McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Inside the Humanitarian Respite Center in the South Texas border town of McAllen, dozens of recently arrived migrants on Friday morning fished through donated shoes and clothing sprawled upon several cots and mats, looking for clean and dry items to wear.
Most wore tattered and muddy shoes and jeans, which represent their arduous journeys — many from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — to cross the Southwestern border into the United States.
These latest arrivals add to the influx of migrants in South Texas. Their journeys came during a week of heavy rains and flooding in the Rio Grande Valley region during which several storms pounded the area. This made even more difficult their already dangerous treks north, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the center.
On Friday, she again met with Border Report and took us on a tour of the facility while she updated us on a recent drop in migrant families released by Department of Homeland Security personnel in South Texas; the status of expedited family-unit releases by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, and how her center is helping migrants to understand the ever-changing immigration landscape and politics that often are dictated from Washington, D.C.
The visit coincided with recently released data on immigration cases that shows an uptick in migrants placed in the Alternatives to Detention program run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that uses a cellphone app to track asylum seekers whereabouts as they are legally released into the interior of the United States.
New data released this week by the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, which tracks immigration cases nationwide, found nearly 100,000 migrants have been placed in ICE ATD programs, as of May 13.
A growing number are being put in what is called the SmartLINK app monitoring program that uses facial recognition to confirm identity as well as location monitoring via GPS from a cellphone to ensure migrants are in the destination cities where they told border agents they would be traveling.
“Now the biggest growth we’ve seen is in SmartLINK technology where someone has a smart phone and that smartphone itself is linked to ICE and that is used as a case management tool for tracking,” Austin Kocher, lead TRAC researcher, told Border Report.
This is a departure from cumbersome black ankle monitoring devices that border agents had placed on asylum seekers, such as those who came for help to the Humanitarian Respite Center, during previous immigration surges back in 2014 and 2015.
Now, migrants here can sift through piles of clothes and look for items without the need to accommodate the bulky and ill-fitting devices, she said.
Pimentel says she was told by Border Patrol officials that ankle bracelets would not be used this year. She says the devices often hurt the migrants, causing bruising and swelling on their ankles and made it difficult for them to walk and shower. The devices also required long charging times multiple times per day that require the wearer to remain close to an electrical outlet or other power source.
“Since we started receiving families this year, the chief of Border Patrol made it very clear that they would not be putting ankle bracelets on the migrants,” she said.
Border Patrol officials told Border Report on Friday that they are still processing about 1,000 migrants per day in the Rio Grande Valley, with a large percentage unaccompanied minors.
The Department of Health and Human Services reported on Wednesday there were 19,344 migrant youth in their care, including 340 apprehended by CBP Wednesday.
The rush to process so many migrants arriving across the border into South Texas has changed the way Border Patrol and CBP officials operate in the field.
Instead of detaining migrant families for several days, they are now quickly releasing them to Pimentel and other non-governmental organizations along the border, often within 24 hours. And, they are delaying placing migrants in ATD programs until caseworkers assigned by ICE meet with them in their destination cities.
Pimentel said the cellphone app is not being assigned to migrants here on the South Texas border.
Kocher said most ICE case workers are assigning the new smartLINK app to cases in Los Angeles, and other cities once migrants reach their destination location.
In fact most migrants are released so quickly from the South Texas border that they are being discharged without formal Notice To Appear documents that make clear when and where their upcoming immigration hearings are. Many thousand have been released with their booking reports, called I-385 forms.
This included 24-year-old Gerson Lopez, of El Salvador, who was at the Humanitarian Respite Center on Friday with his 2-year-old son Alesandro Baille and the boy’s mother. He was released with a 385 form and had no idea that once he gets to Los Angeles that he is to report to an ICE official there.
He worked pumping gasoline in his home country and said he came seeking a better life and future for his family. The family walked two hours after crossing the Rio Grande until they came to Border Patrol agents and, after testing negative for coronavirus, was admitted into the Humanitarian Respite Center.
It was his understanding that the permiso travel permission form he has allows him to stay in the United States for only 50 days. But, in fact, he is allowed to stay legally in the United States until his immigration proceedings are complete, provided he regularly check-in with ICE officials.
Pimentel says she worries about migrants, like Lopez, who don’t fully understand the ever-changing immigration laws and policies, and that is why her center offers round-the-clock free legal advice from volunteer immigration lawyers.
“We have a group of attorneys that work with us and are available all day to answer questions for them so they know what’s next,” Pimentel said. “It’s very important for me that every single person who arrives at our center knows what’s next so they can follow up with their immigration case so they don’t have an appointment and fail to show up. It’s important that they are aware of what’s going to happen.”
Under federal laws, if a migrant misses an immigration court hearing or fails to check in with an ICE official they could be subject to immediate deportation.
“Every single person. Every single family is important and I want to make sure they feel safe,” she said.
Pimentel said migrants frequently call her from other cities, such as one who recently called from Chicago who told her: “‘I don’t know what to do next.?’ I want to make sure they know before they leave,” she said.
Pimentel is well respected and well known on both sides of the Rio Grande and has become the go-to liaison between federal, state, and local U.S. officials, as well as with federal, state and local Mexican officials. She even meets regularly with the consulates for the Central American countries, known as the Northern Triangle, where most migrants are coming from.
During this latest immigration influx into South Texas that began after President Joe Biden took office, she has welcomed and met with several different groups of lawmakers from all across the nation who have come to tour the border, “some leading the narrative in a political way,” she said.
But, it’s the migrants she craves to see on a daily basis, especially the children, she said. This became obvious on Friday as she pointed out various rooms of the facility — a shower area, sleeping area, food pantry and play area — and then stopped mid-sentence to play bubbles with a group of gregarious young children as they hopped on the concrete floor trying to catch them.
Most recently, she has been working to help coordinate the relocation of 700 migrant families living in the crime-ridden border city of Reynosa, Mexico, just south of McAllen. They are waiting to cross into the United States and Pimentel is working with several organizations to move them from the Plaza de la República in downtown Reynosa to near the nonprofit Senda de Vida faith-based migrant center, where amenities, like showers and bathrooms, will be available for them.
For those asylum seekers who do make it to South Texas, Pimentel is often the first person they meet when they get here.
Since a migration surge first began in 2014 in South Texas, this unassuming and soft-spoken nun has captivated and continued to hold the trust of so many different sides and organizations that she has come to be known as the glue that holds them all together.
Now she says more than ever they need donations of food and clothing to help the incoming migrants. She welcomes volunteers to come and help in her facility, like the retired 92-year-old Catholic nun who was at the facility on Friday volunteering for the next two weeks.
She says to those unable to travel to open their hearts to migrants who might be living in their communities in the interior.
“Understand what’s happening so you can educate others about what the reality really is and not be guided by narratives that could be false,” she said. “There’s a very human reality that is happening here and we must all be aware of it.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com