Volunteers work alongside border agents to help migrants at time of arrest, nonprofit says

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ROMA, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— The president of a faith-based volunteer group in Starr County says she and her volunteers have been “working side by side” with U.S. Border Patrol agents for the past year to help migrants as soon as they’re apprehended.

“We are there working side by side. We are allowed to service the immigrants while they are waiting for transportation,” said Deana Hinson, president of Bethel Mission Outreach Center, in Roma, Texas. She spoke during a Tuesday afternoon phone conference with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, (D-Texas), who was explaining a new FEMA reimbursement process to nonprofits and faith-based groups.

Seemingly taken by surprise, Cuellar asked Hinson to reiterate specifically what volunteers do. Nonprofits working with migrants prior to them being processed by federal officials is not something that has readily occurred since a surge of migrants began crossing in the Rio Grande Valley in masses in 2014.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is seen on July 19, 2019, at a press conference at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, where he first announced a new reimbursement system for nonprofits and municipalities to receive FEMA funds. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“After they cross the river, Border Patrol has collected them and we are on call,” Hinson said. “Sometimes we have hundreds of them crossing the river, and we are waiting with diapers and needs, for the migrants to help them prior to any processing.”

“This is a different twist,” Cuellar mused on the call.

“What do we do about a situation like in Starr County, in Roma, who are not covered by a process but they still provide a service?” Cuellar asked. “In my opinion, we’ll be making some adjustments.”

“When the migrants cross the river and they show up on U.S. soil, our Border Patrol collects them and begins the process of collecting the information and organizing them into groups. We’ve seen as many as 500 at a time, anywhere from 100 to 500,” Hinson told Border Report. “Because we have a close relationship with our Border Patrol officers, they call us.”

(Border Report reached out to U.S. Border Patrol officials in the Rio Grande Valley Sector to confirm whether this is happening and for further details. A Border Patrol spokesperson confirmed receipt of our request but had not responded as of publication time. This story will be updated if they do.)

‘They call upon us because we have resources’

On Tuesday’s conference call were media, municipal leaders from McAllen, Roma, San Antonio, El Paso and Laredo, as well as representatives from nonprofits and faith-based organizations from those towns. None disputed or questioned what Hinson was saying.

“They call upon us because we have resources,” she said. “We bring bottles of water and drinks and snacks that can be eaten right there on the spot without any preparation.”

They also provide diapers and feminine products and some immediate medical screening. “We provide those as well while they wait, which can be sometimes an hour or three or four, depending upon the transportation,” she said.

The migrants apprehended in Roma, in Starr County, are sent to U.S. Customs and Border Processing facilities in McAllen, an hour to the east. “Because of the large numbers sometimes the transportation takes a while,” she said.

Starr County is a rural area which in the 2010 Census had a population of just 61,000 and median family income of $16,504. (Read more about rural parts of Starr County in this Border Report story.)

Thousands of migrants have been apprehended crossing near Roma, Texas, which is located on the Rio Grande.

FEMA humanitarian aid reimbursements

Rep. Cuellar held Tuesday’s conference call to update nonprofits and municipalities on the application process for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to reimburse them for humanitarian care of migrants. Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, has been working since 2014 to get federal reimbursement funds back to the communities in South Texas that have been helping migrants.

In fiscal 2019, Cuellar helped to push through a measure that appropriates $30 million to reimburse entities for food and shelter services of migrants from Jan. 1 through June 30 of this past year. But some entities, like the City of San Antonio, have grown impatient with repeated delays as this revamped process has yet to be open for applications.

(Read Border Report stories on delayed FEMA funds here, and frustration expressed by San Antonio officials. )

Cuellar said applications should be open in the next day or two through the United Way online. The applications will only be open for a 10-day window and receipts and proof of services must be supplied to migrants who have been processed through CBP.

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