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The Reality At The Border: School That Once Educated Unwanted Kids Now Cares For Migrants

Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio
A child rests at the Holding Institute in Laredo.

A Honduran woman sat with her young son outside the Holding Institute, a community center in Laredo that cares for migrants, as the sun began to set. It was a special moment of serenity in a place that also offers migrants some stability and safety.

The institute was founded in 1860 as a school for Mexican-American children who weren’t allowed in Texas public schools. It takes up an entire block in downtown Laredo and is filled with families just like hers.

The mother and her son were in a section where kids can play basketball or enjoy the playground and swing set.

“My dream has always been to find the best life for my son because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him,” she said.

The woman didn’t want her name used in fear that speaking out would hurt her claim for asylum. She said after she crossed the Rio Grande with her son they turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents and were sent to a processing center, then transferred to another facility.

After being fully processed, she and her son were sent to a local church in Laredo, but the church was full, so they ended up at the Holding Institute instead.

The woman said they’re waiting to travel to the northeastern U.S. where they have relatives. Once there, they will wait for their immigration court date. She said during their through Mexico she lost her husband in Monterrey and hasn’t heard from him in more than two weeks.

“Part of me did achieve my dream, part of me did not,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Credit Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio
The playground

Inside the Holding Institute, a man from Central America played his guitar to a room full of migrants who recently arrived.

Families with their children made their way to tables where volunteers brought them food. Some of the asylum seekers stayed for a couple of hours, while others stayed for several days.

The families planned to head to different destinations across the U.S. to wait for their day in immigration court.

Michael Smith, the Institute's executive director, said volunteers and staffers helped about 50 people per week, but recently that number quadrupled.

“About a month ago that changed because of all the massive amounts of people that are in The Valley, El Paso, all along the border," he said, "so we started to receive about 200 people a day. We’re getting people from detention centers, we’re getting people from the Ports of Entry. We’re getting people that are being released directly from ICE, or CBP.”

Credit Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio
Migrants at the Holding Institute.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also sent migrants to other cities and states via bus and aircraft to relieve regions like El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, which are at the forefront of the influx.

Smith said the Holding Institute didn’t get much of an advanced notice from CBP.

“We had a meeting on Thursday, [and] the large numbers begun Friday, the next day,” said Smith.

The Institute struggled with basic responsibilities like paying the rent and keeping the power on because of the extra expenses of caring for so many people. Smith said he had to use his own money to pay for things like medical supplies.

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar represents Laredo. He added language to an appropriations bill that would make it easier for organizations like the Holding Institute to be reimbursed by the federal government for their work with migrants.

Credit Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio
A child rests.

“I’m hoping ... we will set aside $30 million a year," he said. "Then the cities, the counties and the nonprofits can apply directly for reimbursement for food, diapers, for transportation.”

Cuellar pushed to make money available for reimbursement during the last migrant influx in 2014. He said money went to the state of Texas. Entities care for migrants had to ask the state for reimbursement.

Cuellar said many local communities and non-profits never received any money. He wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again. His idea has bipartisan support in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Cuellar on Friday said that $60 million has been secured for humanitarian reimbursement. 

Smith said he appreciates the assistance with reimbursement. He added, however, that regardless of whether he sees any money, he’s going to continue helping migrants in need.

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