MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Six little girls played on a slide in a fenced-in playground after dinner on Monday evening at the Fellowship Hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission, Texas.
One little boy sat alone at a picnic table gawking at the two donkeys, a goat and four rambunctious dogs released into in the courtyard by the church’s gregarious Father Roy Snipes, who went about talking to the migrant children and their parents repeating the welcoming phrase: “Mi casa es su casa.” (My house is your house.)
They were among 150 migrants the Department of Homeland Security on released on Monday and who spent the night at the church, which has been opening its doors for the past month as an overflow facility when the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen is full.
Every time Snipes came close, several of the children’s parents approached with questions. They want to know how to buy bus or airplane tickets, or how to call friends and family. And they were confused by paperwork issued to them by DHS officials.
All of the newly-released migrants carried manila envelopes with travel information, but due to the overwhelming surge of migrants crossing into South Texas, Border Patrol agents are fast-tracking them and releasing some of them in the field with documents that are confusing even to immigration lawyers, Border Report has learned.
Arlington Valdez, 28, of Honduras spent two months coming from Central America with his 5-year-old daughter, Yaricela, he said. He said he crossed the Rio Grande on Sunday and was apprehended by Border Patrol agents who released the father and daughter in a day — a phenomenally quick turn around.
He pulled from his envelope one document that certified they tested negative for COVID-19. Another had his fingerprint and his destination as Florida. But other than that, he is uncertain of his court date and who he needs to contact and within what time period.
And he’s not alone as U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report earlier this week that at least 150 migrants were released recently near Mission, Texas, without the usual Notice To Appear documents listing the immigration court information they need.
Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government who has been helping migrants in the region since 2019, says she and other immigration lawyers in just the past couple of days have become aware of the odd paperwork being generated by DHS officials as they release migrants.
D’Cruz says some migrants are being given an I-385 form, which according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is the “Alien Booking Report” commonly called the booking card, which is to be generated upon admission of a migrant. But they are not being given the NTA, which is supposed to list their immigration court date and information.
Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, told Border Report that DHS should give migrants all the necessary paperwork when they are discharged in order for the immigration process to properly work.
“They said we got no choice and they used a prosecutorial discretion,” Cuellar, who is a lawyer, told Border Report on Monday. “They got released without even an NTA, which is, in my opinion unprecedented that you’re going to release somebody and hope that they show up without a court date.”
Overcrowding inside limited migrant processing facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has forced federal officials to initiate changes to its field apprehensions and to allow the fast-tracked release of some migrants after agents take their biometrics, DHS officials said.
“In some cases, families are placed in removal proceedings further along in the release process rather than while they are at the border patrol station. All families, however, are screened at the border patrol station, including the collection of biographical and biometric information and criminal and national security records checks,” according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.
D’Cruz said fast-tracking has happened from time to time since immigration surges began here in 2014. But what is disconcerting this time, she said, are the large numbers of migrants who are not receiving all the documents that they need to properly show up for court in their new cities.
“With these releases, they aren’t putting them into proceedings. They’re so confused. Like, what is the paperwork?” D’Cruz said via phone on Tuesday.
She said the Transportation Security Administration has been made aware that the migrants can legally travel with these documents and are allowed into the interior of the United States, but she says most migrants don’t realize the legal rules to which they are subjected.
Normally, they are required to check in with an ICE official in their new city. However, D’Cruz said, the I-385 forms are not indicating that nor does it specify that those who want to claim asylum have only one year from entering the United States in order to file the necessary asylum forms.
“The issue then becomes what happens when they get to where they are going,” said D’Cruz, who for the past couple of years has helped dozens of migrant refugees who were living in a refugee tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico cross into Brownsville, Texas.
“The biggest thing that people will have to do is to get lawyers, and if they are applying for asylum, they have to do it within a year of entry, and I don’t think they have been notified of that,” she said.
They’re so confused. … What happens when they get to where they are going?”Charlene D’Cruz immigration lawyer with Lawyers for Good Government
According to ICE, exemptions may be granted to file for asylum after one year in the United States if the migrant can prove extraordinary circumstances relating to the delay, including mental or physical disability; if there are changes in U.S. asylum laws, or if they were previously included as a dependent in someone else’s pending asylum application.
Austin Kocher, a professor at Syracuse University and a senior researcher with Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which tracks migration apprehensions and immigration court cases, did his doctoral dissertation in 2017 on NTAs and how the documents are used. He told Border Report they are necessary for asylum applications in many cases.
TRAC has found that there are 1.3 million pending immigration cases nationwide.
Meanwhile, Cuellar has helped get millions of dollars appropriated through Congress since 2015 to add hundreds of immigration judges nationwide to help lower the backlog in immigration cases. He said taking short-cuts could backfire in this already complicated immigration arena.
Migrants, including children, do not receive free immigration lawyers in the United States. Immigration law is arguably one of the most complex legal venues and there are not that many migrant advocates, like D’Cruz, who will represent them pro bono.
“They are not given immigration lawyers by the government and there are significant barriers to finding good, reliable immigration attorneys on their own, and that will be a significant challenge and add to the challenges they face,” Kocher said. “Let’s say an individual shows up in Boston to file an asylum claim with this new paperwork. Well, what’s their next step? That’s going to be quite interesting to see.”
Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen who represents the border, told Border Report that President Joe Biden’s administration rushed to implement too many changes to immigration policy before fully understanding the complicated scope of the issues.
“From the very beginning, when the new administration took over, they should not have done away with the previous administration’s policies on immigration on the border until they had a plan in place. They didn’t have that. So now they’re doing it as fast as they can to try to get a handle on what’s happening along the border. I don’t think they quite knew or understood what’s happening on the ground, the number of immigrants coming across that are overwhelming our Border Patrol,” Hinojosa said via Zoom from Austin Tuesday afternoon. “It’s become a very serious situation.”
Alfredo Ricardo Contrero, of Honduras, was at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monday night with his 5-year-old son, Samuel Alfredo, “por un futuro mejor” (for a better future), he said. He was a cook in a restaurant in Central America but said there are no jobs and the economy is wrecked after two hurricanes devastated the country.
“There were no employers. We were very miserable,” he said in Spanish as his son ate a dinner of beef tacos, rice, a Fanta orange soda, and glazed cookies provided by volunteers of the church.
Contrero says he has two more young children who are with his wife in Honduras. They did not make the 15-day trek with them, he said, as the pair traveled in buses and taxis. The wife and daughters are waiting in Honduras as he and his son head to Virginia to meet with a friend, he said.
He said he believes the Biden administration will be more welcoming toward migrants and he believes that one day the rest of his family will be able to come, he said.
“They will help us,” he said.