due to emergent situations at particular areas, field decisions are made as to what we can do to expedite the processing.”

Many of the migrants released by CBP in McAllen this week ended up at the bus station.

Local activist Gabriela Zavala was there to help them. She explained bus tickets and answered questions. Some migrants held bags with new clothing they received from local nonprofits.

Before Nielsen's meeting, Zavala said she hoped the conversations would touch on more than just policy.

“I wish that they would visit and see what we see, talk to the people that we see and see the situation that’s really at hand,” she said. “I think it would change their perspective of the types of policies that they’re passing.”

Some local organizations and Valley residents, like Ricardo Garza, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, questioned the timing of the mass release of people just as Nielsen arrived on the border.

Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parked outside of the McAllen bus station.

“The attempt to paint the border as some kind of war zone when we know that it is not something new for this administration and for this government,” Garza said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that was their intent.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project also tweeted about CBP’s recent move and said it appeared to be a manufactured crisis.

“In last year’s family separation crisis, CBP and DHS sent parents apprehended in South Texas all over the county because of alleged spacing issues,” the tweet read. “There is nothing to indicate that things are different now in terms of capacity.”

As recently released migrants waited to board a bus to their next destination, some held bags of clothing from local support organizations.

Cindy Candia-Luna is a cofounder of Angry Tias and Abuelas, which advocates for asylum seekers. She helped migrants at the bus station and answered their questions about their upcoming trips. She also gave them a list of phone numbers for legal aid attorneys for when they arrived at their final destination.

Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley.

Candia-Luna said she’s happy families were being released but didn't like the way it was done.

“They get released here at Catholic Charities in McAllen and she [Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley] doesn’t even get aid from the government,” Candia-Luna said. “The numbers are out of control.”

Helping migrants is something Candia-Luna feels personally.

“I usually say 'I’m sorry for what we did to you, for what our government did to you,' ” Candia-Luna said. “I did that in a summer, and it was tough, but they deserve an apology for the way that our government treated them.”

CBP said it will continue to work with local and state stakeholders as well as NGOs while the temporary measures are in place. During her visit, Nielsen said they’re exploring every option to deal with capacity issues at immigration detention facilities.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos