Shelters for children near capacity

Posted: Sunday, December 6, 2015 10:20 pm

HARLINGEN — Rio Grande Valley shelters are filling up amid a new surge of undocumented immigrant children, most fleeing violence from Central American countries, immigration attorneys said.

Since Oct. 1, U.S. Border Patrol agents have apprehended 4,973 undocumented immigrant children along the Southwest border, 3,036 in the Rio GrandeValley area, Border Patrol statistics show.

The numbers soared from October 2014, when 2,519 undocumented immigrant children were apprehended along the Southwest, with 1,547 in the Valley.

“We are closely monitoring current trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.

“We are diligently working to secure our borders, address underlying causes and deter future increases in unauthorized migration while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection.”

Officials are working on “public awareness campaigns” to warn people in Central America and Mexico of the dangers of journeying to the U.S. border, the statement said.

Undocumented immigrants “attempting to come here illegally are a top priority for removal,” it said.

“We are aware that smugglers often use misinformation about current immigration policies and practices to lure individuals seeking to cross the border to employ their services.”

The surge comes more than a year after tens of thousands of Central American refugees crossed the border during 2014.
Like the 2014 immigration crisis, many of the children crossing the border are traveling without their parents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, claiming they are fleeing violence in their home countries, said Kimi Jackson, an attorney who serves as director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBAR, in Harlingen.

“We’re working at our maximum to provide services for the kids here now,” Jackson said. “The numbers have been gradually increasing for a while now.”

Jackson said many children requesting amnesty in the United States are being held in shelters.

“There has been an increase in the number of beds for unaccompanied minors in our area,” Jackson said.

The federal government has requested BCFS Health and Human Services, a San Antonio-based organization, to expand its shelter at ValleyBaptistMissionsEducationCenter on Harrison Avenue, spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said.

Piferrer said the international organization has applied to the state to add 94 beds to its 290-bed shelter.

“We are nearing capacity at all our facilities,” Piferrer said. “Without a doubt, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the last couple of months. We are at the highest capacity we’ve ever been at this time of the year.”

The 2014 immigration surge led organizations such as Los Fresnos-based International Educational Services, or IES, to expand shelters in the area.

In 2013, Austin-based Southwest Key opened two shelters to hold undocumented immigrant children in San Benito — one at the former Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital on U.S. Business 77 and the other at the former Atrium Place Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at 502 E. Expressway 83.

Across the Valley, shelters offer about 1,500 beds for immigrant children, said Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen attorney who handles immigration cases.

“There are a lot coming through here,” Goodwin said. “We see a significant number of people.”

Last year, the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America hit crisis levels, with federal officials projecting as many as 90,000 children would be held in shelters across the country.

From October 2013 to September 2014, Border Patrol agents apprehended 252,600 undocumented immigrants along the Southwest border, including a record number of 68,541 children under 18 who traveled without parents or guardians.
Of the total number of children, 49,959 were apprehended in the Valley area.