The pace is slow under the heat of the glaring sun in the Rio Grande Valley. Pedestrians in McAllen, Texas, walk the city’s streets, continuing on with their daily routines, strolling past a backdrop of bilingual signs detailing offers for clothing, electronics, southern fried food and tacos.
Here, in the urban sprawl of this southern city, with the ever-present retail franchises that are spread along so many of America’s highways and roads, US and Mexican culture have become deeply intertwined. In a region that is 90 percent Hispanic, residents easily switch between Spanish and English, making a first-time visitor feel welcome no matter what side of the border they’re from.
But in a small three-block radius in the downtown part of the city, the welcome is less warm. This is where, every week, hundreds of undocumented immigrants are transported in handcuffs or ankle monitors from detention centres to federal courts.
Behind closed doors, crucial, life-changing decisions are made. If the judge rules in favour of further evaluating a migrant’s asylum request, the individual in the dock will be released and sent to a respite centre. If the judge decides they don’t qualify for asylum, they face two options: being detained or deported.
However, in recent weeks, following the introduction of US President Donald Trump’s much-publicised ‘zero tolerance’ stance on illegal immigrants, that first option now seems to be off the table. Before, immigrants caught crossing the border illegally would be deported but not necessarily subjected to criminal proceedings. Today, under a new directive from the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, prosecutors are being encouraged to prosecute anyone who has illegally entered the country.
Amid the crackdown, more than 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their families this spring. Judges have ordered the government to reunite those who have been taken with their loved ones.
Immigration has become the biggest topic in the United States, making headlines across the world. But the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants once they’ve crossed the border has always existed, out of sight.
“If people don’t start talking, this will remain invisible,” Antonio Carrizales, a 65-year-old Mexican-American, tells the Times.
He explains how he travelled to McAllen to protest and express his anger at the Trump administration’s policies.
“When I was a child, I was separated from my parents when they were deported,” he adds. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to them.”
Two weeks ago, an audio recording of crying children went viral on social media. The clip, circulated by the non-profit journalistic organisation ProPublica, featured detained immigrant kids at the Ursula detention centre in McAllen, Texas. They were sobbing, calling out for their parents.
The information was not new – human rights organisations had been denouncing the separation of migrant families for months. But for the first time, it struck a chord in the nation’s conscience. The clip sparked a tremendous backlash, one so strong that President Trump eventually signed an executive order backtracking on previous policy.
Since then, McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley have become the epicentre of a political battle, with activists, journalists, politicians, church groups and volunteers pouring into the area to visit the detention centres, organise protests and hold vigils.
One such demonstration took place at the end of June. It was led by Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, who had joined Mexican-American civil rights leader Dolores Huerta for a rally in McAllen’s Archer park, where they kicked off a 24-hour hunger strike. The duo, accompanied by a group of activists, would later try to enter the Ursula detention centre.
“We can’t forget that these people are human beings. These are brothers, fathers, little children... the President of the United States should have some dignity,” Kennedy said before TV cameras, after the Border Patrol officials had forced them away.
“My brother was deported to Mexico three months ago. He was separated from his children, who were born in the United States, who were born here!” exclaimed Rosa Bocanera, an undocumented immigrant who was attending a protest in Archer Park, McAllen. Her brother just crossed back over the border again, illegally, she said. “We just want to work, to live a better life, and provide a better future for our children.”
The Rio Grande Valley is on the southernmost tip of Texas. It is one of the busiest land border crossings in the United States, extending almost 100 miles across the US-Mexican border.
The region’s population grew substantially in the 1990s, when – following the introduction of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) – the area witnessed the emergence of maquiladoras, essentially Mexican factories. That brought with it a surge of industrial development on the border. Today, Mexicans frequently travel across the border and the Rio Grande for shopping, business, or just tourism.
As well as being one of the busiest spots on the border, it is also the most illegally transited crossing into the United States. The numbers are high: the US Border Patrol Agency (CPB) detained over 186,830 undocumented migrants in the Rio Grande Valley in 2016, according to the latest statistics published by US Homeland Security (DHS). This represents almost two out of every five people that are apprehended trying to enter the country each year, of the nearly half a million that enter the United States.
Not all immigrants come here illegally though. Many are asylum seekers who are fleeing violence from Central America.
“I came here to escape the gangs in El Salvador, with my daughter,” said 37-year-old Rosalba Hernández in an interview.
She sat with an electronic monitor locked to her ankle, waiting for the bus with her daughter. Like many other Central American immigrants, she made the long and difficult trip to the United States, entering through a legal border entry point. She requested asylum, only to be detained, stripped of her belongings and processed by the courts. The judge ordered her to wear an electronic monitor until her next court date to ensure she didn’t go missing.
Thousands of other immigrants are in the same position as Rosalba. In 2016, Salvadoreans made up the second-largest group of asylum recipients, according to the DHS’s immigration statistics.
There is a backlog of more than 690,000 open deportation cases held in the courts.
Some are seeking to provide refuge and hope to those who need it most.
“Everyday we received up to 200 migrants in our respite centre. With 95 percent coming from Central and South America,” Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in the Rio Grande, told the Times.
As she speaks, a group of 40 migrants enter the room. The centre’s volunteers start to applaud. The migrants – men, women and children – look confused. It’s probably the first time they’ve been made to feel welcome since they arrived in the United States. They look exhausted, clad in the same dirty clothes they have been wearing since they were detained. Some women are in tears, the men mostly have a glazed look on their faces. Many of the children look very thin. Their shoes are missing laces, removed by the border guards because of suicide prevention protocols.
The centre clicks into gear like clockwork. Volunteers distributing bags full of food, clothing, healthcare products, toys and envelopes with directions on how to get to their destination. Most of the migrants will not stay in the Rio Grande Valley. They instead travel to different points in the US, where their friends or family already are, where their relatives can help them find work. They plan to go to Louisana, Virginia, Colorado, California, all the different places in the US, you name it.
A lawyer, all of a sudden, enters the respite centre. She starts to speak in front of the seated group of migrants. Her name is Claire Antonelli, an immigration lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Remember, only a judge has the power to handle your case. The officials don’t have the power to deport you,” she says, speaking in Spanish.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to take away this right, saying he wants to give border patrol officials the authority to deport people without due process, without them going to court.
“Your case won’t be easy. And don’t trust any lawyer that tells you it is,” Antonelli continues. “If you choose to hire one, make sure the community trusts them.
“Many will take advantage of you,” she warns.
The information they receive in this brief legal session could be the most crucial part of their week, though it’s not apparent whether it is registering with the exhausted migrants. However, one tentatively raises his hand after Antonelli finishes.
“I was detained in the Port Isabel detention centre for five days. And I was separated from my child. How can I find him?” he asks.
The Border Patrol’s South Texas Rio Grande Valley sector is currently detaining over 1,000 children who have been separated from their families. At least 2,000 who were detained this spring are being held across the country. The exact number of detainees is unknown, government officials have declined to update their figures since the Department of Health and Human Services said 2,054 children are in their care on June 26, only conceding the number is “under 3,000.”
Recently, a US judge, Dana Sabraw, gave the Department 30 days to reunite the children with their families, ordering the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that minors under the age of five are with their families within 14 days, rising to 30 days for those over the age of five. At present, no-one knows if the authorities are indeed complying with this order.
At detention centres across the south, protesters are gathering, outraged. Outside one, Casa Padre, a shelter based in Brownsville, Texas, run by the non-profit Southwest Key Programs, a group of 30 to 40 people are holding a vigil. They read scripture, give speeches and call on the centre to release and reunite children with their families.
“It’s not right, just, or fair, decent or moral, that parents and children must be stripped from one another, that those children will be left with strangers,” says a member of the Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical group, who reads from a podium close to the Southwest Key Programs Casa Padre, a shelter based in Brownsville, Texas. “It’s not good that the politics and discourse of our nation have turned into us versus them.”
Southwest Key Programs run a series of centres. An estimated 1,600 children are currently residing in 26 shelters located in Texas, California, and Arizona.
The average stay for a child has risen from 42 to 52 days since Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy went into effect. The Brownsville shelter houses 10 to 17-year-old boys. They spend the majority of their time indoors and are given just one hour a day outside for Physical Education, and another free hour of time to play additional sports. The building used to be a Walmart supermarket.
President Trump won the Republican primaries and the presidential election with the most anti-immigration platform witnessed in the United States in decades. His persistent antiimmigrant rhetoric and policies since have taken their toll, with both documented and undocumented residents living in fear.
In addition, he has increased resources. At the end of last year, the president signed an executive order to boost the staffing levels of ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency) by 10,000 people, a third of its current number of employees.
ICE was originally created in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration in response to the September 11, 2001, attack. While the CPB concentrates on monitoring the US borders, ICE focuses on “Enforcement and Removal Operations.” This essentially means locating, arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants that already reside in the country. In Barack Obama’s administration, ICE only targeted undocumented immigrants who were criminals, but the Trump administration has taken it to a new level – allowing the organisation to arrest anyone who is residing in the US illegally.
“There is a much greater presence of ICE now,” says Lourdes Flores, the president of ARISe NGO, a community-based programme that works with lowincome neighbourhoods in South Texas, where many immigrants live. “They station their cars just outside the neighbourhood. But the community warns each other [when they’re here].”
Some believe the president’s rhetoric is just as damaging. In San Benito, Texas, a small city between Brownsville and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, the election led the board of a refuge centre to cancel a fundraising campaign.
“Two years ago, we were going to start raising money for a new facility. But we had to forget that due to all the negativity against immigrants and asylum seekers,” says Sister Zeta, a nun who runs the Providencia Pousada emergency immigrant shelter. She says the centre is increasingly receiving more immigrants.
LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Enter) a community union group founded by César Chavez, is at the forefront of activism in the area. Despite the deteriorating situation, it continues to provide support by organising members of the Latin American community in the Rio Grande Valley – one of the poorest regions in the nation – to support their kin.
“This area is becoming more militarised, and with this administration, it’s much worse. Which is leading people who have lived here for many years – even though they don’t have documents – to be deported much faster,” says Marta Sanches, LUPE’s community organiser.
“Now, they look at the colour of your skin. If you look brown and are on the border, the state troopers will call ICE and they’ll detain you,” explained Carrizales, who is also a member of Lupe.
With Trump’s arrival in the White House, the human rights situation has considerably worsened for immigrants on the border. But there is some hope that the media spotlight that’s currently shining on the situation may be starting to change public opinion.
Recent polls show that feelings toward immigration are beginning to shift. An estimated 85 percent of Democrat voters and 65 percent of Republican voters viewed immigration as a good thing, according to a Gallup poll that was released last week. Another survey released by the Pew Research Center showed that almost 7 in 10, 69% percent of the population, in the United States are “sympathetic” toward immigrants who are here illegally. These polls were taken before the Ursula detention centre audio recordings circulated, making it likely that attitudes may even have shifted further.
But in the meantime, undocumented immigrants and their children are still at the border, being held, being detained, being mistreated. All for seeking refuge with their family. Refuge from poverty, refuge from violence. And they still need help.