McALLEN — The undocumented immigrants flooding into Texas from Central America don’t often know terms like “deferred action” or “prosecutorial discretion,” White House policies that grant relief from deportation and a possible work permit.
But some are still basing their decisions to leave their home countries on misinformation — a rumor that they'll be allowed to live here legally.
They're getting a big wakeup call upon their release from U.S. detention centers into short-term, border-area shelters. The Obama administration has pledged to send as many of them back home as it can.
“It just doesn’t seem fair. It’s not just,” said Karla Lara, 27, who paid $6,000 for a guide to take her and her 5-year-old daughter from their home in Honduras up through Mexico and across the Rio Grande into Texas. “It could be fatal to send someone back.”
Lara and hundreds of other immigrants are in McAllen, where, after days of detention, they've been processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, given a court date and dropped off at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. There, volunteers are working around the clock to care for their new arrivals, who are dazed, dirty, hungry and often wearing the same clothes they wore on northward journeys as long as three weeks. The church's parish hall is a temporary shelter where the migrants shower, get a change of clothes and are offered medical treatment before being sent to await their court dates with friends or relatives elsewhere in the country.
For many of these immigrants, there was little news on their long trek north about what awaited them in the U.S. Three weeks ago, the Obama administration labeled this surge of undocumented immigrants a “humanitarian crisis,” calling the migrants refugees from violence and poverty. That tone has since shifted.
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, said criminal groups in Central America are spreading “misinformation” about U.S. immigration policy in order to lure more migrants north. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has publicly warned Central Americans against the myth that migrants will receive a free pass to stay if they make it into the country.
Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have repeatedly blamed current White House policies, which they say have been a magnet for immigrants. On Monday in Weslaco, a fiery Gov. Rick Perry lambasted the Obama administration for what he called a failure to secure the border, and warned of a “trail of tears” from Central America to Texas if the flow is not halted ahead of the hottest summer months.
Though their critique of the White House is more reserved — and most argue the undocumented immigrants are fleeing violence — Democrats have also expressed concerns. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said last week he was pleased the administration was finally taking steps to remedy the problem. Those steps include temporarily assigning additional immigration judges to the border to expedite immigration hearings and “amplifying the message that unaccompanied children and immigrants from Central American will not be allowed to remain in the United States as soon as they cross the border.”
The migrants tell stories that fit into both narratives: Yes, they are fleeing violence, they say. Yes, they have heard of a free – even if temporary — pass to live in the U.S.
Lara said she was under the assumption that there was some relief offered, though she wasn’t sure of the details.
“I thought that but I don’t know. Some say after you go to court [that happens] because they give you a notice,” she said
Standing in line on Tuesday to be taken from the shelter to catch a bus to Miami, an El Salvadoran named Heidi, 49, said she was fleeing violence and wanted her daughter to have a better opportunity. She paid $10,000 to be smuggled into the U.S., she said, and has no money left. When told about her possible deportation, she said it was in “God’s hands.”
“If it’s what God wants, he is the only one that has the final decision,” she said, adding that she was never told about a visa or a “permiso.”
Teresa Martinez, who came from El Salvador with her 3-year-old son, paid $8,000 for their 18-day journey. Most of it was sent by her son’s grandfather in Boston, where she should arrive by Friday night, she said. Like Heidi, she said she wasn’t aware of a visa or any amnesty. But she appeared stunned when told of her possible deportation and the Obama administration’s recent comments.
“I have to accept it,” she said after a long pause. “It feels very bad. But I have to accept it if it happens.” She is scheduled to appear before an immigration judge next month.
Cartel groups are also at the center of this latest immigration debate. GOP lawmakers have argued that lax immigration enforcement here lures would-be crossers into the hands of criminals, who are known for raping, kidnapping and extorting their customers.
Martinez said she knows she was smuggled by members of the Gulf Cartel, but said she and members of the group she traveled with experienced no problems with their handlers — as long as they paid up. Lara said her fee also included bribes for various law enforcement officers along the way, and that her route avoided Zeta territory in southern Mexico.
“They charge to go through there. It’s just as much,” she said.
The rumors of what could happen to the migrants on their way to Texas has left some separated families terrified. Julio Cesar Garcia Duarte arrived in the U.S. last week from Guatemala after getting a visa to be here. But his wife and her son left Guatemala the day after he did — without legal permission. They decided to take a chance and cross into Texas illegally, Garcia Duarte said.
“It’s been six days and I haven’t heard anything,” Garcia Duarte said at the shelter on Tuesday, clutching a photograph of his family. Church volunteers offered comfort, reminding him that the journey can be long, and that detention can add three or four more days.
As of Thursday, he still didn't have any news.