Migrants march a deadly trail to find ‘God’s love in action’ along the border

Latter-day Saints, Catholics, other churches and charities launch innovative solution to a gap in America’s system for those seeking asylum

DEL RIO, Texas — The 5-month-old baby fidgeted as the young mother checked the wrap securing him to her back in the sopping-wet heat.

Then Jouseline took a deep breath and stepped into one of the world’s most dangerous places, the notorious jungle of Panama’s perilous Darién Gap. She put little Jayden on her back for a mother’s reason: She was placing herself between her son and the menaces ahead — wild animals, robbers or a fall into a river or onto the jungle’s jagged rocks.

Nothing stood between her and other heart-wrenching hazards ahead on their 60-mile survival test. She would step over, around and on dead children. Cry as she made her way around heavily pregnant women passed out from exhaustion on the rough path. Beg robbers not to take Jayden or their passports. Weep as she met women and girls raped by jungle gangs.

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At gunpoint, Jouseline surrendered to thieves all her little family’s clothing, food and money.

She walked 14 hours a day through the Darién Gap with her dependable boyfriend, Ramson, shielding her baby all the way. At the end of the fourth day, they stepped out of the jungle and she fainted. When she regained consciousness, she praised God that Jayden was safe and that her only injury was a sore, swollen foot and leg from a stumble.

She had four more countries to walk through to reach the Rio Grande and the U.S. border. She knew it would take weeks and include crossing the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert famously portrayed in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

But she had all that mattered. She had Jayden, Ramson and their passports.

And her determination.

Venezuelan asylum-seekers are stopped by Border Patrol near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Rio Grande

On Tuesday, a group of 57 Venezuelans left the soil of Acuña, Mexico, and walked into what there is known as the Rio Bravo, or the Wild River.

The water crested at their chests. Then they emerged on the other side in Del Rio, Texas. Here, the river is famed as the mighty 1,800-mile Rio Grande.

What happened next is the start of the awkward process for seeking asylum in a prosperous nation in conflict with itself over immigration.

Social media accounts advise Venezuelans to cross the Rio Grande at this particular spot, known in Del Rio as the Vega. New groups form almost daily at 4:30 p.m. and cross together there.

Texas Highway Patrol troopers and U.S. Border Patrol officers know this and await them on the Vega, which is surrounded by a towering, invasive species of thick green reeds. The Venezuelans didn’t come to run or hide. They came to surrender and request asylum in the United States.

Venezuelan asylum-seekers Claudia and Kemy are stopped by members of the Texas Highway Patrol and Border Patrol near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

One woman in Tuesday’s group was 74, the oldest by far. As she fought heat exhaustion in stifling humidity, Neisa Ramos told a reporter that a paramilitary group murdered her son in Venezuela. She is fleeing its authoritarian regime.

Four white vans appeared. Each bore bold green block letters on the side and back: “Border Patrol” and “Honor First.” Ramos cried in relief at being taken into U.S. custody. A few miles away, at the official border crossing, a sign on one side of the street says in Spanish, “Welcome to the city of Del Rio, Texas, the Best of the Border.”

Under the Trump administration, many migrants like these generally were returned to Mexico to await their asylum hearing, according to government, border patrol and legal sources. Under the Biden administration, more asylum-seekers are being allowed to stay in the United States pending their hearings.

As officials apprehended nearly 14,000 unaccompanied minors at the border in May, the situation vacillated between crisis and hope.

Many other factors are at play, too. For one, Mexico is not accepting deportations of families from the United States. Jouseline’s little family finally arrived at the edge of the Rio Grande last week after a 105-day journey.

They, like others, soon found themselves briefly stuck because of a gap in the cobbled-together system.

It’s a gap that also puts immense pressure on border cities across Texas, Arizona and California precisely because it leaves many migrants in temporary limbo.

Churches and charities fill the gap

The Border Patrol identifies, fingerprints and runs a criminal history on each migrant. Only those with no record and a sponsoring family or friend willing to host them in the United States are allowed to remain in the country. They are provided with a date for an asylum hearing near their sponsors’ cities.

Then, without an opportunity to shower or otherwise clean up, the Border Patrol releases them into border cities by the dozens and hundreds. Their sponsors have provided money for bus, train or plane tickets, but the vast majority of asylum-seekers need several hours or a day to arrange that transportation, and there is no place to go in the meantime. Where can they stay until their plane leaves? If they are out of money, who will feed them? Where can they shower and clean up?

Into this gap, and often at the behest of Border Patrol agents concerned by it, have sprung churches, charities and other nonprofit organizations.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the YMCA, Catholic Charities and several other partners opened the Family Transfer Center in Houston this week. The center is located in a warehouse near George Bush Intercontinental Airport and bus and train stations.

The Family Transfer Center, which can house 500 people a night, provides an innovative solution. Without it, communities would shoulder more costs and migrants would fill city streets and parks.

Migrants can stay at the Family Transfer Center for two days and a night and then catch their buses, trains or planes to their sponsors’ homes. That relieves pressure on the border towns. And it helps and protects migrants like Jouseline and Jayden.

“These are God’s children who have chosen to come here, and while they are here they need to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Betsy Ballard, director of communications for Catholic Charities, which is providing volunteers at the Family Transfer Center.

“We don’t know what the future holds for these folks, but that doesn’t matter to us,” she added. “They’re still children of God to whom should be extended God’s love in action in a very concrete way. We’re not here to judge. We are here to lift up, support and welcome the stranger.”

Refugees rest at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Family Transfer Center

After Jouseline, Jayden and Ramson surrendered and were processed in Del Rio, Border Patrol agents put them in a van and took them to the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Center a mile from the border.

The center is a nongovernmental organization that receives no federal, state or local government funding. The charity is supported by partners, churches and donations from around the country.

Some Del Rio residents harbor myths about the center, but it began when Border Patrol. agents approached local pastors and suggested a better way to release asylum-seekers into the city or other locales than just setting them loose at large.

Now the Border Patrol contacts the center’s director of operations, Tiffany Burrow, when it has a group to release. Then it buses them to the center, a Spanish-style, city-owned facility it rents just minutes away from the airport.

The Family Transfer Center and the border center only serve those to whom the Border Patrol has granted legal status while they await an asylum hearing. The centers do not provide any money to the migrants.

Inside the border center on Tuesday, brown metal folding chairs stood in a few neat rows on the concrete floor. Stacked smartly against mint-green cinder block walls were large plastic packages of water bottles and hygiene kits packed in boxes marked with the logo of Latter-day Saint Charities.

“We go through those like nobody’s business,” Burrow said.

On top of one stack of the hygiene kits was a bucket of soccer balls. Fans cooled the air. Rows of tricycles were lined up near a bank of landline telephones where volunteers made calls to arrange transportation.

The border center also offers a shower trailer and a bagged lunch. There are no overnight accommodations.

Over the past few months, the center at times has been overwhelmed.

“At the start of the year, we saw 25 people a week,” she said. “Then in March we assisted 2,070 and thought that was a lot of people. Then last week we had 1,000 in four days.”

That’s when she and others arranged charter buses for Jouseline, Jayden and 221 more asylum-seekers with sponsors in the eastern United States. The migrants paid their own way, $65 each. The buses carried them seven hours east to the Family Transfer Center in Houston.

“They have a final destination,” Burrow said. “They don’t want to stay in Del Rio. It’s a jumping-off point. They might not know how to do it. We provide a tremendous service to this community, and the city doesn’t pay for it. There’s a disconnect of understanding it right here in this town. Without us, these asylum-seekers would be aimlessly milling about Del Rio. We provide a safe destination that fills their immediate needs.”

A Border Patrol vehicle drives in Del Rio, Texas, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The border crisis

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently declared the immigration surge a disaster in 34 counties along the border, including Del Rio in Val Verde County.

The Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector encountered 5,800 migrants from 29 countries over a recent seven-day period. A Del Rio judge told the media outlet 830 Times that the surge has cost local taxpayers half a million dollars in jail expenses because city police also detain and hold migrants.

The judge said he would petition the state for reimbursement. In fact, Abbott was in Del Rio on Thursday to host a Border Security Summit with law enforcement leaders all along the Rio Grande to discuss securing the southern border and addressing “the ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico, where she told people considering the dangerous journey, “Do not come.”

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Some people call it a crisis. Some people call it a disaster. The fact of the matter is our local border communities are overwhelmed,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said recently.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for immigration reform that would sew up the gaps and create a clearer system. In the meantime, people continue to cross the river.

“It’s an end to a physical journey, but there’s a long road ahead for them to gain asylum or get a hearing to be a deported,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of Immigration Advocacy Group. “The average wait time for a hearing is one to two years, and it’s another one to two years for a ruling from an immigration judge.”

“Ultimately,” Espinosa added, “we’d like to see some kind of immigration reform so people don’t need to make these journeys, because 85% of women experience sexual violence or physical violence on the journey. Politically, you can be on any side of the issue, but you should be for immigration reform so people don’t suffer violence to reach our soil.”

Elder Brent Lee, left, and and Sister Charlene Lee, Latter-day Saint service missionaries, sort donated items for refugees at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. The center provides a temporary respite for families who have been cleared at the U.S. border and need short-term shelter and food. The creation of the Family Transfer Center is the result of a collaboration between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholic Charities, the National Association of Christian Churches, YMCA International Services, Texas Adventist Community Services, Houston Responds and The Houston Food Bank. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Help in Houston

The Family Transfer Center in Houston provides food, some clothing, showers, transportation support and cots and bedding for an overnight stay.

Jouseline was grateful to secure three pairs of pants for Jayden. After she selected them, she unzipped the jeans he wore, which she bought in Mexico, pulled them off and gave them to a Latter-day Saint service missionary couple. They didn’t fit, she said. Maybe someone else can use them.

The director of the Family Transfer Center is Elder Carlos Villarreal, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. He is an Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Carlos Villarreal, Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looks over the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I think being a son of immigrants really has helped me understand and give better, heartfelt direction to the migrants that are here, and to give them hope for what awaits them and their children,” he said.

When the migrants leave the center, they find more kindhearted help from Americans in airports all over the country because of a tip picked up by Elder Dirk Richards and Sister Claudia Richards, a Latter-day Saint service missionary couple from West Jordan, Utah. They learned the tip during training at a migrant respite home in McAllen, Texas.

They give each person with a plane ticket a big manila folder. On one side they write, “Please help me. I do not speak English. Where should I go to find my flight?” On the other side, they write the flight information.

“What has surprised us is that all of them have caught their flights just using that paper,” Elder Richards said.

Jouseline expected to fly to Florida, but she remained several days longer than most at the Family Transfer Center because the Border Patrol held Ramson longer than usual. Jouseline left Haiti with a third grade education. She finished high school in the Dominican Republic. She sought work but suffered discrimination in Chile. She remains determined to find a safe place with an opportunity for her family.

As Jouseline crossed the Rio Grande last week, a woman behind her retreated to shore and yelled to her, begging her to stop, worried the water was too fast.

“No,” Jouseline said. “I’m not going back. I’m going ahead.”

The Rio Grande at sunset.
The sun sets the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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