It’s 11:45 p.m. on the eve of Independence Day, and the dull glow of a Chevy Tahoe’s parking lights breaks the darkness on this dirt road, a meandering trail that mimics the serpentine curl of the Rio Grande.
The silence is disturbed by a far-flung crackle and snap, the unmistakable sound of footsteps in the brush. A Border Patrol agent shines a spotlight mounted on his SUV into the sparse trees that separate the river from the road, where scores of used diapers, lost shoes and children’s clothes mark the way to an elusive promise, to El Norte.
He scans. Nothing. The light’s blast evaporates. Silence. Another crackle. Another beam of punishing light. Only trees. The beam fades.
Another agent hones in on the source and shines his SUV’s headlights. Out of the darkness, the short legs of a 9-year-old in khakis emerge, then the legs of two mothers and, finally, the forms of two toddlers clinging to their sides. The agents trade the headlights for their less affronting flashlights.
“¿Por qué vas para El Norte?” the agent asks. Why are you headed to the north?
“¿Tienes miedo?” the agent asks Flor García, a 19-year-old mother with tears in her eyes and a wide-eyed 1-year-old on her hip. Are you afraid?
García and her daughter, also named Flor, crossed the border with the help of a so-called coyote, a smuggler, along with another single mother and her two children.
Only 8 miles away and hours earlier, Gov. Rick Perry and top state and federal immigration officials had convened for a congressional hearing that focused on ways to stop exactly this sort of illegal crossing, to protect national security and to stem an overwhelming surge of immigrants crossing illegally.
Like tens of thousands before them, the two families came to surrender to agents, concluding a lengthy and dangerous trek from their home country of Honduras. They traveled through Mexico, where migrants face very real threats of violence, rape, kidnapping and human trafficking.
About 90 Hondurans a day pass through this region of South Texas, the Honduran Consulate said. Many tell immigration officials the journey’s risks pale to the grim certainties of their home country, which reports the highest murder rate in the world.
Tens of thousands have also fled to the U.S. from El Salvador and Guatemala to escape violence.
At least a dozen travelers who spoke to the American-Statesman recounted either abject poverty or extreme violence, or both, as their primary motivation. Most of those making the perilous trip are mothers with young children or are children on their own hoping to reunite with family in the U.S.
“Here, the people live better than in my country,” said Dayana Isabel Ortez Méndez, a single mom who fled El Salvador with her 2-year-old daughter, Adriana Nicole, to join family in Los Angeles.
Gripping her bus ticket at McAllen Central Station, Ortez Méndez said gangs have besieged her hometown of San Miguel. On certain Fridays — residents call them “Black Fridays” — people stay in their homes out of fear.
“On those days, you can’t be in the streets after 2 p.m.,” she said. “You must hide yourself or you can be cut to pieces by them.”
Republican Party leaders, including Perry, say President Barack Obama’s immigration policies are to blame for the immigration surge. They blame Obama’s 2012 executive order, dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which delayed deportations for undocumented immigrant children, for sparking rumors that children who come to the U.S. illegally will be granted “permisos,” or permission to stay.
Some travelers, such as Lilian Noemi Alfaro Gómez, a 26-year-old single mother from Honduras joining family in Austin, also cited these rumors.
“I wanted a better life for my daughter,” Alfaro said. “And when I heard President Obama was offering permission, I started the trip to U.S.”
Border officials report that more than 150,000 Central Americans have crossed the border this year, more than 52,000 of them unaccompanied children, and the unprecedented surge shows no sign of abating. More than two-thirds crossed in this Rio Grande Valley Sector alone, according U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials, many of them through this terrain near Anzalduas Park.
Entangled by false rumors, federal laws and an overcrowded immigration enforcement apparatus, children who cross the border without parents or guardians are detained in tight quarters in temporary shelters for 72 hours, sometimes more, before they are transferred to the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
For migrant families, mostly single mothers and children, the federal government’s response has been to divert immigrants to cities across the state and the country with orders to appear in immigration court.
Perry, speaking at a congressional hearing held Thursday in McAllen, criticized that approach as “short-sighted and tragic.”
To be sure, the long-term impacts of this migration — on cities, school systems and social programs, for instance — have yet to be seen.
For now, Flor and her daughter will be detained, typically for a few days. Then, if the usual protocol is followed, a Border Patrol van will drop them off at Central Station.
Though most travelers have enough money to purchase their own bus tickets to meet family in cities across the U.S., many have nowhere to stay before the buses leave, and most are in need of rest, medical attention and sustenance.
It falls to the local government and charities to welcome the uninvited visitors to America.
Food, water and bus tickets
McAllen has become the reluctant focal point in a bitterly partisan immigration debate and a case study in the current paradox of the American promise.
City officials have funded a special bus system that escorts about 180 migrant women and children a day from Central Station to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is less than a quarter-mile from the downtown station.
They arrive tired, dehydrated, hungry and owning only the only clothes they wear, smelling of their unforgettable travel and sweat. There is much to do.
The volunteers with Catholic Charities begin with applause.
On a recent 92-degree afternoon, a handful of mothers, their children in tow, approached the open double-doors at the rear of the church.
About 40 volunteers set down their brooms and boxes and unfolded shirts and clapped and cheered, “¡Bienvenidos!”
The mothers, bemused by their reception, soon looked to the dozens of tables with ascending stacks of donated clothes, food, toys and baby food. And loads of Pedialyte, which has proved crucial in treating dehydrated infants and children.
In a corner, volunteers play with children, a calculated distraction to afford their mothers the sleep that they’ve been deprived of for several days. The community here — mostly Hispanic, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants — have flooded the place with free stuff.
Outside, male volunteers are, oddly, loading dozens of boxes of snack food sent to the church onto a truck.
Volunteer Luis Treviño explains: “The children can’t eat it because they haven’t had nutrition, and it burns their stomachs. So we have to send it back. If they eat it, they throw up.”
Though large air-conditioned tents, stocked with Salvation Army cots, accommodate about 30 visitors each night, few travelers stay for long. With the help of the church, most purchase bus tickets and head out the same day or the next for larger cities.
Waving from a horse-drawn carriage Friday morning, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling led the Independence Day parade down Main Street, a block from Central Station, where tens of thousands who crossed the South Texas border boarded buses and dispersed across the nation.
If McAllen were a microcosm of the American experience, this station would be the new Ellis Island, with its impossible deluge of people and questions lost in translation and frustrated workers forced to stay late — and the children, always the children, running around and playing with toys given to them by the church.
While Texas and federal officials debate whether to embrace or turn away the masses huddled here, Darling said it’s not an issue of enforcing immigration laws, but of morality. Helping those in such dire need, he said, “it’s just the humanitarian thing to do.”
Darling has been to the Capitol in Austin and on national TV to ask for state and federal money to help. But he said the McAllen community has stepped in where the federal government has fallen short and said there is no state of emergency here.
“We have a bus station,” Darling said. “And now we’re a victim of our own circumstances.”
On Independence Day, he is just an American waving from his perch at staple Americana: Adults and children waving flags, cheering and clapping as veterans in uniforms walk past vendors selling popcorn, soda and hot dogs.
A block away, in the Central Station foyer, Roxana Mejía, a 22-year-old single mother who wants to be an American, waits.
She fled from Usulután, in southeastern El Salvador, an agricultural city where she worked at a corn mill for $5 a day and lived in constant fear of gangs that terrorize the area.
“I feel happy to be here because I am going to have a roof over my head,” she said.
The politics surrounding U.S. immigration laws to her are an abstraction.
What’s real is the bus ticket in her hand that gets her and her 1-year-old son to a safe place with her cousin in Austin, in El Norte.