Politics & Policy

What an Open Border Looks Like

An illegal immigrant surrenders to the Border Patrol. (Ryan Lovelace)
In the Rio Grande Valley, illegal border-crossers are surrendering voluntarily.

Albert Spratte, the sergeant-at-arms of the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307 in the Rio Grande Valley, says there are two types of illegal immigrants crossing the border: those whom Border Patrol catches and those who catch Border Patrol. While driving along a remote stretch of road next to the Rio Grande River south of McAllen, Texas, Spratte points at various paths and identifies which type of immigrant traffic uses each one.

Soon, a man comes out of the brush and walks toward Spratte’s nondescript green truck to surrender. The man says he’s traveled 15 days from El Salvador and is headed to California to do some remodeling work. He says he’s been to the United States before and adds that he still has the paperwork of his order to appear in court from several years ago.

Spratte calls Border Patrol to report the man’s apprehension and gives him some Gatorade and water. The man says he’s traveling alone, but Spratte isn’t buying it. He says people traveling in large groups have characterized the sharp spike in OTM border traffic — OTM meaning “other than Mexicans.” A group of nearly 300 Central Americans recently turned themselves in to American officials, he says.

“Next week 300 is going to be nothing,” Spratte says. “It’ll be 500 or 400 until they make the decision to start enforcing our immigration laws and deporting people.”

When a Border Patrol official arrives, the surrendering man voluntarily walks to the back of the vehicle and climbs in. He’s headed to a local Border Patrol station but likely won’t be there very long. Instead of being sent back home, he will probably be let go within the U.S., with an “order to appear” at a later date. If he fails to appear, he will be deported in absentia, but he almost certainly will not be pursued unless he commits another crime.

Zury Arrita, a 25-year-old Honduran woman, says she and her daughter were detained for four days before they were released at the McAllen bus station. From there she made her way to the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where volunteers provide food, clothing, medical attention, and temporary shelter.

Arrita speaks openly about her journey to the United States. She worked in the nutrition office of a hospital in San Pedro, Honduras, and loved her job. But she left after two men threatened her and her husband for reasons neither understood. Her husband has gone missing, and she made the journey to the United States with the advice of others who made the journey before her. Along the way, she had to pay Mexican law enforcement approximately 500 pesos ($38.50) to continue her journey north. Now, an uncle who lives in Houston has bought her a bus ticket there.

Rose Ybarra, a worker from the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, which serves the Rio Grande Valley, helps translate the conversation and says Arrita is the only immigrant she has talked to who is staying in Texas. She says most of the people she has talked to head to San Francisco or New York.

None of the illegal immigrants at the church facility appear frightened or hide when Hidalgo County sheriff Eddie Guerra passes through in uniform. Guerra says he came to see the facility firsthand. He has offered the parking lot across the street, which his family owns, to the church free of charge so they have room to expand, he says. The influx of illegal immigrants is “not really having a big impact as far as in our community,” Guerra says. “It’s not chaos.”

But the church is teeming with illegal-immigrant families from Central America. Ofelia de los Santos, a Catholic Charities public-information officer, says the “respite center” at Sacred Heart has received approximately 200 people like Arrita and her daughter per day since it opened June 10. The city of McAllen has even begun providing a trolley for Catholic Charities to use to transport people from the bus stop to the church. Dozens of Catholic Charities volunteers mobilized quickly, de los Santos says, in part because of the group’s function as a disaster-planning outfit. “This is not a hurricane, but we don’t know how long it will last, and we’re going to be here for the duration,” de los Santos says.

And while the facility has cots inside a tent for people whose buses leave late at night or early the next morning, de los Santos says, “it’s a rest stop. It’s not a shelter.” Shelters provide longer-term housing for the children who cross the border unaccompanied, and Catholic Charities has assisted at those, too. Thirteen such shelters (subcontracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services) are located within the Diocese of Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley, de los Santos says. She says the number of shelters located within the diocese for illegally immigrating children has more than tripled since last year.  

As a result of the influx, the Texas Catholic Conference sent out an e-mail blast to its statewide “social action directors” regarding its response to the situation. Jennifer Carr Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, wrote that the group wanted its members “to be aware that there may be buses arriving at your local bus stations with families who have traveled there from Brownsville after being released from ICE custody.” Soon thereafter the families could end up at bus stations throughout the country.

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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