MCALLEN, Texas — The sleepy-looking downtown of McAllen would give passersby no reason to believe it is the epicenter of a border surge that threatens to consume the Biden administration’s first months.
A large converted nightclub space with blacked-out windows has been transformed into a resting spot for migrant families, 600 of which are released to the Catholic Charities organization every day. An armed security guard stands at the front doors, which are locked for the safety of the masses inside.
Conditions back home in northern Central American countries have prompted multiple migration surges over the past decade. And while the U.S. government was hyperfocused on it under the Obama and Trump administrations, Sister Norma Seni Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center, said they failed to address the push factors sufficiently. As a result, smugglers are still easily able to entice the vulnerable into taking on debts in the thousands in return for getting them to America.
"The cartels and the traffickers use anything that happens, whether it's a new president or a wall going up, they use it to their advantage to say, 'This is the best time to come,'" said Sister Norma when asked why the families have said they made the journey.
Those here were released by Border Patrol within the last 24 hours, after being taken into custody for illegally coming across the Rio Grande, which separates the United States from Mexico. Agents held the families before they were dropped off at a nearby parking lot. There, the U.S. government conducts rapid COVID-19 tests on everyone. Those who test negative are then walked by a Catholic Charities worker past a bus station to the respite center.
The flow of people is not as high as in 2019, but it is escalating each week.
"There’s no jobs because of what's happening, whether it's climate change or because of the gangs making it very unsafe to have companies coming in and offer them jobs," said Sister Norma.
The southern border extends nearly 2,000 miles, from Texas's southeastern tip to California’s Pacific coast. Families and children made up half of the people who came over the border the first three months of 2021. The other half were adults without children. Adults are the only demographic immediately sent back to their home country. Sister Norma is seeing more young children than ever before due to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas’s refusal to take returning families with children under 7 because its shelters are full. That means Border Patrol must take the families into custody, most of whom are released into the country and given a court date for a hearing down the road. The Biden administration is not requiring adults to be outfitted with ankle monitors so the government can track them.
More people coming over the border do it in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas because it is the shortest distance from Central America to the U.S. Nearly all arriving families are from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — countries that for the past decade have been reeling from worsening violence, a lack of jobs, and natural disasters.
Democrats and Republicans in Washington have spent the past two months fighting over whether the border is in “crisis,” while border officials have said all that matters is whether they have control over who is coming in at and between ports of entry. That control is slipping away, according to Mark Morgan, the top border official in the Trump administration. Agents are increasingly being pulled away from the border to do paperwork or transport people.
The Department of Homeland Security asked its 250,000 personnel at all agencies nationwide to volunteer here for several months. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in early March ordered the state's Department of Public Safety officers, known as "troopers," to focus on criminal activities at the border.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was sent in to help the Department of Health and Human Services at facilities that house unaccompanied children after they have been transferred from Border Patrol. On the actual border, county constables from two precincts have been added in to patrol the dirt roads that run parallel with the winding river, where people who illegally cross are constantly crawling up from the riverbank, some surrendering to law enforcement and others hoping to evade detection.
Morgan predicted on March 30 that Border Patrol will encounter 1.4 million people illegally crossing the border in 2021. Approximately 859,000 were encountered during the 2019 crisis.
More than 1,000 people are sneaking across every day and getting away, Morgan added. He based that claim on information leaked to him from within the agency. Every person is smuggled by cartels in Central America and Mexico. The smuggling process only stops at the border for families and children who turn themselves in to the first green uniformed agent they can find, but the process continues for those trying to slip into the country without getting caught.
A.J. Louderback is sheriff of Jackson County, located 200 miles north of McAllen. His deputies frequently foil narcotics and human smuggling attempts on the popular U.S. 59 corridor between the border and Houston. In one incident, a cabbage truck going through his county overturned, and first responders found eight people hiding inside the vegetable load. Cases like these are increasingly happening in his backyard as smugglers move human cargo to destinations deeper inside the country.
“This is unparalleled and spectacularly larger than what we've ever seen before as far as the amount of people coming in,” said Louderback, who met with a dozen regional sheriffs at the end of March to talk about border issues.
Members of the South Texans' Property Rights Association, a 500-member group whose properties encompass 5 million acres in South Texas, are used to seeing people on their land, but they say it has never been like this.
One of those property owners is James McAllen Jr., a rancher whose family the town was named after. He grew up here in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was normal for two or three migrants to show up once a month at his family’s home and ask for water or a ride. His family would always help.
“Now, it's a totally different story,” said McAllen, adding that upward of 40 people are showing up on his doorstep at a time in recent months.
“We pick up men, children. We deal with death. We deal with rape. We deal with all sorts of things out there. The inhumanity is the worst part of this story. It’s what the coyotes are doing to these people and promising them the world, and delivering absolutely nothing. And it's amazing to see a group of people, and the look in their face of being totally defeated, and not know what to do or where to go, and all you’re left to do is call Border Patrol and the sheriff's department to pick them up.”
Rancher Whit Jones said a lot of people end up lost 80 miles north of the border because they were kicked out of their ride and told to walk several miles around Border Patrol's highway checkpoints in Hebbronville and Falfurrias. His neighbor has found 100 bodies on his property over the past decade because people get lost.
“We’re finding children on the ranch. We’re finding people dead on the ranches,” Jones said. “This is in my backyard. This is my home. ... You’ll wake up, 2 or 3 in the morning, you’ll have helicopters circling. It feels like a war zone. You’ll have big military helicopters working a big group of people."
Lawmakers have descended on the border several times since February. Republican Rep. Michael Burgess, a medical doctor from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, traveled down with the Texas Republican delegation in late March and said he had not seen anything like it in his 12 years of border visits.
“We got a constitutional crisis. The commander in chief's first and most important job is to provide for the general welfare of the public. That is not happening," said fellow Republican Rep. Jodey Arrington during a roundtable discussion in McAllen.
Rep. Pete Sessions vowed that the state's congressional representatives were in this "for the long run" and promised to visit in June when, he said, things likely will have taken a turn for the worse. By then, Texas and the country may be facing new challenges as the nation adjusts to the influx of tens of thousands of people released into America.
Anna Giaritelli is the homeland security reporter for the Washington Examiner.