The southern border has seen a historic peak in the number of crossing migrants. A DailyExpertNews photographer documented three ways people cross the border into the United States.
HIDALGO, Texas — Since President Biden took office, migration on the southern border of the United States has increased to levels not seen in decades. Crossings in the past two months have eclipsed last summer’s high numbers, and officials expect the trend to continue, even though access to asylum is nearly impossible with pandemic restrictions still in place.
The vast majority of migrants cross the United States at places between official entry gates, as they walk or wade across the border, swim or float down the Rio Grande, almost always under the supervision of cartel-approved guides hired in Mexico. Sometimes some have been invited by customs and border guards to walk from Mexico over pedestrian bridges – by far the safest and most ordered route.
Waiting to be chosen
A migrant camp known as Senda De Vida in the Mexican town of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen, Texas, has been full for months. The pastor who runs it opened a second space last month for migrants sleeping in a makeshift encampment in a nearby public park.
In early May, a mother and daughter from Honduras were in the camp when they learned they were part of a group selected to enter the United States. A year earlier, they said, they had fled Honduras after the 15-year-old daughter was kidnapped and raped by a local gang. Once a bubbly, chatty teenager, now she barely talks and shrinks when anyone comes near, her mother said.
When the couple arrived in Nuevo Laredo, a city in northern Mexico where drug cartels fight over grass, they and other people on their bus were kidnapped and sexually assaulted for days, they said. On the 15th day, the mother and daughter escaped and crossed the Rio Grande to the United States on a boat that could hold about 30 people. But border officials, citing Title 42, the public health rule that has restricted immigration since the start of the pandemic, sent them back to Mexico.
Soon they registered with the reception center in Reynosa, which maintains a database of all the migrants who pass through.
In late April, the pastor who runs the shelter, Hector Silva, was asked to meet with US government officials to discuss a process for sending some migrants eligible for humanitarian exemptions to the public health rule across the pedestrian bridge connecting Reynosa with the United States connects. † The government allows such exceptions for migrants deemed particularly vulnerable, with decisions being made on a case-by-case basis.
Mr Silva said Customs and Border Protection had reached out two or three times a day to ask about small groups of people who fall into certain categories. For example, on May 1, Mr. Silva was asked to look for single mothers.
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This is also happening in other locations along the border, often the result of direct communication between local CBP officials, lawyers and nonprofit organizations assisting asylum seekers, according to asylum attorneys and officials from the Department of Homeland Security. In other situations, asylum lawyers work directly with CBP officials to identify migrants who meet humanitarian exemptions.
The mother and daughter from Senda De Vida, along with other migrants who were eligible to cross that day, were tested for the coronavirus and then transferred to a school bus, which would take them to the pedestrian bridge. On the bridge, the daughter, who wore a face mask and T-shirt that read “Good Vibes Only,” flashed smiling eyes as she stared at the United States.
“My heart is pounding,” the mother said as she waited for Customs and Border Protection agents to arrive at the intersection of two types of pavement separating Mexico and the United States on the bridge. The mother and daughter met relatives in Austin later that day.
Trying to evade border patrol
Early one morning, five migrants sat in a parking lot in Hidalgo, most of them handcuffed to another migrant with one wrist. They gave border agents whatever form of identification they were carrying and put their belongings — including shoelaces, belts, watches and smartphones — in plastic bags. Three came from Mexico, two from Honduras. Two of the Mexicans were married and came to the United States for a better life; they had left four children under the age of 12 with relatives at home.
For all but one, it was not the first time they had been caught after crossing the border. Some had relatives in Texas and Minnesota.
Nearby, Officer Jesse Moreno searched for a group of migrants trying to evade border patrol, and arrested several men at a storage company in Hidalgo, Texas. The men had just crossed the river; their jeans were soaked to the knees.
Another officer yelled, “Kneel! Kneel!” after finding other migrants from the group hiding under a truck in the parking lot of an adjacent strip mall. One man said it was the fourth time he crossed the border.
Border Patrol said the men would be treated at a local station, where agents would record their personal information and conduct background checks, and then most likely be sent back to Mexico via the Hidalgo port of entry.
There are also many migrants who manage to sneak across the border and evade detection. Border police officers call them ‘escapees’. The Biden administration estimates that some 389,000 undocumented migrants avoided detention between October 2020 and September 2021. Republicans critical of Biden’s immigration policies say this is most likely a significant undercount.
Many people who have crossed the southern border in recent years promptly turn themselves in. Agents call them “giving up”; many form families.
One of the busiest intersections in the Rio Grande Valley is in Roma, Texas, a historic city of approximately 11,000 residents, with parts perched atop sandstone cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande. Last month before dark, a group of Border Patrol officers took in the breathtaking view, including part of the river where groups of migrants often swim to the United States in the early morning hours.
Later that week, a group of migrants emerged from the Texas side of the river and onto private property, along a winding, sandy path toward Texas National Guard troops and border patrol agents awaiting such arrivals.
Wet from the river, the migrants presented carefully filed documents to Border Patrol agents, who had set up a makeshift office with desks and chairs on the dirt road connecting the river to the city.
Dozens lined up to wait their turn to speak to an officer. No one tried to sneak away; everyone remained silent.
A young girl had to go to the bathroom and her mother escorted her to an inconspicuous spot behind a Border Patrol truck while the girl’s father anxiously awaited their return.
A Honduran mother bottled her son and smiled and stroked his hair.
A boy from Guatemala shook his head and tried to get something out of his ear.
Parents made faces at their children to elicit a smile, as the wait stretched into the early hours.
Typically, federal border officials divide the migrants into categories to speed up processing time. Children arriving without a parent or guardian go to one area; others are grouped by nationality. Adult migrants from Mexico and Central America could be expelled quickly under the pandemic public health rule.
Some migrants — from Cuba and Nicaragua, for example — are usually brought into the country pending removal procedures that are unlikely to take place for months or years.
Once the agents have processed everyone, the migrants are taken by bus to a customs and border security facility where they wait in more lines and answer more questions. Some will stay there for several days before officials decide whether to stay in the country, at least for now.