MCALLEN, Texas — The busiest spot of the southern border for illegal crossings is struggling with an all-time high of migrants and a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Last week, 7,000 migrants were released in downtown McAllen, Texas. More than 1,500 tested positive for COVID-19 over the past seven days, according to a city document issued Wednesday.
The city of 141,000 residents in the Rio Grande Valley is ground zero for the border crisis. Agents in the valley encounter more illegal immigrants than any of the Border Patrol’s other eight regions. Many migrants come thousands of miles from Central America and elsewhere to cross the border just miles south of downtown McAllen, where they are picked up, processed, and dropped off downtown.
One intersection in McAllen, in particular, is the center of the nation’s immigration crisis: South 15th Street and Austin Avenue. This week, bus after bus unloaded migrants.
On the north side of Austin Avenue, migrants are tested for the coronavirus through a city-contracted organization. On the south side of the street, Catholic Charities welcomes families after testing to help make arrangements to travel throughout the United States. On another side of the street is the regional bus station, where every few minutes, charity workers walk a family to board a bus. Out front, cabs pull in and out of parking spots, shuttling people to the local airport.
The routine has become hard to manage as the number of migrants has risen. Approximately 210,000 people attempted to illegally cross the southern border in July, the highest in 21 years. Despite the rise in illegal border crossing since President Joe Biden took office in January, the White House refuses to call the situation a “crisis,” leaving communities, such as McAllen, and federal agents to handle it on their own.
“We need help immediately from — from the federal people and, honestly, even from the state people,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez in an interview on a city-run TV station Tuesday. “These immigrants need to be served, safely, efficiently, and effectively. And we’re run out of space and resources to do so,
Families encountered illegally crossing the border are taken into custody by the Border Patrol and are supposed to be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, the Biden administration has opted to release them directly.
The Border Patrol uses large buses to transport groups of migrant families in their custody from processing facilities. The buses have been painted white, and some have bars across the passenger windows similar to prison transport buses.
The buses turn off the main hub running through McAllen and into the intersection every 15 to 30 minutes. Each bus carries several dozen families, generally made up of two or three people.
Every person released this week seen by the Washington Examiner was part of a family — no children or single adults. Oftentimes, one bus unloads while another pulls up, causing a traffic jam. Just one Border Patrol agent was on-site. The agent and private security guard stood outside the city-run COVID-19 testing site and directed the buses through the narrow one-way street.
The two officials directed migrants off the bus and instructed them to sit against either the COVID-testing building or Catholic Charities building across the street as they waited to be tested.
Dozens of families sat on both sides of the street. No one brought suitcases or backpacks, just the clothes on their backs. The heat index hit 114 degrees Tuesday, which is standard for a summer day in south Texas.
There is no schedule for drop-offs — the buses come through as people in Border Patrol custody get processed. As the buses fill up, they are sent to downtown McAllen. The buses must continue moving to keep up with the flow of people constantly coming across the Rio Grande, the river that divides the U.S. from Mexico.
Once the first group was brought in for testing, they waited inside. Once tested, a guide walked them across the street to the Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center.
The second bus group was moved to where the first group sat outside the testing site to unload the next busload of people. The cycle continued into the night as buses continued to drop people off.
Catholic Charities began assisting migrant families in McAllen in 2014 when families first began arriving at the border, then in far lower numbers. Amid the increase in families arriving in 2019 and again this spring, it ramped up operations, brought in volunteers, and paid security to manage everyone in its care, which is not to exceed 1,236 people, according to city documents.
One official who asked to remain anonymous estimated that 2,000 migrants were being held inside the building. The estimate was on par with city numbers released Wednesday, which stated more than 1,900 people sought admission each day this week. Catholic Charities owns these inter-connected buildings.
During a tour of the building in March, the respite center was packed with 400-500 people inside. Far more families have come through the town recently. The number of families released daily rose to 1,200 in July before hitting 1,900 this week. The same person is on-site daily and has never observed a city fire marshal inspecting the buildings.
A half-dozen portable toilets line an alley behind Catholic Charities, a sign of the strain on the facilities. The alley was flooded.
A pile of human feces was on the sidewalk directly next to the portable toilets. It was impossible to walk through the flood water left from the recent storm to get to the portage toilets, just a few feet from the building’s back doors, without going through the waste water.
Catholic Charities plans to expand to a new facility in town, the city said Wednesday. After darkness settled in Tuesday night, eight men in reflective vests arrived at the respite center, where they walked inside and carried out blue sleeping pads migrants use at the center.
Migrants are required to show proof they do not have the coronavirus before boarding buses to their destinations, making the testing site a necessity for anyone who wishes to travel.
Nearly all of the families being dropped off will leave McAllen within hours to days to go to other places across the U.S. Family or friends in the U.S. may pay for bus or plane tickets to get them to their final destinations. However, Republican Rep. John Katko, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, revealed in April the federal government is paying nonprofit organizations to cover migrants’ travel costs.
A local resident who only shared her first name, Margarita, stood catty-corner from the activity Tuesday evening, watching the buses drop off migrants. She is a singer who regularly travels through the bus station between Mexico and Texas. Margarita said she has seen more migrants getting dropped off here in recent months.
“I travel a lot of the time. Every time I come, it’s the same s***,” she said.
She made a point to explain she is a Mexican citizen from Ciudad Victoria but legally immigrated to the U.S. and applied for citizenship shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. She recalled an incident when three men trespassed onto her property by jumping over her backyard fence. The men broke the fence, and she was left with the bill.
“That’s what I don’t like — not everybody’s good people,” Margarita said. “I’m waiting a lot for my citizenship and they [are] given more opportunities … I was living here for so many years — I am a good citizen. I never have any tickets.”
McAllen resident Jesus Peña said downtown is busier because more migrants are being released lately. Peña said the activity “doesn’t impact” him, and he is still able to go to work every day, unaffected by the situation at the border or in town.
“It got real crazy just recently, like last month,” Peña said. “It’s extremely busy — all these people — like those people from South American countries. Man, I can’t say that I blame these people, man. They trying to make a living, trying to make their life — coming from third-world countries and running away from violence.”
On a normal night, Greyhound buses heading to Dallas load up around 8 p.m. The two Greyhounds departing McAllen Tuesday night were sold out.
Tuesday was the first night two massive white luxury coach buses pulled in to pick up hundreds of people and take them to Houston, a five-and-a-half-hour ride.
One man directing the operation said Catholic Charities funded the rides.
Original Location: Texas border town struggles under surge of migrant families and COVID-19