April 10, 2014
by Julia Preston
HIDALGO, Tex. — Border Patrol agents in olive uniforms stood in broad daylight on the banks of the Rio Grande, while on the Mexican side smugglers pulled up in vans and unloaded illegal migrants.
The agents were clearly visible on that recent afternoon, but the migrants were undeterred. Mainly women and children, 45 in all, they crossed the narrow river on the smugglers’ rafts, scrambled up the bluff and turned themselves in, signaling a growing challenge for the immigration authorities.
After six years of steep declines across the Southwest, illegal crossings have soared in South Texas while remaining low elsewhere. The Border Patrol made more than 90,700 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley in the past six months, a 69 percent increase over last year.
The migrants are no longer primarily Mexican laborers. Instead they are Central Americans, including many families with small children and youngsters without their parents, who risk a danger-filled journey across Mexico. Driven out by deepening poverty but also by rampant gang violence, increasing numbers of migrants caught here seek asylum, setting off lengthy legal procedures to determine whether they qualify.
The new migrant flow, largely from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is straining resources and confounding Obama administration security strategies that work effectively in other regions. It is further complicating President Obama’s uphill push on immigration, fueling Republican arguments for more border security before any overhaul.
With detention facilities, asylum offices and immigration courts overwhelmed, enough migrants have been released temporarily in the United States that back home in Central America people have heard that those who make it to American soil have a good chance of staying.
“Word has gotten out that we’re giving people permission and walking them out the door,” said Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent who is vice president of the local of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union. “So they’re coming across in droves.”
In Mexican border cities like Reynosa, just across the river, migrants have become easy prey for Mexican drug cartels that have seized control of the human smuggling business, heightening perils for illegal crossers and security risks for the United States.
At the Rio Grande that afternoon, the smugglers calculatedly sent the migrants across at a point where the water is too shallow for Border Patrol boats that might have turned them back safely at the midriver boundary between the United States and Mexico.
A Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, watched in frustration from a helicopter overhead. “Somebody probably told them they’re going to get released,” he said. As agents booked them, the migrants waited quietly: a Guatemalan mother carrying a toddler with a baby bottle, another with an infant wrapped in blankets.
A 9-year-old girl said she was traveling by herself, hoping to rejoin her mother and two brothers in Louisiana. But she did not know where in Louisiana they were. After a two-week journey from Honduras, her only connection to them was one telephone number on a scrap of paper.
A Honduran woman said the group had followed the instructions of the Mexican smugglers. “They just told us to cross and start walking,” she said.
Other migrants were trying to elude the Border Patrol, and within the hour Chief Ortiz saw his interdiction efforts working according to plan. A short way upriver in deeper water, agents radioed that they had turned back a raft with eight “bodies.”
Moments later a surveillance blimp cruising nearby detected people lying under dense brush. As the helicopter swooped low, the pilot spotted sneakers at the base of the trees. Agents on the ground flushed out nine migrants, all men.
“Technology, air operations, ground units, that’s the complete package,” Chief Ortiz said.
The new migrants head for South Texas because it is the shortest distance from Central America. Many young people ride across Mexico on top of freight trains, jumping off in Reynosa.
The Rio Grande twists and winds, and those who make it across can quickly hide in sugar cane fields and orchards. In many places it is a short sprint to shopping malls and suburban streets where smugglers pick up migrants to continue north.
Border Patrol officials said apprehensions were higher partly because they were catching many more of the illegal crossers. About 3,000 agents in the Rio Grande Valley — 495 new this year — patrol in helicopters and boats, on all-terrain vehicles and horseback. Drones and aerostat blimps are watching from the sky. Under a new strategy, border agencies are working with federal drug agents, the F.B.I. and Texas police to break up Mexican smuggling organizations by prosecuting operatives on this side of the border.
But whereas Mexicans can be swiftly returned by the Border Patrol, migrants from noncontiguous countries must be formally deported and flown home by other agencies. Even though federal flights are leaving South Texas every day, Central Americans are often detained longer.
Women with children are detained separately. But because the nearest facility for “family units” is in Pennsylvania, families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley are likely to be released while their cases proceed, a senior deportations official said.
Minors without parents are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which holds them in shelters that provide medical care and schooling and tries to send them to relatives in the United States. The authorities here are expecting 35,000 unaccompanied minors this year, triple the number two years ago.
Under asylum law, border agents are required to ask migrants if they are afraid of returning to their countries. If the answer is yes, migrants must be detained until an immigration officer interviews them to determine if the fear is credible. If the officer concludes it is, the migrant can petition for asylum. An immigration judge will decide whether there is a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.”
Immigration officials said they had set the bar intentionally low for the initial “credible fear” test, to avoid turning away a foreigner in danger. In 2013, 85 percent of fear claims were found to be credible, according to federal figures.
As more Central Americans have come, fear claims have spiked, more than doubling in 2013 to 36,026 from 13,931 in 2012.
The chances have not improved much to win asylum in the end, however. In 2012, immigration courts approved 34 percent of asylum petitions from migrants facing deportation — 2,888 cases nationwide. Many Central Americans say they are fleeing extortion or forced recruitment by criminal gangs. But immigration courts have rarely recognized those threats as grounds for asylum.
Yet because of immense backlogs in the courts — with the average wait for a hearing currently at about 19 months — claiming fear of return has allowed some Central Americans to prolong their time in the United States.
Detention beds fill up, and migrants deemed to present no security risk are released under supervision, officials said, with their next court hearing often more than a year away.
At their now teeming front-line stations along the river, Border Patrol officials readily admit they are not set up to hold migrants for long. Agents and migrants alike refer to the cells there as “hieleras” — freezers.
In cinder-block rooms with concrete benches and a toilet in the corner, there are no chairs, beds, showers or hot food. On a recent day, migrants caked in river mud were packed shoulder to shoulder, many on the floor, trying to warm up in space blankets the Border Patrol provides. Some held their fingers to their lips to signal hunger.
But agents said they have accelerated their work so more migrants are deported directly from Border Patrol stations in as little as two days. Officials said few migrants — only 4 percent — claim fear of returning when they are with the Border Patrol.
Rather, migrants are claiming fear after they are sent to longer-term detention centers like Port Isabel, leading officials to suspect they have been coached by other detainees.
But lawyers for asylum seekers said migrants frequently report that Border Patrol agents never asked them about their concerns, or that they were too exhausted or intimidated to express them in the hours after being caught.
“A lot of times these people had very real, legitimate fears,” said Kimi Jackson, director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, known as ProBAR. “But it seems to them they were not asked the questions by the Border Patrol in the type of situation where they could talk freely.”
Lawyers said officials had started to make it far harder for migrants to win release by requiring many more to post bond, with rates rising to as high as $10,000.
That news had not reached migrants at a shelter run by nuns in Reynosa. Several said they were heading to the United States to seek “asilo.” They could say truthfully they were afraid to go home.
Luis Fernando Herrera Perdomo, 19, said he fled Honduras after gang members shot and killed a brother who was sleeping in the bed next to his.
A 29-year-old former soldier from El Salvador, who asked to be identified only as Jesús, said he left his wife and three children to escape a gang that came gunning for him because he arrested some of its members while in the army.
In Reynosa, the dangers had only multiplied. José Rubén Hernández, 32, said he had been kidnapped for two weeks while Mexican smugglers extorted $10,000 in ransom from his frantic family in Honduras.
“We are a gold mine for the cartels,” he said.
Other migrants had been imprisoned in a smugglers’ stash house until Mexican military troops stormed it to free them. Two Hondurans who had just arrived at the shelter displayed new bruises, saying they had been beaten that morning in a rail yard by smugglers associated with the Zetas, a brutal Mexican cartel.
But the migrants still intended to hire new smugglers and try to cross. “I’m still alive and I have faith in God, so I will try to make it over to the other side,” Mr. Herrera said.
Chief Ortiz said agents were speeding deportations to change the message reaching Central America.
“It cost the migrant an awful lot of money and time and effort to get here,” he said. “If I send somebody back to Guatemala or Honduras, chances are they’re going to sit there and say, ‘You know what, I don’t think I’m going to try this again.’ ”
“The word may get out,” he said