Tom Dart, The Guardian, December 9, 2016
In another context you might guess the giant marquees are being set up for a grand wedding. But this is the Texas border with Mexico, and the white tents are rising as the federal government’s latest response to a sharp rise in migrant numbers that is drawing parallels with the influx of 2014.
Supply trucks arrived every few minutes as workers set up the Border Patrol holding facility in a field next to the Donna International Bridge, a few hundred metres from a rust-coloured metal border fence.
With a capacity of 500, it will hold unaccompanied children and families. In far west Texas, 750 miles away, a similar centre opened near El Paso last month after a dramatic spike of unauthorised crossings in a previously quiet sector.
The increase stems perhaps in part from the fear that Donald Trumpwill build a mighty wall, but is mainly a consequence of continuing violence and economic distress in Central America that migrants say make staying at home a riskier bet than trying to cross into the US and hoping for the best – whatever the president-elect may say or do.
“Where I lived there was a lot of violence, a lot of shootings,” said Marta, 21, who had set out from El Salvador with her two children in November. Her one-year-old boy slept in her arms; her four-year-old girl, all energy and excitement, treated the row of seats as a climbing frame.
A manilla A4 envelope contained details of their detention, release and court date. Their itinerary for the next two days was scribbled on the back: in 90 minutes they would board a bus to Dallas, then another to Charlotte, then one to Washington, where family members would pick them up.
With Trump about to take power, Marta worries that all the effort will be in vain. “He’s going to throw everybody who doesn’t have papers back to their country,” she said. “I’m afraid.”
Twenty miles north-west of the Donna bridge, in downtown McAllen, the Sacred Heart Catholic church’s community centre continues to feed, clothe and shelter migrant families released from detention before they leave on public buses to meet up with family or friends elsewhere in the country and await court hearings.
The crisis did not stop when the headlines did. According to Border Patrol statistics, 46,195 people were apprehended on the south-west border in October – an increase from recent months and a rise of 41% from the previous October.
In total, 408,870 people – including 59,692 lone minors – were stopped in the past fiscal year, compared with 331,333 in 2015 and 479,371 in 2014, when a surge in unaccompanied children and families arriving from central America sparked a political firestorm and placed the immigration system under immense strain.
Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Sacred Heart shelter, said that it was serving 300-400 people a day around the time of the election, now down to 250-300 – not far off its 2014 peak. “We’re always short of something; we’re constantly getting donations and constantly running out of stuff,” she said.
Some 240 miles north, in San Antonio, a similar, if not more chaotic, scene played out at a Mennonite church over the weekend where advocates and volunteers scrambled to take care of hundreds of women and children suddenly released from two Texas centres after a judge’s ruling last Friday threw the federal government’s plans for family detention into question.
But in McAllen the talk was of coping with expanding numbers. A pile of plastic bags containing clothes reached almost to the roof. Blue mattresses were stacked near the entrance, ready to be set up in the hall if the three large tents in the parking lot reached capacity. Christmas stockings filled with toys bulged out of a box on a table – parting gifts for the children.
In one tent, humid and cramped, more than half of the two-dozen people inside were children, one as yet unborn: Daniela’s due date is 20 December.
The 25-year-old from Honduras said through a translator she was “a little bit” worried about making the 1,500 mile journey while heavily pregnant. “Sometimes you have to come through brush,” she said. Daniela said she was fleeing domestic violence and left on 25 November. She arrived eight days later, leaving behind her eight-year-old son, who is with his father.
Crossing the Rio Grande was a case of second-time lucky: she was caught in Mexico on 8 November and sent back to Honduras. But a second attempt was included in the $6,000 price charged by the people-smugglers. Despite her looming due date she felt obliged to try again since her US-based mother had provided the money and the family is desperate to be reunited.
Daniela said she spent two-and-a-half days in a detention facility where she met several other pregnant women who were “treated the same as everybody else”. She said she had been forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a foil sheet.
“Because it’s the US [I thought] you’d get treated a lot better, but actually it’s not, they treat you better in Mexico,” she said. “In Mexico they give you a blanket.” At least, unlike others, she was not forced to wear a GPS ankle bracelet on release. She has a court date on 19 December.
“The conditions suffered by immigrants and refugees at the border have not improved at all since 2014,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Raices, a legal aid non-profit. “They build more, they make them bigger, they don’t make them better.”
Several other women at Sacred Heart on Monday complained of cramped, chilly conditions and unsympathetic treatment in the federal facility. The milk for her baby was almost frozen, said Mariela, 21, as her nine-month-old son crawled and munched on an apple. Carmen, 36, said the centre was cold and there was a lack of food, but otherwise it was “more or less OK”.
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement announcing the new centre that it will open soon and that the agency will “ensure the basic needs of those in CBP custody are met … add housing, beds, toilets and bathing facilities as necessary” and “regularly assess whether to expand these facilities or keep this temporary facility operational” based on the number of crossings.
Daniela planned to join her mother in time for for the birth of her son, who will be an American citizen. Maybe, she joked, she would name him Donald, after the next president: if he ever found out, “that way he might feel a bit more compassionate”.