Unseen overflow of immigrants; Local respite center sees 300 percent increase in October - Brownsville Herald: News

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Unseen overflow of immigrants; Local respite center sees 300 percent increase in October

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Posted: Friday, November 4, 2016 4:30 pm

McALLEN — Oscar Villarreal fled El Salvador after gang members demanded a monthly payment in exchange for the lives of his two children.

“ I couldn’t pay what they were asking, so we just packed up and left,” Villarreal said in Spanish on Thursday outside the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

“ I am glad we left because I just spoke to a family member back home and seven people were killed yesterday by the same gang near where we lived,” said the 37-year-old father.

Families like Villarreal’s have been flooding the center in record numbers over the last few months, but October has been the busiest since the center opened in June 2014, with more than 5,600 immigrants processed. Nearly half of them had to be housed overnight, which puts an extra strain on the resources of everyone involved in this humanitarian effort.

“ If the media thought it was a crisis in 2014, it would be a super crisis right now,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “And where the heck are they now?”

The city of McAllen and other local entities have spent close to $1 million since the center opened, providing assistance and items like showers and tents to house the migrants, Darling said.

McAllen employees helped set up an additional shower Thursday and Emergency Response Director Josh Ramirez said they will be setting up a new tent Friday because the center has been over capacity these past few months, and the numbers are not expected to drop any time soon.

“ We had a pretty extensive briefing about two weeks ago with everybody that was involved and they talked about getting ready for the surge,” Darling said.

Briefings like this one have become common in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector, which tops the nation in apprehensions with more than half a million since 2014, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

At the end of this fiscal year 2016 (October 2015 to September 2016), CBP reported more than 77,000 apprehensions of family units, surpassing the numbers of 2014, which brought national media attention to the Rio Grande Valley.

The total number of people apprehended across the entire southwest border for the months of August and September have also been the highest they’ve been since 2010, CBP data shows.

Darling said one of the most pressing issues to come out of this latest meeting was the lack of buses going out of the city. He said they’ve gone to the companies at the bus station, located just a few blocks from the respite center, and asked them if they could add more trips to help reduce the number of immigrants staying overnight.

“ This week, they started a bus that leaves at 1:30 in the morning, so that should help us significantly, and they said that if there is more traffic, they were willing to do more,” Darling said. “But one of the issues is that it comes back empty — the traffic is northbound, not southbound.”

Back at the center, dozens of mothers and fathers accompanied by their children lay on cots inside two military-style tents set up in the church’s parking lot.

Those who no longer fit inside the tents Thursday, including Villarreal and his 12-year-old daughter Eexsen, sat on the hot asphalt waiting to be taken to the bus station so they could continue their trip north.

“ We are going to Virginia where their mother is waiting for us,” Villarreal said. “We hope to keep fighting and working and to provide our children with an opportunity to become someone and make a life of their own.”

Tears came to his eyes as his daughter leaned in and wrapped her arms around him and smiled. “I want to take advantage of this opportunity and go to school,” said the stalky girl with long black hair and big brown eyes.

“ I like to read, so maybe I’ll be a teacher some day,” she said timidly hiding her face behind her father’s arm.

Darling said he hopes after the election the numbers will begin to drop and blamed some of the verbiage surrounding immigration for the recent spike.

“ I think Trump’s rhetoric on building a fence and getting tough on immigration has been used by some of the people who are smuggling people across,” Darling said. “They are saying, ‘Hey, you better get there now before the elections because if Donald Trump gets elected, it’s going to be much more difficult.’”

Meanwhile the respite center will continue to provide food, shelter and other basic necessities to immigrants after they’ve been processed and released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Thursday, volunteers at the center went through more than 60 loaves of bread and are currently running low on diapers, powdered milk and all types of hygiene products except toothbrushes.

Shekina Perez, 5, of McAllen, walked in Thursday accompanied by her mother and sisters to donate a box full of toothbrushes she had collected from her kindergarten class. Her mother said the students had a choice of what to gather, like stickers or toys, but she wanted to collect something she could bring to the center.

The Monitor prints a list of the center’s needs of the day on page A2. Donations can be dropped off at the center, 306 S. 15th Street in McAllen. For more information, the center can be reached at (956) 874-4677.

khernandez@themonitor.com

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