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Texas Tries To Deal With Surge In Immigrants, Refugees

Texas Matters: As Texas politicians continue to put the federal government under fire to do something about border security and the recent immigrant surge, what is happening to those who are already here or those who continue to come? Also on this show: On Juneteenth, Texas before racial equality.

Humanitarian crisis at the border

The Texas-Mexico border is seeing an unprecedented wave of women and children crossing the Rio Grande and surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents. The numbers are staggering: an estimated 47,000 children have been apprehended so far this year.

The situation is being called a humanitarian crisis and the federal government is struggling to keep up. I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to see how the situation is being handled.

The Assembly Hall at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown McAllen, Texas is normally reserved for parish activities, wedding receptions and quinceañeras - but not today. Tables are set up in rows and around the inner perimeter of the hall – and they are covered with clothes, shoes, baby formula, toiletries – all the items that Catholic Charities coordinator Ibana Molina Melendez thinks will be needed by the immigrants showing up at the border.

“We feed them. Give give then clothes. They bathe. And we give travel bags for them. If it’s going to take three days or four days travel. So we give to them whatever they are going to need.”

Melendez says the refugee immigrants have fled their homes in Central America – made their way through Mexico and are turning up on the border in a state of desperation.

“They got nothing. The only thing they got is the clothes when they crossed the river.”

And for many of the refugee immigrants they crossed the river at the Anzaldua’s Park, a Hidalgo County park near Mission, Texas. The park sits on the Rio Grande River and right across the river is a park in Mexico.

On the Mexican side there is a lot of activity. There are families picnicking, playing and swimming in the river. There are jet skis zooming back and forth. On the U.S. side it’s a different story. Even though it’s Father’s Day weekend the park is basically deserted except for two patrol boats pulling away from the dock. One is a border patrol boat and the other is with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Both patrol boats are heavily armed with multiple machine guns mounted on all sides.

About an hour after the patrol boats pull away, the men on the jet skis start zooming towards that same dock and then they start dropping off passengers. One by one – right in front of me. And those passengers who just cross the border illegally casually walk into the park.

“They’re smart. They found a way to make the money. A lot of it is controlled by the drug cartels. They control the whole area down there. And they know where we are at and what we can and can’t do. And they take advantage of it,” said Chris Cabrera, a U.S. Border Patrol agent and a leader of the local Border Patrol Union.

“The smuggler on the Mexican side will come up with an inner tube and load the people in and he’ll bring them over to the U.S. side. He’ll never touch solid ground. He’ll stay in the water. Unload the inner tube or the raft. Go back five or six times – get about 20 to 30 people here. He’ll point them in the direction of the bridge and say “walk up that road till you get to a border patrol agent. They walk up the road and it’s easy money for him. He’s charging them thousands of dollars to come across and he puts himself at little or no risk,” said Cabrera.  

Under this present wave of refugees, it’s become almost routine that every morning dozens of people – mostly women and children – will emerge from the park and then surrender to the Border Patrol. They will be processed – names, photos, finger prints taken. And they will be given one phone call. The refugees arrive with few or no possessions but they have a precious scrap of paper with a phone number written on it. That will connect them with someone – usually a family member who will wire them the bus ticket they need to continue their journey.

It’s anyone’s guess which bus station that the border patrol will drop the refugees at. If they are lucky it’s the McAllen Bus. The Salvation Army has set up an emergency disaster relief food truck here.

Juan Mares is manning the truck and passing out box lunches with a hamburger, chips  and a coke.

“I’m here to help the people that are less fortunate than what we are,” he said. Mares said he worked the food truck before when there was a natural disaster, a flood in Eagle Pass, but this is different.

But did he ever think he would be doing disaster relief at the bus station in downtown McAllen?

“Not ever in my wildest dreams,”  

One frail looking woman carrying a small child eagerly accepts the lunches. She says she hasn’t eaten a good meal in about a month and that’s how long she’s been on the road to get to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The McAllen bus station is two blocks from the Sacred Heart Parish Hall and the hall is buzzing with activity. Ophelia de la Santos, of Catholic Charities, is helping with organization.

“They’re just passing through and all we are doing is welcoming a stranger, helping them on their way, because that’s what the church does.” 

And she marvels at the determination of the children who make it through Mexico and end up at the border.

“They came here for one purpose. To reunite with their family members who are already here. Okay? That’s why they’re coming because somebody’s here that says, 'come.' And sends money and help in whatever way. But it’s not easy to come across you have to pay somebody to guide you through. How else would you know. If you are a 14-year-old boy with your mom from Honduras how else would you know how to get to the border of the United States and Mexico? So you pay along the way. It costs money,” she said.

As we speak more volunteers arrive with donated items. It’s seems like an organized operation but there is confusion. Catholic Charities has no line of communication or official contact with the border patrol. They don’t know when the border patrol bus will arrive with new refugees. And they don’t know where. They could be dropped off at the Brownsville bus station which is 60 miles away.

Sister Norma Pimentel says a little bit of communication would go a long way in helping her operation be more effective and efficient in helping those in need.

“It’s terrible. It’s like a cat and mouse kind of craziness. Why? We need to coordinate and get together and figure out what needs to happen. How can we figure out how to respond to this humanitarian crisis.”

And Sister Norma says this isn’t the first time she’s seen a wave of humanity come up from Central America and arrive on the border. She remembers well the 1980’s during the era of the U.S. backed Contras were attacking Nicaragua, death squads in El Salvador and widespread human rights abuses in Guatemala and Honduras.

“Of course this is different, this is more children. I’ve never seen so many children – unaccompanied children. Right now we mostly see women with their children but I know there are so many children that are detained by immigration – so it’s a humanitarian crisis."

Also on this edition of Texas Matters:

On Juneteenth, Texas before racial equality

Juneteenth was on Thursday, and this weekend across Texas many communities will celebrate the day 149 years ago when news reached Texas that President Lincoln had emancipated the slaves. This was two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

Just as news of freedom was late getting to Texas, actual freedom and equal protection under the law took even longer to be established in Texas. There’s no greater example of that than the 1910 Slocum Massacre.

The massacre was an all white mob attack on an East Texas black community that has been labeled possibly the worst racial atrocity in Texas history. The story of the attack is told in a new book: “The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An act of Genocide in East Texas.”

The author is E.R. Bills. It’s published by History Press.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi