NEW YORK — From conversations with federal government officials at the border, Bishop James Tamayo of Laredo estimates that there are at least 800 families — thousands of people — waiting on the Mexico side of the Laredo border for entry into the United States.
Bishop Tamayo said the diocese will continue to prepare for their arrival in anticipation of their release. He’s concerned, however, that because of the COVID-19 pandemic they don’t have the same number of volunteers they’ve gotten in years past.
“We’re grateful that the federal government does it right. That they are processing so that family units don’t get separated. That they can get back to family. That they can get back to an environment and lodging that is more secure and respectful and protective of their bodily emotional, physical and spiritual needs,” he told The Tablet.
“Now, unfortunately, as we’ve reached out to volunteers and to our organizations in the church they’ve said, ‘we’re a little hesitant. I don’t know if I can do it this time.’ So, I’m depending on a staff of seven people and you can’t get too far when you put seven with a thousand immigrants.”
Bishop Tamayo said preparations include a refugee center they call La Frontera. Rebecca Solloa, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Laredo, previously said that they’re prepared to help up to 100 migrants a day with primarily an outdoor setup and COVID-19 precautions.
In an email to The Tablet Thursday, Solloa said she’s meeting with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent on Monday, March 15, to go over the logistics of releasing Migrant Protection Protocols asylum seekers. She said the agent indicated there’s no date set for their release.
Many of the migrants across the border from Laredo are there under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy that kept asylum seekers on the Mexico side of the border while a judge considered their case.
Under the Biden administration, three ports — San Ysidro in San Diego; and Brownsville and El Paso in Texas — began processing 25 MPP asylum seekers a day last month. The CBP issued an update Wednesday that so far, it processed 1,500 individuals through the phased program that will see the ports eventually processing 300 migrants a day.
All migrants need a negative COVID-19 test and go through biometrics tests before their release.
The MPP entrants aside, Solloa said they have received families that crossed the Rio Grande River, were arrested by border patrol and subsequently released.
These types of encounters between migrants and border patrol agents have increased at the southwest border of late, leading to nationwide concerns about the system getting overwhelmed and the spread of COVID-19.
Wednesday’s CBP update states that in February it encountered 100,441 people attempting to enter the country along the southwest border, a 28 percent increase over January. These encounters resulted in 72,113 expulsions from the border under the Title 42 policy, which allows U.S. authorities to expel migrants caught crossing on the grounds of public health.
The number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southwest border has also dramatically increased in recent weeks. It’s been widely reported this week that the number of unaccompanied minors taken into custody at the border is outpacing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ability to find them appropriate shelters. And subsequently family members or sponsors already in the country.
Last month, the HHS reopened the Carrizo Springs temporary Influx Care Facility for children ages 13-17 after the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement was filling up with the increasing numbers and COVID-19 spacing precautions.
An approximate two-hour drive from Laredo, Bishop Tamayo remembers visiting the Carrizo Springs facility when it was open three years ago. While there, he said he offered the children visitation and prayer, to which they were “very respectful, very collaborative and very open.”
He said he intends to visit the facility as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions allow. He also notes it’s important that the unaccompanied children stay at a place like the Carrizo Springs facility, as opposed to an adult facility, for their safety.
“I don’t want the children in an adult facility with more strangers that they do not know. That’s more trauma to them,” Bishop Tamayo said. “So, at least they’re in an environment where the kids are the same age, they develop friendships, interests, but it’s still ‘when do I get home.’”
As children, adults and families continue their journeys beyond Texas to other parts of the country, Bishop Tamayo encourages communities across the country to welcome them.
“It saddens me that many times I’m reading in the press or I’m hearing somebody further away from Texas in other parts of the United States say something about these people, the border, immigrants, that they don’t really know,” Bishop Tamayo said.
“It would be wonderful if when they get there, those churches, those parishes, those Catholic charities, those nonprofits and those neighbors would welcome them and see and listen to the stories and share their own stories,” the bishop said.