REYNOSA, Mexico — The 27-year-old Honduran woman is desperate to know if the rumor is true: that she’ll be allowed to stay in the United States because she is traveling with her 2-year-old daughter.
At a shelter for migrants across the border from McAllen, Texas, Jennys Aguilar Cardenas and other women have heard about mothers being released with their babies, about children being reunited with relatives in the U.S. Like a game of telephone, the word has spread, giving hope to an apparently growing number of migrants willing to risk the dangerous crossing — with their young children — to escape intense poverty and crime at home.
The truth is there is no change in the law for children or parents. In practice, though, so many Central American migrants are illegally entering the U.S. with young children that there is nowhere to hold them while they wait for deportation hearings. With full capacity at the nation’s lone family detention center, an 85-bed center in Pennsylvania, migrants simply are being freed with orders to appear before immigration authorities at a later time.
How many are complying with the order is unknown. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said the agency did not have numbers available.
But as stories about releases spread in Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere, shelter workers and Border Patrol agents are seeing more parents attempting to enter the U.S. with their children. The Department of Homeland Security has not said how many so-called “family units” it has processed this year. Officials, however, do report a dramatic spike in the number of children caught traveling without any adult relative or guardian.
Border Patrol agents in the area of southernmost Texas, across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, made more than 160,000 apprehensions between October 2013 and May, about a 70 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. Nearly one third of those detained — 47,000 — were children traveling alone. President Barack Obama last week called the phenomenon “an urgent humanitarian situation,” and asked Congress to approve additional spending to house the children at two military bases.
The spike in migrant detentions comes as Obama is under pressure both to reform immigration laws and to do more to stop illegal entries. Republican lawmakers have suggested the rise in child migrants is a result of lax enforcement. The Border Patrol acknowledges there is a problem in families being released, with deputy chief Ronald Vitiello noting in a May 30 draft memo that such actions are “incentives to additional individuals to follow the same path.”
Aguilar Cardenas, a single mother of four, tried to enter the U.S. alone last year. She barely made it over the Rio Grande before she was caught and sent back to Honduras. This time, she brought her young daughter, Keillin Mareli, on the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) journey, traveling by foot and freight trains to reach Reynosa, where she hopes to find a guide willing to help them cross for free.
“I decided to leave with my daughter so that maybe, this way, they’ll give me the chance to help my children advance,” she said, as the girl played with a white bear decorated with stars like an American flag.
At another shelter in Reynosa, another single mother from Honduras, Sandra Calidono, said she’s also heard vague stories about the U.S. offering political asylum to children. “Almost all the families in Honduras are emigrating because they heard this talk,” she said, watching her 3-year-old daughter playing with a migrant boy even younger.
Calidono was unable to find work in Honduras and was eager to escape a crime wave that has made it one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. The nation’s murder rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people is more than 15 times the global average.
With only a dark future for the children at home, migrants are eager to believe the rumors of freedom for children and families.
“It’s not uncommon when you are in a desperate situation and you need to believe what you want to believe,” said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “In this case, it’s not the reality.”
Ana Bulnes, the Honduran consul for South Texas, said Wednesday it is hard to discourage families from making the trip when U.S. authorities, in fact, are releasing them — sometimes dropping them off at bus stations in Texas and Arizona.
“The message also has to be from both sides, from both governments,” Bulnes said in McAllen. “We have to work in the same direction.”
The rumors are spreading by word of mouth, not through any mass media channels such as radio that can be monitored, she said.
“We have not found anywhere any kind of publicity that’s, ‘Come to the United States. Bring your kids, we’ll let you pass,'” Bulnes said. “The people who are able to enter are those who send the message back.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry last week asked that the Department of Homeland Security stop releasing immigrants with notices to appear. On Monday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer asked the same for the hundreds of immigrants, mostly women and children, who in recent weeks have been flown to Arizona from South Texas for processing.
Richard Rocha, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an email decisions regarding detention are made on a case-by-case basis, with top concern given to national security and public safety. “To be clear,” he said, “they are subject to removal, but may not be detained through the length of their proceedings.”
With her little Perla, Calidono hopes to cross the border as soon as she comes up with the money to pay a guide to help them. Then, she’ll join a brother who lives in the Carolinas — she didn’t know if it was the north one or south one. Either way, she’s heard, life is better there.