As they have for the last two years, the migrant youths and families arriving at the small Roman Catholic church in the Rio Grande Valley told stories of fleeing the growing violence and staggering poverty of Central America.
But some said they are also being driven north to the border town by a new fear — the U.S. presidential election.
“They're worried about Donald Trump and what would happen if he were president,” said Megan Holmes, 40, a Seattle social worker who came this week to volunteer at a center set up for migrant families at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
One of those migrants was Rogelio Ortiz Dodon, 48, a burly Honduran truck driver who arrived with his 15-year-old daughter, Nisey, after fleeing San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
The immediate reason they left Feb. 20 was because his brother, a car painter, was threatened by drug traffickers. Ortiz took the threats seriously. Three years ago, he said, his sister-in-law was threatened and ended up dead, chopped up with a machete, leaving her 13-year-old son in his care.
But he also fears Donald Trump. He saw news reports in Honduras about Trump's proposal to build a border wall.
“He can change the law against us. He's radical,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz and his daughter were waiting at the McAllen Greyhound station for their bus to join relatives in Durham, N.C. He wore a gray button-down shirt, baggy jeans and, underneath, an ankle monitor — a condition of his release from custody.
This was his third time crossing illegally into the U.S. He first came in 2005 and worked in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, returning home in 2009. Then violence in San Pedro Sula escalated, and he decided he had to leave.
A year and a half ago, he came alone, got caught near a Border Patrol checkpoint in Texas and left voluntarily.
The latest trip cost him $6,000. And he still has his nephew and wife back in Honduras whom he hopes to bring to the U.S. one day. Ortiz said he has no intention of avoiding his scheduled court appearance in North Carolina.
“I want to go to court because possibly it will go well. Possibly. I want to be legal. I'm not a criminal,” he said.
The number of children and family members caught crossing the southern border has dipped in recent months but is expected to increase seasonally this summer ahead of the presidential election.
Last month, 3,048 people were apprehended at the southern border traveling in families, down from 3,145 in January, when the total fell for the first time in months, by 65%. At the same time, 3,113 unaccompanied child migrants were apprehended at the border, just two more than in January, when that number dropped 54% from December.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson touted the new numbers on Wednesday, noting that immigration officials had staged a series of raids this winter and implying that stepped-up enforcement had tamped down migration. They have detained more than 300 recently arrived migrants, Johnson noted, many of them Central American youths and families.
Illegal crossings on the southern border traditionally decrease in wintertime, but this year they actually defied the trend and increased during the fall and early winter. So despite the small dip during the last two months, nearly triple the number of family members were caught at the border since the federal fiscal year that began in October, while the number of unaccompanied children apprehended almost doubled.
Since October, officials have deported 28,808 Central Americans and 128,000 Mexicans.
Yet they continue to arrive by the thousands at this shelter in McAllen, a crossroads city in the immigrant influx that in 2014 overwhelmed border holding areas and youth shelters with more than 68,000 children.
The influx continued this year, although Sister Norma Pimentel — who runs the migrant center — noticed a decrease in immigrants, particularly Central Americans, arriving in the last two months. “The numbers have definitely dropped. What I heard from the consulates is Mexico is deporting a lot more people,” she said.
But the number of migrants arriving has already picked up again this month from fewer than 20 a day to about 20 or 30, she said. “The numbers do seem to be higher than past years.”
“We're just doing one day at a time,” Pimentel said of plans for summer at the center, once a temporary facility now expanded to include a dining area, showers and two tents that sleep 60.
Martha Tista, 32, arrived this month with four children and a 9-month-old grandson after fleeing threats in her village in northern Guatemala.
As she fed her grandson a bottle at the church center, Tista said she has friends who tried to make it to the U.S. but were caught by authorities in Mexico and deported to Central America.
“It's harder to run with children,” she said.
Now she hopes to join her husband and mother in Nashville.
In Guatemala, Tista had a neighbor her age with a 16-year-old daughter like hers and a husband working in the U.S. Someone tried to extort money from her. When she didn't pay, Tista said, they shot the woman and her daughter in the street, killing both. She pulled up photos on her cellphone of the woman, a small, dark figure in a white casket.
In addition to the violence driving migration, during the summer, she said, farm work dries up.
“There will be more,” she predicted.
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