A Long Journey North for Migrants That May End Where It Started

A group of immigrants from Central America, who were detained after entering the United States illegally, were released at a bus station in McAllen.

MCALLEN, Tex. — Emerging from buses into the scorching sun, about 150 undocumented immigrants just released from federal custody huddled behind the bus terminal.

The depot was the latest stop in a long and arduous journey north that may eventually end up back in Central America where it started. Immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, many with children in their arms, clutched clear plastic bags filled with whatever belongings they had.

A worker from Catholic Charities took them inside to help pick up bus tickets arranged by family members in the United States. The tickets bore a multitude of destinations — California, Kansas City, New Jersey. Many, with little geographic knowledge of the United States, asked how far it was to, say, Atlanta or Chicago.

Wearing ankle monitors, the migrants had been give notices to appear in court, where their future in the United States would be determined. But with most court dates months away, the immigrants were scrambling to join families in cities to the north.

In the Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, I witnessed the fragments of the immigration crisis along the border as it played out.

What has become a common scene today was a new phenomenon when I visited the border in 2014. Back then, immigrants fleeing violence from Central American countries, many in search of asylum, were crossing in broad daylight and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol in greater numbers.

Since then, a steady flow of people have kept coming north. And they find themselves at the center of an existence shaped by physical danger and policy shifts that confound even the most experienced immigration experts.

What changed public interest was President Trump’s push to secure the border and the decision to separate children from parents caught crossing illegally. The decision was later reversed and now many immigrants, like the ones at McAllen, are given court dates and ankle monitors, and are released.

The chaos along the border has brought attention from the news media and the public, and outrage from people across the country.

Demonstrators traveling to McAllen to protest the family separations when I was there in late June were asked to wear red, white and blue. No hateful signs, and American flags only, the organizer of the demonstration, the League of United Latin American Citizens, urged in its bulletin. Arriving from Dallas and San Antonio, the demonstrators gathered outside the United States Customs and Border Protection office to protest the separation of migrant children from their parents.

As they gathered, a bus carrying migrant children left the station. The bus was quickly surrounded, and the children inside waved as protesters pressed their hands against the bus. Some cried as they waved to the children and blew kisses. Someone drew little hearts in the dust on the tinted window.

Southeast of McAllen, in Brownsville, Tex., demonstrators raised their hands in prayer toward the former Walmart store that houses hundreds of migrant children in what is now called Casa Padre. Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical faith organization, organized the protest to pray for the families separated by the Trump administration’s policies.

A few miles from Casa Padre, other immigrants waited for a chance to cross the border.

It was just before dawn and a cool breeze blew across the Gateway International Bridge, which connects Matamoros in Mexico to Brownsville. Cristel Murcia, 2, slept with her family as they lined up along the wall so as not to block pedestrian traffic.

Her grandmother, Irene Gómez Diaz, 41, lay awake cradling her daughter, Sol Valentin, 8. They were fleeing violence in their native Honduras and were hoping to make an asylum claim at the bridge. Months ago, migrants started gathering at bridges linking the United States with Mexico to plead their cases to border officials.

Some are let through; others wait for days. Irene, traveling with her granddaughter and her three children, ages 19, 15, and 8, had heard about families being separated.

While she feared that possibility, she said the violence back home left her little alternative. She had already been detained by Mexican authorities when crossing the southern border and was sent back, only to start the journey again. And so they waited, hoping that their future lay to the north, in the United States.

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