An immigrant mother and her small son walked into the Greyhound bus station last week, newly released from federal detention. She carried their few belongings in a clear plastic bag labeled "Homeland Security."
Four more mothers followed, all from Central America, all stunned, exhausted and clueless in this city 240 miles north of the border. Glendy Rodas Alvarez, 22, fled gang violence in Guatemala with her 2-year-old son, Jackson, hoping to join her husband and sister in San Rafael, Calif.
She could not speak English. So small that she wore a youth's blue jeans with the legs rolled up, she could barely muster the energy to soothe her hungry son.
Half a dozen volunteers came to the families' aid, explaining their bus tickets, showing them their destinations on a map, offering cellphones, food, clothes, toys and shelter beds.
At a nearby shelter, a worn notebook testifies to the immigrant mothers' numbers and reach. More than 500 have passed through since March, headed for Los Angeles, New York and Miami, but also for the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Northeast, Deep South and the nation's capital.
"People don't realize this is happening," said volunteer Melanie Chaffin, 38, a stay-at-home mother of two who came for a week from conservative Lubbock.
More than 68,000 immigrant families, many from Central America, crossed the southern border last fiscal year, sparking what President Obama called "an urgent humanitarian situation." His administration has been quietly expanding family deportations and detention.
So far this fiscal year, 20,850 families have crossed the border, compared with 39,113 this time last year, a nearly 50% drop. The government has expanded from one family detention center in Pennsylvania to four, the two newest and largest both south of San Antonio. A facility in New Mexico closed in December.
More than 4,500 immigrants have been detained since last summer, and the centers are expanding to house 3,500 people at a time by year's end.
Opponents say the detention centers, run by private correction companies that contract with the government, are prisons where women and children are subjected to abuse and neglect. Some frustrated immigrant mothers detained for months have staged hunger strikes and sued the government. Their leaders were allowed to bond out last week before a visit Monday by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and, later this month, by a congressional delegation opposed to family detention.
Administration officials defend the sites, which they call "residential centers," as providing quality food, housing, education and medical care.
Immigration attorneys are negotiating with the administration as part of class-action lawsuits in California and Washington to improve family detention, but some of the attorneys say the cases are unlikely to help families soon.
Volunteers in Texas provide stopgap legal and social services. The San Antonio-based nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, and a local Interfaith Coalition carpool to visit mothers at the detention centers, write to them and raise money to pay their bonds. So far, they have raised $214,000 for 78 women and children.
The volunteers hold orientations and host groups from across the state who come to meet families when they are released, interview them to document alleged abuses, and ensure that they know when to appear in court and that they have attorneys at their destinations. Federal immigration courts do not provide public defenders, not even for children.
At the bus station last week, volunteer Edwin De La Riva, 20, a pre-med student at Sam Houston State University, interviewed one mother.
Clementa Pablo Geronimo, 28, had fled rural Guatemala with her 10-year-old son, Andy, who like many of the children was glued to his mother's side. They were traveling to join cousins in Oakland.
"Do you have a lawyer?" De La Riva asked in Spanish.
"Do you know his name?" De La Riva asked.
She shook her head.
She didn't know how much bond she had been released on.
A Honduran mother sitting nearby said she and her daughter had been released on $4,000 bond — others were set at $5,500 and $8,000 this month, despite a judge's ruling this year that the administration cannot set or seek unreasonably high bonds as a form of punishment or deterrence.
What is your name, volunteers asked.
"Beatriz, just Beatriz," the Honduran woman said.
"How many years of education do you have?" asked Santiago Garcia, 24, a coordinator with RAICES.
Three years, she said.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
Mississippi, she said, to join a friend.
"Do you know the phone number?" Garcia said.
"They change the number so often," she said, her eyes shifting as she complained of a headache.
Volunteers ushered the immigrants into cars and drove them to the nearby Mennonite shelter in the tony King William historic district, where the Casa de Maria y Marta provided a hot meal of chicken, beans and rice. Then the immigrants were ferried back to the bus station.
RAICES has been trying to compile information about where the families are from, how long they have been held, their bond amounts and destinations in the U.S. to better represent them and ensure they have pro bono attorneys where they're going, said Jonathan Ryan, the group's executive director.
"The government uses their failure to report to court as a reason to deport them," he said, noting the administration has sped up immigration court hearings for families and unaccompanied children, with faster so-called rocket dockets. This fiscal year, immigration judges have ordered more than 11,000 family members removed as of April, 87% because they never appeared in court.
Ryan noted that at least seven women who had become outspoken activists at the Karnes City detention center, where they staged hunger strikes and successfully demanded the release of five pregnant women, were released before Johnson's visit.
"These are cases that have been reviewed many times with the same facts and circumstances," Ryan said. Before members of Congress come, he added, "They're trying to get people out so there's no one for them to visit."
Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the cases were reviewed as part of an initiative announced last month after a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union in a class-action lawsuit and ordered the administration to stop using high bonds as punishment.
Delmi Cruz and her son Alexis, 11, were among those released from Karnes last week on $5,500 bond, covered by RAICES donations. They had been held for 11 months.
Afterward, at a volunteer's house, Cruz detailed deteriorating conditions inside the detention center: A Honduran woman had been deported after attempting suicide, she said. ICE officials insist the woman merely had a wrist abrasion. A Guatemalan was deported after suffering a miscarriage, she said. ICE officials also dispute this.
Before her release, Karnes officials warned her that speaking out about family detention could hurt her immigration court case, she said.
"They told me things would be better if I …" she gestured, zipping her lips.
Cruz, 36, is heading to Los Angeles, where her 6-year-old son has been in relatives' care. She plans to fly back to Texas to meet with the congressional delegation later this month.
"We have to be brave," she said. "There is a lot of injustice."
Volunteers at the bus station said they had read about the immigrant families' plight, but didn't really understand the crisis until they met them.
Mary Claire Munroe's two children are grown, so she volunteers at the bus station weekly through a local Presbyterian church.
She recalled meeting a Salvadoran mother who fled north after her son was killed. Another night, she met a father with a toddler son who had just crossed the Rio Grande the day before and was released on the border with a notice to appear in court and nothing else, not even diapers.
"I find the resiliency of these people amazing. All they want to do is to live and to be free," said Munroe, 51.
At the bus station, volunteer Carlos Afanador, 55, said he tries to reassure women. "We always tell them, 'Welcome to the United States,'" he said.
"We are not all like the jail people," added his wife, Catalina, 52.
"There are refugees coming from other countries — Nepal, Burma — and they are given money and a place to stay. Why are Central Americans treated differently?" she said before rushing off to help newly arrived mothers decode their bus tickets.
A Guatemalan mother had arrived with her 9-year-old son, headed for Los Angeles after 15 days in detention.
Rosaura Perez, 27, was rail-thin, the arms emerging from her black teddy bear T-shirt nearly as slender as her son's. Freddy Guzman Perez's gray jeans and striped polo shirt hung on his thin frame as he clutched a battery-operated keyboard. He welcomed the volunteers with a gap-toothed grin.
Why did the pair migrate?
"Personal reasons," Perez said at first.
Later, at the shelter, she said that gangs are spreading in her hometown, and she feared for her son's safety.
"It's a humanitarian crisis," Chaffin said.
"That's why we're all here," said Carla DeMore, 31, a law student who came from Tucson to volunteer. "Because it's just not right."
The volunteers waited with the women, offering reassurance as well as backpacks of food, toiletries, and toys. Then they helped them line up with their children shortly before midnight to board buses and roll out into the darkness of an uncertain future.