Originally Published in The New Yorker
Stephania Taladrid - May 6, 2021
Outside the town of Roma, Texas, a series of dirt roads lead to the banks of the Rio Grande. Lined with brambles, the roads are dotted with discarded belongings—toothbrushes, flannel blankets, debit cards, children’s underwear, and empty bottles of painkillers. The most prominent items are colored wristbands, labelled “entries” and “arrivals,” in Spanish, which human smugglers use to track their clients. A community of eleven thousand people, Roma was once known as a bustling river port, where keelboats stopped on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Lately, it has made headlines as an “epicenter” of migrant crossings.
At dusk on a recent Thursday, the Rio Grande was quiet and its banks were illuminated only by the towns on the Mexican side. At nine o’clock, lanterns twinkled along the southern bank and the sound of air pumps, inflating rafts, rippled across the water. “¡Vámonos! ¡Vámonos!” a man said hurriedly. A chorus of children began crying. “Uno por uno,” (“one by one”) the man added.
After the first raft set off from the bank, the rise and fall of its oars were barely audible. In a matter of seconds, a group of twenty people, some carrying newborns, made it to the American shore. As they forced their way through the brush, they reached the small clearing where I stood. They asked, “¿Por dónde nos vamos?” (“Where do we go?”)
As the night wore on, the crossings continued, and a growing number of migrants gathered around a tall and slender man named Luis Silva, a pastor at Roma’s Bethel Mission Outreach Center. For years, Silva, who is forty-three, has worked to insure that families crossing the river don’t get lost and have water to drink. He planned to escort the group to a nearby street, where they would be processed by Border Patrol agents. First, he asked the families to join him in prayer.
“Holy Father, as these brothers reach this nation—a nation of promise—I ask that you guard them,” the pastor said, in a gentle voice, as several of the migrants around him burst into sobs. A couple in their thirties bowed their heads and held hands. A girl to Silva’s right looked at him wearily, while clutching her little sister, who was dressed in a unicorn sweatshirt streaked with dirt. “Wherever they go, Holy Father, I ask that you be their guide,” Silva said. “You, who does not see color but does see heart—I ask that you see each one of their hearts.”
After being processed by agents, many of the families crossing through Roma are taken to the Humanitarian Respite Center, a shelter run by the Catholic Church, in McAllen, Texas, fifty miles to the east. One of the conditions for entry is being tested for covid-19. On a recent morning, hundreds of families rested on exercise mats in the shelter. Parents chased toddlers; a teen-ager silently shed tears while talking on the phone; a young mother formed a cocoon around her child. The shelter is housed in a former nightclub, where bar shelves have been stocked with medicine, personal-hygiene products, and baby powder. Women looked through plastic bags that were filled with donated clothing; many said that they had left their countries with just a single change of clothes.
Outside, twenty immigrant families waited to be allowed in. The day was bright and windy; a flock of grackles cawed in the distance. Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun who founded the shelter and is known as the Mother Teresa of South Texas, stood by the door. At sixty-seven, Pimentel is the executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, an organization that has housed and assisted tens of thousands of migrants. Slim but sturdy, with short, salt-and-pepper hair and expressive eyes, Pimentel’s presence is commanding yet nonintrusive. “Bienvenidos, welcome,” she said to the families, with a broad smile. The youngest child, just a few months old, stared wide-eyed at the nun, with his arms wrapped around his parents’ necks; some of the older children smiled timidly, while clinging to their mothers’ hands.
Families spend no more than a night or two at Pimentel’s McAllen shelter. It is usually a brief stopover on the way to being reunited with family members already in the country. At a booth near the front of the shelter that day, volunteers helped migrants book bus tickets, which are typically paid for by relatives. On the back of a manila envelope, families wrote down their itineraries; a white sheet of paper stapled on the front read “Please help me, I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?” When Pimentel senses that someone might need help, she comes closer and asks, “¿Hacia dónde va?” (“Where are you headed to?”)
At a station across the street from the shelter, several families prepared to board buses. A man from the northern coast of Honduras told me that his brother-in-law, his wife, and their six-month-old baby planned to reunite with his sister, in Houston. He said that this was his third attempt to venture north since a gang killed his sixteen-year-old brother, in 2016. “He was confused with another person as he was leaving school,” the man said. “We weren’t even able to retrieve his body for the burial.”
A few feet away, a couple in their twenties were heading to Dallas, where their cousin lived. They were from Santa Bárbara, Honduras, which was decimated by two Category 4 hurricanes in two weeks last fall. Like other Central American countries, Honduras is still struggling to recover from the damage, which further bedevilled nations grappling with some of the highest rates of violence and poverty in the Western Hemisphere. “We lost everything we had,” the woman said, pressing her eyes shut. “We were practically living on the street.” Her husband turned toward their two-year-old son and said, with a half smile, “To us, this is a land of opportunities—a place where we can give our son a better future.” He added, “If our country were like this one, we wouldn’t have a need to take the path we took and risk our lives.”
The following night, Jayson Rivera, a constable from Hidalgo County, patrolled Military Highway, a road that stretches for fifty miles along the border. Rivera, a stout, amiable thirty-three-year-old, was dressed in a khaki uniform; he has served in law enforcement for seven years. On many nights, he assists Customs and Border Protection agents as part of Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program launched nearly two decades ago to strengthen border security. Critics of the operation point to its lack of oversight and argue that, the more coördination there is between local and federal authorities, the more it erodes immigrant communities’ trust in law enforcement. Rivera, who is paid overtime for the patrolling, is proud of the work, especially now. “The open borders,” he said. “It just worries me.”
After passing the international bridge that connects the city of Progreso, Texas, with Mexico, Rivera drove by an unfinished stretch of border wall. The Rio Grande Valley, which is considered the most porous section of the southern border, is also one of the areas where Trump made the least amount of progress in his fifteen-billion-dollar wall project. As Rivera surveyed the steel fencing, he acknowledged its limitations. “As far as drugs, migration, human smuggling, and all that stuff, no one’s going to stop that,” Rivera said. But he praised Trump’s over-all handling of the border. “It just seemed a little bit more under control,” he said. “People are just coming over by the thousands.” Rivera said that many of his law-enforcement colleagues shared his views of the previous Administration. “Being a cop here in South Texas, you’re really conservative,” Rivera argued, adding that the people closest to him were all pro-Trump. “I was. My family was. Pretty much ninety-nine per cent of the cops I know are.”
As he drove past the border wall, Rivera came across a fellow-constable named Jorge Salazar, a man in his mid-forties with a mustache, who was also on patrol. Salazar bemoaned what he called “catch and release” and was convinced that migrants who are allowed to stay in the U.S. after they claim asylum disappear and skip their hearings. “Personally, I believe ninety-nine per cent never show up to their court date,” Salazar said, citing conversations he’d had with Border Patrol agents. Although there is no clear consensus on the numbers, a recent study found that more than eighty per cent of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. do, in fact, show up for their court hearings. Salazar, Rivera, and other law-enforcement officials in the valley, though, told me that they believed Trump’s policy of forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico was preferable. “They apply for their asylum, they go through this process, and then they’re brought across the bridge. They’re not brought on rafts,” Roger Rich, a burly man in his fifties, who also serves as a constable, said. “That, to me, is a lot safer—and it’s a legal way to do it.” But, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research institute at Syracuse University, only one and a half per cent of the people subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy were ultimately granted asylum in the U.S. The rest were left to their own devices in northern Mexican states such as Tamaulipas, which the State Department has deemed as dangerous as Yemen, Syria, or Afghanistan.
Rivera conceded that not all of the people crossing into the United States were criminals. “There are some good people that just want to come over and give their families a better life,” he said. “I understand that and I feel for them.” He said he worries about criminals entering the country, despite the fact that the crime rate among immigrants is significantly lower than that of native-born Americans. “I do fear, because my wife—she’s at Walmart at nine or ten o’clock at night,” he said. “I know that there’s bad people here already. I get that. But I don’t want to have to worry about the ten thousand people that came over.” Rivera struggled to reconcile his views of immigration with his Latino heritage. “My great-grandmother came over here illegally and lived here for many years, so I guess I am being a little hypocritical, in a sense,” he said. “But the law is the law, and I strongly feel that America does come first.”
As the crossings continued in Roma that Thursday night, scores of migrants voluntarily surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents. During processing, they were stripped of their shoelaces and given clear plastic bags, in which they stored their few belongings—an I.D. or a birth certificate, in most cases. Agents separated the migrants into two groups. On the right were families. On the left were minors who had made the journey on their own— “U.A.C.s,” or unaccompanied alien children, as the Border Patrol refers to them. Among the last to arrive that night was a fourteen-year-old boy from Guatemala, who said that he was hoping to join his sister in Kansas City, where she had settled three years ago. His parents had paid thirty-nine thousand quetzales—some five thousand dollars—for his trip. They couldn’t afford to join him. “They said that I would have a better life here, that I could come and study, and that my sister would provide for me,” he said.
In front of the boy were two young girls from Guatemala, wearing matching Gap sweatshirts. The oldest, who was twelve, said that the sisters had been separated from their parents on the way to the United States, but offered few details. When asked why their family had fled north, the girls blamed crime. “We came over with them because they wanted to kill our parents back home,” the older daughter said, with an unflinching gaze. “Los mareros,” the youngest—age seven—added, referring to gangs. “We got a note stating that, if our parents didn’t pay, they would hurt us,” the oldest added. They said that they hoped to live with their grandmother, who left Guatemala for the U.S. long before their birth and didn’t know they were coming. Neither of the girls would say how long their journey had lasted nor where they had last seen their parents. “We feel a little nervous,” the oldest admitted. “We’re not used to travelling without them.”
After many of the children had waited more than three hours, a Border Patrol agent asked them to gather around. None of them had been fed, and there were no bathrooms nearby. “I’m looking for minors under the age of eighteen who are not with their mom or dad,” the agent said, in broken Spanish. The Guatemalan girls obeyed his instructions and immediately formed a line behind him with other children. As the group marched toward a large white van, a girl in the back who didn’t look older than five pulled her older sister’s arm with seemingly all her strength. The younger girl untucked her shirt from her pants and bent her knees to relieve herself, tilting her head up so as not to lose sight of the group. Moments later, as she struggled to button her pants, the older girl frantically grabbed her hand in one swift movement—the rest of the children were getting farther and farther away, and they could not risk staying behind.