Unsecured Border: Central American Parents Describe the Push from Home and the Pull from U.S. Policies

By Jerry Kammer on June 30, 2014

Read and view our entire Unsecured Border Series

Cradling a six-month old baby in her arms, a Honduran woman stepped off the Border Patrol bus at the bus station in McAllen, Texas last Tuesday. They would soon be on a Greyhound bus heading for Miami, joining the thousands of illegal immigrants who are being released by the Border Patrol after a few days in custody. They are fanning out across the country, carrying documents that allow them to travel freely but also order them to report to immigration authorities after they reach their destination.

The woman gave her name as Yesenia. Nearby were two other young women, one from Salvador and the other from Honduras, who had also just been released by the Border Patrol. All three were in their early twenties, single mothers traveling with children. Their bus tickets had been paid for by relatives or friends who had wired the money to McAllen.

Yesenia was going to relatives in Miami. The Salvadoran woman would join a brother in Los Angeles. The other Honduran woman would join a cousin in Los Angeles.

Yesenia explained what drew them North. It was the rapidly spreading word of a remarkable opportunity being offered by the government of the United States. “Our understanding is that if you come with children they will let you through,” she said.

While media attention has focused on the story of unaccompanied minors crossing the Texas border, there are far more family units in the surge of Central Americans that has seized national attention.

Last week, Center for Immigration Studies Multimedia Director Bryan Griffith and I visited the bus stations in McAllen and Brownsville where the Border Patrol was releasing the travelers. We went to the Rio Grande Valley to report on the surge of Central American illegal immigrants across the Texas border.

Each day our first contact was with a single mother and her child from Honduras. We also spoke with parents and children who had been separated from the other parent because of Border Patrol policies for separate detention facilities for men and women. Meanwhile, unaccompanied children are held in special facilities until federal officials can reunite them with relatives or guardians.

Yesenia, looking weary and worried, asked where she could obtain milk for her infant. A few minutes later, she and the other women were approached by volunteers from the shelter that Catholic Charities had established a few blocks away at the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church. There they would be offered food, the opportunity to shower, and an invitation to sort through tables filled with donated clothing, toys, diapers and snack bags for the coming bus ride.

Patricia Umanzour, 32, was at the parish hall on Wednesday. She described what pushed her husband to decide that they and their three children must leave El Salvador.

It wasn’t poverty. Her husband had a good job as a graphic designer with an advertising agency. But a few weeks ago, when a 14-year-old cousin was murdered by gang members, they worried that their 13-year-old son might be next.

“The maras have taken control where we were living,” she said, using the term for the two notorious gangs in San Salvador—the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18. So they decided to leave everything and seize the opportunity they had heard about from news reports and from Salvadorans living in the United States.

“We were watching CNN, and they were saying that the United States was giving opportunities to women with children,” said Patricia. “And since some neighbors of ours had come, we decided to try it.”

The trip was financed by a sister-in-law who lived in Los Angeles, who agreed to pay a smuggler $12,000 to bring the family of five to the U.S. They had made the trip to the Texas border in four days, using taxis, vans, and intercity bus lines.

Patricia said the sister-in-law had already wired $9,000 to the smuggler. The remaining three thousand would be paid once her husband, who was still being held by the Border Patrol, was released. The family was planning to live with other relatives in Houston.

Back at the McAllen bus station, a Salvadoran named Delmar was waiting for a bus with his 12-year-old son Brayan. They would soon be heading to Los Angeles to join his wife and daughter, who had been released two days earlier by the Border Patrol. There they would live with relatives, including one who is a truck driver. That is a job that Delmar would also like to have.

Delmar said he and his family made the trip from El Salvador to the Texas border in 13 days. He said the trip took so long because they did not hire a smuggler, who would likely have charged more than $10,000 for the trip. Delmar said he was forced repeatedly to pay bribes at the frequent roadside checkpoints placed all along the route by Mexican military and police units. He paid more bribes than he can remember—“maybe 15 times,” he said, in amounts ranging from 50 to 100 pesos—because they said if he didn’t pay, he would be sent back to Salvador.

Delmar also had a story of gang intimidation and extortion in Salvador. He said he had been forced to pay $10 a week in order to be allowed to do his job. He drove a small motorcycle in Usulatan, Salvador’s fifth largest city, visiting homes to collect installment payments for an appliance store. He was paid strictly on commission, usually $80 to $100 a week, he said.

At the bus station, Delmar was carrying an Order of Release on Recognizance, the document he had received from the Border Patrol. It ordered him to appear at immigration court in Los Angeles on July 8. If he shows up, it would be the beginning of a long process through the immigration courts. But the courts, whose calendar had been overwhelmed before the current illegal surge across the border, will likely not be able to take the case for at least a year.

On Wednesday, at the bus station in Brownsville, a Honduran woman named Luz explained why she and her 12-year-old son Cristian came to the border. She told a story of domestic violence, financial distress, extortion by gangs, and the hope to escape to a better life.

“We left because he was beating me,” she said, referring to the man with whom she was living, who was not Cristian’s father. She added that because she was out of work and received no support from Cristian’s father, she had run out of money to rent a place to live.

The final blow was the collapse of a job offer. The owner of a clothing shop where she had just been hired decided to go out of business rather than pay the extortion fees imposed by a local gang. Luz said that in her troubled and violent country, such extortion fees are “impuestos de Guerra” -- war taxes.

Soon Luz and Cristian would be boarding a bus for Fort Worth, where they had been invited to live with a friend. Her document “Release on Recognizance” ordered her to report to U.S. immigration authorities in Dallas on July 10.

But it is rare that people released with such an order present themselves to the authorities. Some Border Patrol agents ruefully say the documents, which they have been issuing for many years as part of a “catch-and-release” program that relieves pressure on overwhelmed detention facilities, might as well be an order to disappear into the interior, where they will be low priorities for arrest.