A pack of underaged migrants, many with their mothers, many more without, stand on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in broad daylight, with less than a mile of water between them and Texas. They can see the Border Patrol agents from here, the sun reflecting off their white, air-conditioned trucks, and chances are the Border Patrol can see them. But it doesn’t matter. In fact, the migrants are standing at this particular point—away from an official port of entry but close to Border Patrol’s regularly patrolled routes—because they want to get caught.
In recent weeks, the size of these groups has swelled to up to 100. On at least three occasions, Rio Grande Valley Sector Border Patrol agents have encountered groups of nearly 200 migrants. However, Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Specialist Dennis Smith notes, these blocs of border crossers “are not attempting to abscond.”
It’s a long and dangerous journey to this symbolic river from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where many of these young migrants are trying to leave behind a life plagued by poverty and gang violence. Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to send the message—along with millions of dollars in aid—to these Central American countries that unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border illegally will not be allowed to stay, smugglers promise that the conditions they’ll encounter once picked up by Border Patrol are still infinitely better than the conditions they’re fleeing. And until the president manages to successfully clear the immigration court backlog and carry out quick and consistent deportation proceedings, there’s some truth to the smugglers’ promise.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, mostly Central American families and unaccompanied minors are arriving in the U.S. via Texas’s Rio Grande Valley at a rate of more than 35,000 per month. The Southwest border is expected to receive a total of 90,000 lone children and teenagers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador by the end of this year—that’s not including the kids who cross with their mothers.
Under existing U.S. law, minors from countries other than Mexico must be held in Customs and Border Protection custory for no more than 72 hours before they become the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. It’s up to ORR, then, to house them, ideally with relatives, during their deportation proceedings—which can take years.
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, of south Florida, is currently in Brownsville, Texas meeting with some of the children and families who are overflowing the official and makeshift detention centers there. He told The Daily Beast that the majority of the kids he’s spoken to said they came to the United States in hopes of reuniting with a parent who lives here. He says the current flow of families and children over the border can be traced back to the rampant gang violence taking hold in Central America, the sophisticated smuggling networks who’ve found the loopholes in the U.S.’s broken immigration system, and the fact that Congress has no plans to fix them.
“These people watch TV, too,” he said over the phone while in transit to the McAllen Border Patrol Station. “The coyotes have figured out that they’ve got this new client base and they don’t even have to get them to Texas. They just have to get them to the river and tell them, ‘Run toward that guy.’”
Garcia and others who’ve met with the detainees note that the migrants apprehended by Border Patrol—particularly the young ones—are acting at the behest of their typically cartel-sponsored guides. Reports that cartels have been known to cross migrants in heavily policed areas in order to distract Border Patrol agents while they smuggle drugs raises speculation that the large groups Border Patrol has seen recently may be part of organized chaos orchestrated by smugglers to cause a diversion. After all, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector isn’t the most equipped to handle a rush like the one it’s seen lately.
“Migration patterns are like this. They swell up, then they go back down,” said Juanita Molina, executive director of the Tucson, Arizona-based humanitarian groups Border Action Network and Humane Borders. “This is similar to what Tucson was seeing in 2008 and 2009.”
Yet while the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector has seen a steady decrease in illegal immigrant apprehensions in conjunction with the doubling in size of its force over the past 10 years, Rio Grande Valley’s sudden spike in apprehensions came almost overnight, without the staff to match. A recent Associated Press report on the staffing insufficiencies pointed out that 97 illegal border crossers were arrested by roughly 2,500 Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector on June 14, while on that same day, the Rio Grande Valley’s roughly 3,200 arrested 1,422.
President Obama has requested $2 billion from Congress to plug the holes at the border to stem the flow of undocumented families and children with enforcement in lieu of reform. In the meantime, hordes of migrants, with the help of smugglers who make a living off their desperation, look poised to continue flooding the border, hopeful of setting foot in the Land of the Free—even if their freedom here is short-lived.