An American flag blew in the South Texas wind as Father Roy Snipes prepared to welcome 100 migrants to the school close to his church.
He set the church bells to chime just in time for the migrants’ arrival and play “Santa Maria del Camino,” a hymnal honoring traveling pilgrims. But the bells went off too soon, so Father Snipes, often dubbed the “Cowboy Priest,” walked back across the street to reset them, followed by his three rescue dogs.
“I was trying to fix them to ring for when the refugees came home,” he said.
Minutes later, two vans escorting migrant families pulled up. In the past 24 hours, they’d crossed the Rio Grande River from Mexico, gone through processing with Customs and Border Protection, and been released at a bus station in downtown McAllen — a routine that’s become normal again along this part of the border.
In recent weeks, families seeking asylum have been walking over to the Catholic Charities respite center near the bus station, where they’re given food, supplies and a night’s sleep before they move on to their next destination in the United States.
But with the number of families rising, the non-profit group has asked Father Snipes and his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in the neighboring city of Mission, to open up an overflow shelter and help new migrants arriving each night. It’s been open for nearly two weeks.
The increase in families represents only a part of the rise in migrants crossing the border in recent months. More significantly, the number of unaccompanied minors has skyrocketed, resembling trends from early 2019, which marked the beginning of what political leaders on both sides of the aisle described as a major crisis at the border.
It’s a sentiment that’s now being echoed once again. “The way we’re going, I think it’s going to become a crisis,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democratic congressman from Laredo, Texas, said in a press conference this week.
“It is a difficult journey”
While some families seeking asylum are currently released inside the US, unaccompanied minors by law must be held in government facilities until they can be connected with a sponsor. These facilities had been operating at limited capacity due to the pandemic, but the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday — facing overwhelming numbers — notified the facilities that they can open back up to pre-Covid-19 levels, which is just under 14,000 beds.
There are approximately 7,700 unaccompanied children currently in HHS care.
The administration also recently re-opened up a large facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house children temporarily, a move that brought swift criticism from progressives and activists who feel the administration can process minors more quickly, so they don’t have to stay in large detention-like centers.
“Those enormous facilities at the border are not suited for children,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU. “The Biden administration needs to stop using those as quickly as possible.”
Several of the migrants at the Catholic overflow shelter told CNN they saw children making the journey from Central America on their own and that some would seek protection with families who were traveling.
Carlos, 32, was traveling with his four-year-old daughter and saw young teenagers on a network of buses traveling from Honduras through Mexico. Jose, 25, had a five-year-old daughter and said he often saw children begging for money along the way, or cleaning windows on the streets to make money to survive.
He said he fears not all the children made the journey safely and that some might have been kidnapped along the way. “It is a difficult journey. A journey with many dangerous risks.”
Biden administration taking heat
The growing numbers have become a flashpoint in the early days of the Biden administration while it seeks to develop its own policies after four years of a more restrictive approach by former President Donald Trump.
Added to the increase are concerns over that the government isn’t testing migrants for Covid-19 and leaving it instead to local communities and charities.
“Border security is strictly a federal responsibility,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement. “The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID.”
However, in a statement to CNN on Friday, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said it has been working with local mayors and public health officials in Texas to provide Covid-19 testing and its agreement with partners called for federal funds to cover expenses related to testing, isolation, and quarantine.
“We hope that Governor Abbott will reconsider his decision to reject DHS’s agreement with the Texan local authorities that would enable the very testing of migrant families that Governor Abbott says he wants,” the spokesperson said.
Earlier this week, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pushed back at those calling the border situation a “crisis.”
“This is a challenge that the border communities, the non-governmental organizations, the people who care for individuals seeking humanitarian relief understand it is an imperative,” he said. “Everyone understands what occurred before us, what we need to do now, and we are getting it done.”
Kimi Jackson, director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project , represents unaccompanied minors, and she fears the growing numbers are being misinterpreted. She argues the increase is essentially a whiplash effect resulting from the Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which allowed the expulsion of most migrants amid the pandemic.
The policy is still in place for single adults and families, barring some exceptions. The Biden administration has said it will not subject unaccompanied children to the policy, resulting in more minors coming into custody.
“When you go from zero because the border has been closed, to all of a sudden having people coming in, it looks like a lot. But it’s really not that unprecedented,” she said.
Jackson also feels the narrative that more migrants are coming because of new Biden administration policies is a myth. “If somebody is trying to kill you, you’re gonna leave, no matter what,” she said. “I think that it’s got more to do with what’s happening in the home countries than what’s happening here.”
“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring”
On Tuesday night at the overflow shelter, Father Snipes welcomed dozens of families with fist bumps. Volunteers served them donated meals of chicken salad, corn and pineapples.
The parents, most of them from Central America, sat wearily on folding chairs while their children played on the playground and or took turns riding a donkey named Nico around a basketball court. The shelter turned classrooms into sleeping rooms with soft mats on the floor.
For his part, Snipes welcomes the migrants with open arms. He physically shudders at the mention of the Trump-era policy of separating children and feels thankful it’s not happening again.
“We don’t want open borders,” he said. “But we do want to help people who are in danger…or just looking for a way to survive.”
Still, he does worry about “chaos” unfolding if the numbers continue to rise and if communities, along with the government, fail to keep up.
“We’re in mysterious, unknown territory,” he said. “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”