Yoselin Ramos had long wanted to trek to the United States to escape the crushing poverty and rising violence in her hometown in Guatemala.
But it wasn’t until the 24-year-old heard about a “new opportunity” that she packed a bag and left her home with her 3-year-old son, Yovani, for the treacherous journey north.
Ramos became part of an unprecedented surge of families crossing illegally into the U.S., drawn by reports circulating throughout Central America that parents with children are allowed to stay in the United States indefinitely, according to Guatemalan consular officials and parents who are making these trips. But these families, U.S. officials say, are getting only half the story.
The surge of single parents and children has surprised and overwhelmed border agents in the Southwest — particularly Texas — and flooded the Greyhound bus stations in Phoenix and Tucson over the last several months with hundreds of immigrant families dropped off there by U.S. immigration authorities who had nowhere else to put them.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, federal officials flew at least 400 migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to Tucson to be processed, said Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Arizona.
From there, many were dropped off at bus stations with orders to appear before immigration authorities at their chosen destination within 15 days. “The Border Patrol does not have enough space in its processing facilities to handle a surge in illegal immigrants in south Texas,” Adame said.
The unusual situation represents not a change in policy but an attempt to accommodate the unexpected numbers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said. Immigration authorities have recently opened shelters on military bases in Texas and California for the wave of children crossing the U.S. border in ever-greater volumes in recent months. Detention centers are available for adult immigrants. But there are no similar facilities for families, at least in the Southwest.
In 2008, immigration officials stopped placing parents traveling with their children at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, after allegations surfaced of human rights violations at the facility.
The fact that so many parents with children have been freed to travel within the U.S. has sent rumors flying through Central American nations that parents will not be detained in the U.S. if they arrive with a child — spurring even more families to launch the journey, according to immigrant advocates and Guatemalan consular officials in Phoenix who have been working to help find shelter for families stranded at bus stations.
“Desperate migrants from Central America may cling to any slim reed of hope. This false rumor of a ‘new opportunity’ is leading some to embark on a dangerous journey. They have no idea what they are facing. The smugglers are milking this situation for all it’s worth,” said Dan Kowalski, an immigration attorney in Austin, Texas.
Immigration authorities said the numbers appear to be substantial, but they do not yet have an official count.
But Arizona officials have protested the transfers from Texas. Gov. Jan Brewer, in a letter to President Obama, said the federal government is shirking its responsibility to properly care for the families. Dropping them off in Arizona, where daytime temperatures are exceeding 100 degrees, appears to “place expediency over basic humanitarian concerns,” the governor wrote.
“State and local governments, law enforcement agencies, healthcare providers and nonprofit organizations are all stretched to the breaking point attempting to manage the enormity of these challenges,” she said.
ICE officials say that the immigrants are released as long as they can provide an address for their destination — with family or friends, no matter their legal status.
Ramos, who was apprehended in Texas after traveling there by bus and by foot, was flown to Arizona, then bused this week to Phoenix to join an informal encampment of migrant families that has sprung up at the bus terminal.
Ramos said she was with about 20 other families with children — some as young as a few months old — when apprehended. They had looked forward to being caught, she said — at one point even waving down federal helicopters — because of the welcoming treatment they had assumed they would receive.
Assuming that she would be allowed to remain in the U.S., Ramos was instead given paperwork ordering her to report June 17 to the ICE field office in Des Moines, near where her parents live, and allowed to board a bus to Iowa.
“It was disappointing,” she said. “I thought I would definitely be allowed to stay. I just want a good future for my son.”
Still, she said she plans to keep the appointment because she wants to give her case a chance.
ICE officials said they couldn’t guarantee that they would pursue all cases in which immigrants do not show up for follow-up appointments, but would examine each case to determine priorities.
Anti-illegal immigration activists have said the government’s posture is reminiscent of the 1990s “catch and release” policy.
That’s when most people who crossed the border illegally were released on bail or on their own recognizance, with an order to reappear at a later date. Many failed to show up for their hearings. The practice ended in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said there has been no change in immigration policy and that it’s misleading to compare the current situation to catch and release.
“The individuals in this instance are being placed under some sort of supervision,” she said. In some cases, authorities said, conditions such as wearing ankle bracelets may be imposed, but usually only after the interviews with immigration officials 15 days after initial detention.
In some instances, the families seeking to stay will be given an opportunity to make their case before an immigration judge. In other instances, the families may be subject to immediate removal.
There is no protective status for parents with their children fleeing violence in Central America. However, some parents could seek different forms of immigration relief, such as applying for asylum, said Gregory Z. Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
Chen said the practice of freeing detainees pending immigration interviews is more cost-effective than detaining children and mothers in jail-like settings, and more humane.
“Do we really want to see America go in the direction of detaining families of mothers with children? That is not consistent with America’s values,” Chen said.
For now, a network of volunteers has emerged to help families being dropped off by immigration officials at bus stations in Arizona. On Tuesday, Laurie Melrood, an immigrant rights advocate, spent most of her evening at the Tucson station, attending to seven Guatemalan mothers and their children.
Melrood said she first noticed ICE leaving Guatemalan parents with their children at bus stations about seven months ago, with an increase in numbers over the last few weeks.
Melrood said organized smuggling organizations are exploiting these parents’ vague hope that there is a future for them in the United States.
The smugglers tell immigrants that they “will spend a few days in a jail and then be reunited with family members,” Melrood said. “What the women do not know is that they are in immigration proceedings once caught by Border Patrol and are facing deportation.”