In Rio Grande Valley, a life-altering limbo as asylum process shifts


Highlights

Policy of separating children from families — and order to end the practice — sows confusion, fear along border.

For some immigrants, pursuit of asylum ends with a trip halfway across an international bridge.

In shelters in Mexico, in detention facilities in the United States and in consultations with attorneys, they wait in uncertainty.

Lorena, 31, left Honduras with her husband and four children in mid-April, when gangs started killing children attending local schools and skimming the money she earned as a laundress.

“Every day you hear that they killed four, that they killed 10, that they killed 15,” she said in Spanish. “And every day, every day this. And that’s why I can’t wait for them (to control the gangs) — because I have children.”

Lorena’s 3-year-old, Maquensy, climbed on her in a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on Wednesday, across the river from the United States. Nearly 3,000 miles away, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that included in part, a halt to the separations of children from parents seeking asylum as they flee violence in Central America.

The order might help Lorena, a pseudonym she requested out of fear for the safety of relatives back home, but it’s difficult to tell, as changing information and concerns about every option leave asylum-seekers in a state of limbo.

The Trump administration’s decision to separate more than 2,000 children from their families, and its subsequent order to reverse the policy, has confused asylum-seekers, attorneys and onlookers alike and left them wondering what comes next. Attorneys in the Rio Grande Valley said they haven’t yet seen their clients reunited with their children — or any indications of how or when that might happen.

Meanwhile, asylum-seekers say U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been turning them away on international bridges, saying there are not available resources and office space to process them, a development that’s driving more people to ford the Rio Grande illegally.

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Lorena’s family spent two months making its way north through Mexico, she said, sleeping in bushes and being drenched by thunderstorms. Sometimes they went days without eating, and her children had to beg on the streets for a ham and cheese sandwich. In early June, the family made it to Reynosa, a sprawling city that borders such Texas cities as McAllen and Hidalgo.

Quickly, they went to the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge to request asylum. After waiting for four hours, Lorena said, she saw a U.S. official walk to the Mexican side of the bridge. Shortly afterward, Mexican officials removed her and detained her in a cell in Reynosa for a week. Two of her children were with her, but she cried and cried, worried about the other two.

Now, Lorena doesn’t know what to do. For a week, she and her family have stayed at Reynosa’s Ministerio Senda de Vida’s shelter where the children kick around a ball, and proprietor Hector Silva grows grapes from an arbor. She knows they can’t stay forever, but they can’t go back to Honduras, she said, and she hasn’t summoned the courage to try again at the bridge.

“I’m afraid to cross and have my children taken,” she said. “My children are all I have.”

Blocked on bridges

At international bridges in Hidalgo and Brownsville, a new sight has greeted travelers in recent weeks. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stand at the center point of the bridge’s northbound walking lanes, where they check people’s papers far before they reach the customs point.

That keeps people seeking asylum from even setting foot on U.S. soil. Immigration attorneys have argued that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are required to process all claims for asylum. Those applicants are entitled to a court hearing to prove whether their lives would be in danger if they were deported.

The agency emailed a statement Friday, saying that posting agents on the bridge is a way to “expedite processing” and that it is not turning away asylum-seekers, only making them wait until later.

“The number of inadmissible individuals CBP is able to process varies based upon case complexity; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions,” the statement read. “No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing once space becomes available.”

Patricia Flores, 27, who fled from gang violence in El Salvador in March, bringing her 7-year-old son, Joan, has been turned away at the Hidalgo bridge twice. While playing with her son Wednesday in a Reynosa migrant shelter, she said her only option is to wait and keep trying to gain an asylum hearing.

She has been afraid of the possibilities of detention and separation from Joan on the U.S. side, she said, but she is more afraid of a trip back to El Salvador.

Jennifer Harbury, an immigration attorney from Weslaco, stayed busy for weeks bringing food and water to people who camped on the bridges waiting to claim asylum. She also demanded asylum for clients she personally walked across the bridges. By late this past week, those immigrants had left the Hidalgo bridge. In Brownsville, torrential rains and flooding drove asylum-seekers on the bridge to shelters in Mexico.

Many people lawfully seeking asylum at ports of entry began rafting across the Rio Grande when they were turned away, leading to misdemeanor charges for entering the country outside of a designated location and resulting in child separations, Harbury said.

“You cross the river, we take your kids away,” she said. “You come on the bridge, you’ll sleep on the bridge. Then, when they let them through, they’re no longer giving them bond or parole to stay with family, so they can stay in jail for a couple of years.”

“It’s all a joint attack on refugees to make them go home, and they’re going to get killed if they go home.”

Two buses, two destinations

Twice a day, usually, in recent weeks, two buses pulled up off McAllen’s Bicentennial Boulevard.

One unloaded at the federal courthouse, where shackled immigrants would be charged with illegal entry into the U.S., held in detention facilities and remain separated from their children — for weeks or even months.

The other unloaded a block away, at Catholic Charities’ Humanitarian Respite Center. Immigrants there stay with their children and are released wearing an ankle monitor, which tracks them until their asylum hearings. Volunteers cheer the immigrants when they arrive; give them food and clothing; and help them acquire bus tickets to wherever they plan to go.

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It’s unclear in McAllen why some immigrants were detained and separated from their children while others weren’t, but the luck of the draw is not lost on the mothers who fill the respite center.

A woman who asked to be identified as Lucia, 21, left Guatemala out of fear for her young son and daughter’s safety after gang violence intensified in their neighborhood. When she and her children made it to northern Mexico, she rafted across the river and found Border Patrol agents, which she expected to be part of the process.

Sitting in the respite center in McAllen, wearing pink shoes and pants and a tracking anklet, she was exhausted but flashed a relieved smile. Lucia was horrified, she said, when she arrived in the U.S. and learned that some people had been separated from their children. Thank God, she said, she wasn’t one of them.

“It’s an injustice,” she said in Spanish. “I’d rather be deported than separated from my children.”

Sister Norma Pimentel started the respite center four years ago, thinking it would be needed for only a matter of days. Last week, she described the family separations as abusive, but she said the harsh practices wouldn’t stop asylum-seekers from arriving.

“I asked them the same question: ‘Why come?’” she said. “And they said, ‘I have no choice, my child is in danger.’”

Those who go to court

On Thursday morning, the federal petty crimes docket inside McAllen’s shiny black Bentsen Tower unfolded in a routine way.

Officers led dozens of immigrants in and out of the courtroom in shackles. A woman in gray sweatpants and flip-flops winced as the handcuffs pinched her wrists. A Border Patrol agent drummed his fists together. Each defendant received an English-to-Spanish translation headset. One by one, the judge double-checked their names and ages. Together, they swore an oath to tell the truth.

Asked if they were satisfied with their legal representation, they responded in unison, “Sí.” Then, one by one, as their cases were called, they stood and pleaded guilty.

But one thing was different Thursday. Seventeen defendants deemed “heads of households” had their cases dismissed, said Robert Lopez, a spokesman for the Texas Civil Rights Project. Those 17 were already separated from their children, Lopez said, and attorneys were trying to find out when they might be reunited with them.

The dismissals point to a gray area in how Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings will be implemented. And they beget even more questions about a prosecution process that’s already operating differently.

“They’ve flipped the process,” said Trinidad Gonzales, a professor at South Texas College who has followed the situation closely. “It used to be that if you came in and applied for asylum, they’d process your asylum claim before they considered the criminal claim.”

What happens next

From their offices tucked into a residential neighborhood of Alamo, Texas Civil Rights Project workers have been scrambling to respond to the asylum situation in the Valley. Even as nearby areas flooded last week, and the project’s offices lost power and internet access for hours at a time, attorneys mobilized.

About 300 offers have come in from attorneys all over the country to help represent asylum-seekers, Lopez said. Employees are vetting the attorneys and expect the first of them to begin arriving this week. Every morning and afternoon, four attorneys head to the courthouse to get a few minutes with immigrants who have been separated from their children.

Some separated children have been released to relatives other than their parents, said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the project’s communications director. Project lawyers have interviewed 381 parents in McAllen since the separations began. The group filed a petition in May with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on behalf of five families, seeking an end to the separation policy.

Now, Trump said, the policy has come to a halt, yet it’s unclear what will happen next.

“I think everyone is wondering what the government’s intention is with this executive order,” Lopez said. “There was no answer to what’s going to happen to the over 2,000 children who are currently detained.”

Jose Gonzales, a field supervisor for the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, told a group of officials, including Texas’ U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, on Friday that it could take up to four months to reunite all separated children with their parents.

Families were given a toll-free phone number to call for information about their children, but Lopez didn’t know if any parents represented by Texas Civil Rights Project had been able to locate their children. And the zero tolerance policy could keep families locked up together.

“It is quite possible we are going to see families detained indefinitely,” Lopez said. “While people are saying ‘Hey, families are being reunited,’ that’s not the case.”



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