While President Trump railed against a migrant caravan wending its way north through Mexico this week, hundreds of Central American immigrant families had already arrived at the border and been released into the U.S. by authorities.
The influx, unrelated to the caravan, has crowded immigration holding areas and detention centers across the Southwest. The Border Patrol has released so many families, advocacy groups in Arizona and Texas have had to house them in churches and motels.
In El Paso, the nonprofit Annunciation House shelter expected to take in 1,200 migrants this week and 1,500 more next week.
“We’re in effect receiving a caravan a month,” said Ruben Garcia, the shelter’s director, after serving pizza to immigrant families staying in 70 hotel rooms his group rented this week at a nightly cost of $3,500.
As he spoke, a Border Patrol agent called and asked Garcia whether he could shelter an additional 80 immigrants on Thursday. Garcia agreed — he had just heard from a church willing to take in up to 90 people, the latest of 16 religious groups in El Paso and nearby Las Cruces, N.M., to volunteer. He appealed to another church late Tuesday to help. His group runs on volunteers and donations.
“As the flow increases, I could say to Border Patrol I can’t accept any more. But I won’t, because I know what those holding cells are like. I want to expand our capacity,” Garcia said late Tuesday as he waited for two Border Patrol buses to arrive with the 80 migrants.
The Border Patrol caught a record 16,658 immigrant family members crossing illegally in September, a White House spokesman said this week. More than 161,000 immigrant family members were caught or turned themselves in during the fiscal year that ended last month, 42% more than in any previous year, the spokesman said.
Total annual apprehensions this year — family members, single adults, unaccompanied minors — were still below figures from 2014, the last major surge in families and unaccompanied children on the border, and far below numbers from past decades. Still, federal immigration detention facilities are now 98% full, forcing officials to release immigrants more rapidly and in larger groups, with the burden of sheltering them falling on immigrant advocates.
Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona was called on to shelter 250 immigrants last week, using motel rooms for overflow; 350 the week before in Tucson and 250 in Yuma. When Greyhound bus service east slowed because of Hurricane Michael this month, they chartered a bus with donations.
“It’s difficult to maintain this level of intensity,” said Teresa Cavendish, the nonprofit group’s director of operations, who said it was warned to expect 80 more immigrants Wednesday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who dropped immigrants off at the motel where the group rented rooms, visited the nonprofit’s leaders Wednesday and warned that the first wave of the migrant caravan of 7,000 traveling northward could reach the border next week. Shelters are already full, and volunteers are exhausted, Cavendish said.
“Folks from ICE are doing their best in terms of estimating the number of people they will be able to accommodate in their facilities,” said Marguerite “Peg” Harmon, chief executive of the Catholic relief group. “They don’t know either how many people they will get on a given day.”
At the two El Paso motels, which Garcia asked not be identified for safety reasons, volunteers greeted arriving immigrant families with a brief orientation, then steered them toward showers and meals in a food tent set up in the parking lot. Afterward, working out of several rooms converted into makeshift offices, volunteers distributed room keys and helped families contact relatives to stay with as their immigration court cases proceed. Relatives usually pay bus fare so the new arrivals can join them.
Volunteers recorded the immigrants’ information on cards tacked to bulletin boards, including departure times and destinations, from Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
The motel crowd included more fathers than mothers. Some said they fled violence, others economic downturns, like the coffee rust fungus that has devastated crops in Guatemala.
Jonathan Castellano fled Honduras with his 3-year-old daughter, Abigail, after his family was targeted by the criminal gang MS-13.
“They killed my mother, my father, my brother,” said Castellano, 21, pointing to the names of the dead tattooed on his right calf. He said his family was targeted because of a dispute the gang had with his late brother. Volunteers helped Castellano’s aunt get him a bus ticket to join her Wednesday in Houston.
“To save our lives, I had to go,” he said as his daughter played with rocks in the motel parking lot.
Orlando Guifaro also fled Honduras with his 5-year-old son, Justin, after gangs extorted money from him and threatened to kill him. He left his wife and 3-year-old son, Hansel, behind because the trip north cost too much: $5,000 per person.
“I plan to send for them,” said Guifaro, 53, who was bound for Jacksonville, Fla.
Lesly Angelia Cac Pop came from Guatemala with her 3-year-old daughter, hoping to join relatives in Los Angeles.
Cac Pop, 22, said she fled after being forced to pay half her $260 monthly salary from a hardware store to extortionists. Police, she said, failed to help. She and her daughter left Oct. 6 with her husband, his sister, his sister’s husband and their baby girl. They took buses into Mexico, thinking they would have a better chance of staying legally in the U.S. as families.
About 10 days ago, one of their buses was stopped in Oaxaca, Mexico, by police, who asked for the men’s identification, then detained them. Cac Pop’s husband was able to reach her by phone at the motel Wednesday to say he had been deported to Guatemala. He didn’t know what had become of his sister’s husband.
She, her sister-in-law and their children continued north to Ciudad Juarez — across the border from El Paso — where a taxi driver stole their suitcase, including $1,200 in savings. They crossed the Rio Grande on foot a week and a half ago and were swiftly detained by the Border Patrol. They were held with 27 women and children for days without being allowed to bathe, she said. The room was so cramped, she said, they had to sit on the concrete floor side by side to sleep.
On Monday, Cac Pop was released with her daughter, while her sister-in-law and the baby stayed behind. She watched from the motel balcony late Tuesday for Border Patrol buses to arrive, hoping to reunite with them.
At her feet, her daughter played with three pipe-cleaner figures she had made of her family. Sometimes she’d hold the largest figure to her cheek and murmur, “Papa, I miss you.”
When Cac Pop spotted a Border Patrol bus pulling up, she cried, “More are coming!”
Fathers filed off the bus with small children clinging to their necks and legs. Many had yet to replace shoelaces confiscated by the Border Patrol or remove Border Patrol claim tags attached to their bags. Some wore ankle monitors. Everyone reeked, and when volunteers told them they could shower, they laughed with relief. Many headed first to the food tent for vegetable soup.
Cac Pop lingered outside, scanning the new arrivals’ faces. Some were familiar, but her sister-in- law and her child were was not among them. But she heard from them later that night: They were staying at another local shelter, with bus tickets to Los Angeles, where the family hoped to reunite.
4:25 a.m.: This story was updated with further details on Lesly Angelia Cac Pop’s husband and sister-in-law.
This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.