It was 3 a.m. Saturday, and Bertalina shivered at the San Antonio Greyhound Bus Station. She and her son were released hours ago from a border patrol holding facility in McAllen and then sent to San Antonio.
Bertalina was one of several thousand asylum seekers suddenly released by U.S. immigration officials. As a caravan of Central Americans makes its way to the U.S. border, San Antonio will continue to see a sudden surge in the number of immigrants, testing the limits of local non-profits to provide assistance.
“Here at the bus station, we are having a large amount of families released from the Family Detention Centers — probably double what we usually see,” said Sister Denise LaRock with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, who prepared backpacks, meals and medicine for those released from immigration detention. “The detention centers and the holding centers at the border just get so full. It’s just like releasing that valve letting people go forward with their ankle monitors and all that kind of stuff.”
Bertalina, a Honduran citizen, said as cold as it is at the bus station, it was much colder at the “hielera,” which is Spanish for a cooler, but is also what they called the frigid holding cells she sat in for the last five days separated from her son.
Bertalina said he was kept in an area called the "dog kennel," and she could hear him crying for hours.
Now, reunited and released, they made their way to Los Angeles to join a family member. But the child had a heavy deep cough that he contracted from his days in custody, and it will serve as a constant reminder of their detention.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a statement said the release began on Oct. 23 due to the limits in its authority.
“After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the U.S. As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions,” the statement read.
Some critics of ICE questioned the timing. They wondered if the release was somehow connected to the midterm elections where immigration is a central issue. However, LaRock said she avoided putting a political spin on events — still, she was mystified.
“It doesn’t sound like they are going to the ‘perrera’ — what families call the dog kennel — so is that changing?” she asked. “Are they ending using that now that that’s got publicity or is it the need for the moment because they are trying to clear out the holding places in the border to prepare for the caravan? There are just a lot of questions.”
Then, two buses pulled up — one right after the other — from immigration detention centers. More buses were expected. Many of the families had been detained for weeks. They entered the bus station in a state of wide-eyed wonder. Clipboards in hand, LaRock and her fellow volunteers went to work, assessing the needs of each person: Where were they trying to go? What bus did they need to be on? Did they need help with a phone call, a change of clothes, something to eat?
Some needed help with their uncertain immigration status.
“The immigration status is: Everyone that I’ve talked to so far is seeking asylum, and they have notices to appear in front of an immigration judge in the near future,” she said.
Nate Roter, a post-release manager with the non-profit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, sat on a bench near the cafeteria and spoke with a line of refugees with a file box of documents at the ready.
“We provide basic legal orientations for people who are being released. So we do a little ‘know your rights’ chat that we do,” he said. “We also are collecting information on where people are going and trying to provide legal referrals with our partners around the country.”
Roter said these people were not in the country illegally. They used the established asylum process, which is part of the U.S. legal system.
“My general sense is that there’s a sense of relief of being out of detention but also it’s just the first step,” he said.
He said there are long waits to have an asylum case heard and along the way there are check-ins with ICE and a complicated legal process.
But for now, the challenge was to get the refugees on their feet and on the right bus as they sought out their place in America.
CORRECTION: The name of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services was incorrect and has been updated in the story.