View from the border

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 10. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, a report from the U.S. Southern border. Migrants from Central America continue to seek refuge in the U.S., despite the ongoing political debate about their future.

EICHER: The city limits of McAllen, Texas, bump right up against the Rio Grande, the last barrier immigrants cross when entering the country. That’s where we sent Illinois resident and rookie reporter Anna Johansen—to find out what happens to them once they’re on U.S. soil.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: It’s high noon in McAllen, Texas. And it’s really hot. I’m standing outside a Border Patrol processing center called Ursula. I’ve never been to the U.S.-Mexico border before. And I’m really wondering what it’s like behind that yellow tape. But Border Patrol isn’t letting anyone in. And to be honest, I have no idea what to do next.

But as I stand there, sweat trickling down my back, a black Mercedes van pulls up. About a dozen women pile out.

AUDIO: This delegation is Christian women, Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, all women working together that represent thousands of religious women around this country…

JOHANSEN: Reverend Jennifer Butler sports a white tab collar and tennis shoes.

BUTLER: They flew in on a day’s notice because there’s so much moral outrage around this issue.

JOHANSEN: The women pass out yellow paper wristbands—the kind you might get at a waterpark or an outdoor concert. They give me one, too. They say it’s in solidarity with the families inside.

BUTLER: Parents when they had their children taken away a few weeks ago had yellow wristbands put on their wrists to track who had had kids taken from them…

JOHANSEN: When a Border Patrol agent tells them they can’t go inside, they set up under the blazing Texas sun.

AUDIO: How ‘bout our children? Ohhhhh somebody’s hurting our children, and it’s gone on far too long. Yes it’s gone on far too long, I tell you it’s gone…

JOHANSEN: This gathering feels like a cross between a prayer meeting and a protest march.

AUDIO: Oh, God, there are holy families in that room right now. Joseph and Mary and Jesus, sit inside those cages right now. Or better yet, Jose y Maria y Jesus…

JOHANSEN: Rumors fly thick and fast about what it’s like inside.

AUDIO: I keep hearing about that and I just, I’m like, are they trying to torture them? Is that what it is?… It’s miserable. Yeah and this idea that…they are separated in cages inside the warehouse.

JOHANSEN: These women never got to go inside Ursula. Neither did I. I still had a lot of unanswered questions, so I decided to look somewhere else.

Catholic Charities occupies an unassuming brick building in downtown McAllen. Immigrant families go there after they’re released from Border Patrol custody.

I head over with Sharla Megilligan. She’s a WORLD correspondent who has adopted two sons from Haiti. And unlike me, she speaks fluent Spanish.

We go inside and suddenly we’re face-to-face with parents, children, and teens—all fresh from the Ursula detention center. Sharla strikes up a conversation with a man from Honduras. I start looking around.

A handful of adults sit at low tables eating cake. Children cling to their parents’ knees. In another room, tired moms sit in rows of plastic chairs. A group of girls watches Disney’s Moana.

When a bus pulls up outside, everyone drops what they’re doing and applauds.

AUDIO: Familias! Familias!

JOHANSEN: It’s what they do every time a bus arrives from Ursula. The new arrivals get a shower and a meal. But volunteer Cesar Riojas says that sometimes, sleep is the most important thing.

RIOJAS: Can you imagine having a little daughter? And you’re just… Even though she’s not separated from you, just falling asleep can be challenging, because you know something can happen when you’re asleep. So the women haven’t really rested… The moms once they know that we’re gonna take care of them… Once they feel–they realize okay it’s safe, honest to God, women will fall asleep like that. They’re out.

JOHANSEN: Many of these immigrants came from Central America, countries like El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala. The man Sharla has been talking to is named Oscar.

Oscar is here with his 13-year-old son. He used to own a small store in Honduras, but gangs made regular visits. Each time they came, he had to pay what they called a “war tax.” If he didn’t, they would kill him on the spot.

Oscar knew the next time the gangs came, he’d be out of money and wouldn’t be able to pay. So he packed up his family and left. His wife and daughter are staying with relatives, and Oscar plans to send for them as soon as he can.

It took him two months to reach the U.S. border. But when he got there, he heard that families were being separated. So he waited until he heard about the executive order changing that policy. Then he and his son crossed into the U.S.

From there, Immigration and Customs Enforcement—or ICE—took over.

What Oscar says next is a little surprising. He says that the ICE agents were very nice: they gave him food and a place to sleep. He’s heard about the reputation ICE has, but he says, “One shouldn’t say what isn’t true.” The agents who stopped him and processed his paperwork did it with—his words—“respect and honesty.”

Oscar and his son hope to join relatives in New York. The charity will put them on a bus and give them a sign saying, “I don’t speak English. Please help me find the right bus.”

RIOJAS: And we try to tell them… If you’re confused, stay on the bus… Sometimes you get ticket with—it’s the same bus but just different tickets, right, and they think oh I gotta get off this bus—nah, same bus. Stay on it.

JOHANSEN: As Cesar talks, a Hot Wheels car skids across the floor and bumps Sharla’s foot. Nearby, there’s a little boy about 4 years old. He stares at us with big, solemn eyes. Sharla picks up the car and asks if it’s his. He doesn’t move. When she hands it to him, his shy face lights up with a grin.

That grin stuck with me. It was so simple. But in the middle of protests and political debates, sometimes we need the simple things to keep us on track.

Meanwhile, it’s dinner time. The room echoes with chatter and the clatter of plastic cutlery.

Staffers set out food for the new arrivals. It’s chaos—but organized chaos. After all, charity staff and volunteers have been doing this for a long time. Cesar Riojas says the rest of the country may have just started paying attention, but really, not much has changed. He’s been doing this for four years.

For him, it’s just one more day on the border.

Reporting for WORLD Radio from McAllen, Texas, I’m Anna Johansen.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File) A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child as she surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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