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BROWNSVILLE — When Jonny Alonso-Ortez, 37, received a bottle of water Saturday morning, he downed the drink in just a few minutes. The weather in his Nicaragua town wasn’t quite as hot as that of South Texas in late May.
Alonso-Ortez was waiting for a bus that would take him to Indianapolis, where he has a cousin and is planning to find work while he awaits his immigration proceedings. Then the hope is to send money to his family back home — his wife, who doesn’t work, and five children ranging from 5 to 18 years old. His wages from working on a coffee farm were barely enough to buy groceries.
When he was released from U.S. Border Patrol’s custody on Friday, he boarded a bus driven by a federal agent and arrived at a migrant processing center run with tight precision by the city of Brownsville. With help from the center, Alonso-Ortez’s cousin bought him a ticket north.
The goal of the city’s operation is to help send migrants on their way to their final destinations, without sheltering them in Brownsville, while partnering nonprofits provide clothing, food and hygiene items. The operation assists between 300 and 400 people each day.
The city of Brownsville’s Office of Emergency Management runs the effort with help from a handful of nonprofits, the B Metro city bus service, the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and the city’s communications department.
Although other Texas border cities have similar centers to give migrants shelter and food and help them book transportation, those do not have local governments at the helm.
The city’s work to assist migrants is good, Alonso-Ortez said, “because sometimes many immigrants come here without knowing the country.” Water, face masks, toothpaste, help finding travel — they would get him on his way to obtaining what he called “el sueño Americano,” the American dream.
How does Brownsville's migrant processing center work?
When migrants are released from federal custody and allowed to travel in the United States, federal agencies — U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Enforcement and Removal Operations — let the city’s workers know how many people they will drop off at the city’s processing site. That site occupies the ground level of a parking garage for the Brownsville bus station, only a couple of blocks away from a port of entry.
A group of people, consisting of 24 contract workers and three emergency management staffers, help the migrants arrange their travel, said Odee Ann Leal, the city’s emergency management director.
They allow each migrant to call a family member or their sponsor, and a city worker sends the family member or sponsor a text message with details about area bus lines and airlines and each migrant’s full name, date of birth and other information. That way, the sponsors can buy tickets for each migrant, as well as book a taxi or rideshare if the migrant needs to go to an airport. Usually, migrants traveling by bus only need to wait at La Plaza, the bus station across the street.
Almost all of the migrants have “that sponsor that’s waiting for that phone call,” ready to pay for their travel, Leal said.
The guideline to avoid bottlenecking the process is to ensure each migrant has a bus or plane ticket, as well as a hotel room if they are not leaving the same day, within two to three hours of arriving at the processing site.
“We advise family members that their loved ones are not the only ones that we’re receiving. … Throughout the day we get other drop-offs, so they can please ensure that they’ve made that arrangement within two or three hours from the time that initial call was made,” Leal said. “And everybody so far has been complying with it.”
Each person is also tested for COVID-19 when they get off the Border Patrol bus. Those who test positive are separated from the rest of the group to avoid further exposing anyone else and are sent to hotels for overnight stays to avoid traveling until they test negative.
Two nonprofits, Good Neighbor Settlement House and Team Brownsville, provide clothing, shoelaces, sanitary napkins, diapers, food and other items for the migrants. Ozanam Center, a homeless shelter, pays for hotel stays for the few migrants whose sponsors can’t pay.
The city’s center is currently receiving only individual adults, not families, Leal said.
The city started using this process in 2014, and it lasted from January to sometime in the fall most years.
But the operation currently underway has been “nonstop,” seven days a week, since Jan. 24, 2021, Leal said. That’s because Brownsville, like other border cities, has seen a jump in the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The city has received Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to cover the costs since the operation began. Officials apply for funds on a quarterly basis, Leal said.
Leal spoke to the Caller-Times shortly after a federal judge in Louisiana ruled to keep in place Title 42, a public health order issued by the Trump administration that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expel migrants to Mexico or back to their home countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities.
President Joe Biden planned to end Title 42 on May 23 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the policy is no longer needed in the current stage of the pandemic.
More than 1 million people were turned away under Title 42 in fiscal year 2021. The eventual repeal of the order is expected to drive up the number of migrants entering the United States.
But the share of migrants expelled under Title 42 in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Border Patrol, which includes Brownsville, already started to drop in November 2021. In October, about 53% of migrant encounters, or more than 23,000, in that sector resulted in Title 42 expulsions; the rest were handled under Title 8, a separate immigration law that existed before the pandemic. Last month, 43% of encounters resulted in Title 42 expulsions.
In the Rio Grande Valley Sector, migrant encounters dropped in March and April compared to the same months in 2021, CBP data shows. But the total encounters so far in fiscal year 2022 are almost 30% more than at the same point in the previous fiscal year.
Though Title 42 is still in effect for now, Leal said Brownsville is prepared for another migration surge when the order eventually ends.
City staff has discussed the issue with border agencies, Leal said, and “our capacity would be 1,000 if they were to say there would be an increase.” It would mean coordinating with Border Patrol to ensure the number of daily drop-offs at the city’s site also increases.
Leal said there was “a lot of disconnect” between the city and the federal agencies when the program started because Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not always alert the city when drop-offs were coming.
Now, early in the morning, the workers are given an estimate of how many drop-offs to expect each day, which helps them gauge how busy the day will be and prepare as necessary.
“Once we fixed that communication issue, that seems to have made everything a lot easier for us,” Leal said, adding that communication is also important between the city and the nongovernmental organizations on hand.
“This operation is different, I think, than other border cities for the simple reason that this operation is being run by the local government, and the NGOs are the ones assisting the local government, which is the city of Brownsville.”
She said officials from the cities of El Paso and Laredo have reached out to the city of Brownsville for a tour of the site with the intent to replicate it on their turf.
‘For their future’
Alonso-Ortez’s bus would leave Saturday evening. He’d tried to find a place to stay Friday night, but shelters and the nearest hotels were full; the bus station was closed overnight. He slept outside the station.
To make the trip to the United States, he’d pawned his house and sold his motorcycle — knowing, he said, that those who fail at their attempts to enter the United States and return home empty-handed are seen as a joke.
He’d traveled from his country to Guatemala and then paid a smuggler to help him get to the U.S.-Mexico border. He came alone because the journey was too dangerous for his children, and the costs for smugglers were too high.
His hope is to return home eventually. But if things don’t improve in Nicaragua, it might be necessary to bring the rest of his family to the United States for a better life, he said.
“We always come here for their future,” he said. “For many, there’s no other solution than to abandon one’s country.”
Vicky Camarillo covers Nueces County government and enterprise topics in Nueces County and Texas. See our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe.
This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Brownsville, Texas, migrant processing center opens