Outside the town of Roma, Texas, a series of dirt roads lead to the banks of the Rio Grande. Lined with brambles, the roads are dotted with discarded belongings—toothbrushes, flannel blankets, debit cards, children’s underwear, and empty bottles of painkillers. The most prominent items are colored wristbands, labelled “entries” and “arrivals,” in Spanish, which human smugglers use to track their clients. A community of eleven thousand people, Roma was once known as a bustling river port, where keelboats stopped on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Lately, it has made headlines as an “epicenter” of migrant crossings.
At dusk on a recent Thursday, the Rio Grande was quiet and its banks were illuminated by light only from the towns on the Mexican side. At nine o’clock, lanterns twinkled along the southern bank and the sound of air pumps, inflating rafts, rippled across the water. “¡Vámonos! ¡Vámonos!” a man said hurriedly. A chorus of children began crying. “Uno por uno,” (“one by one”) the man added.
After the first raft set off from the bank, the rise and fall of its oars were barely audible. In a matter of seconds, a group of twenty people, some carrying newborns, made it to the American shore. As they forced their way through the brush, they reached the small clearing where I stood. They asked, “¿Por dónde nos vamos?” (“Where do we go?”)
Within minutes, another raft reached the American side. “I’ve got two pregnant women and one child,” the coyote, or smuggler, said, as he stepped off the boat to pull it as close as possible to the bank. A Guatemalan woman in her ninth month of pregnancy was the first to disembark. She wrapped her right hand around her belly and held onto the raft with her left. A woman from Ecuador named María, who was eight months pregnant, followed her. She told me that she had come with her two-year-old son, Dani, who suffered from stomach cancer. In silence, the woman from Guatemala set out on one of the dirt roads. “Only God knows what I have had to go through,” she said, with weary eyes.
As the night wore on, the crossings continued, and a growing number of migrants gathered around a tall and slender man named Luis Silva, a pastor at Roma’s Bethel Mission Outreach Center. For years, Silva, who is forty-three, has worked to insure that families crossing the river don’t get lost and have water to drink. He planned to escort the group to a nearby street, where they would be processed by Border Patrol agents. First, he asked the families to join him in prayer.
“Holy Father, as these brothers reach this nation—a nation of promise—I ask that you guard them,” the pastor said, in a gentle voice, as several of the migrants around him burst into sobs. A couple in their thirties bowed their heads and held hands. A girl to Silva’s right looked at him wearily, while clutching her little sister, who was dressed in a unicorn sweatshirt streaked with dirt. “Wherever they go, Holy Father, I ask that you be their guide,” Silva said. “You, who does not see color but does see heart—I ask that you see each one of their hearts.”
After being processed by agents, many of the families crossing through Roma are taken to the Humanitarian Respite Center, a shelter run by the Catholic Church, in McAllen, Texas, fifty miles to the east. One of the conditions for entry is being tested for COVID-19. On a recent morning, hundreds of families rested on exercise mats in the shelter. Parents chased toddlers; a teen-ager silently shed tears while talking on the phone; a young mother formed a cocoon around her child. The shelter is housed in a former nightclub, where bar shelves have been stocked with medicine, personal-hygiene products, and baby powder. Women looked through plastic bags that were filled with donated clothing; many said that they had left their countries with just a single change of clothes.
Outside, twenty immigrant families waited to be allowed in. The day was bright and windy; a flock of grackles cawed in the distance. Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun who founded the shelter and is known as the Mother Teresa of South Texas, stood by the door. At sixty-seven, Pimentel is the executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, an organization that has housed and assisted tens of thousands of migrants. Slim but sturdy, with short, salt-and-pepper hair and expressive eyes, Pimentel’s presence is commanding yet nonintrusive. “Bienvenidos, welcome,” she said to the families, with a broad smile. The youngest child, just a few months old, stared wide-eyed at the nun, with his arms wrapped around his parents’ necks; some of the older children smiled timidly, while clinging to their mothers’ hands.
Migrants have been part of Pimentel’s life since she entered religious service, in the nineteen-eighties, at the age of twenty-four. She began working at Casa Óscar Romero, a Catholic-run shelter named after the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated by a government-backed death squad in 1980. Over the next decade, an estimated million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled north, as civil wars, stoked by the Reagan Administration and the Cold War, ravaged both countries. The immigration debate at the time wasn’t all that different from today’s: many in the government favored deportations, while liberal activists called for more humane immigration policies. There was also talk of so-called “magnets” drawing undocumented immigrants to the U.S.
Much of Pimentel’s work centers on extricating the subject of immigration from the heated political debate that surrounds it—a task that can seem futile at times. In March, Customs and Border Protection took more than a hundred and seventy-two thousand migrants into custody at the southwestern border, the highest monthly figure in two decades. Conservatives blamed what they called the “Biden effect,” claiming that policies adopted by the new President had sparked a surge in the number of migrants coming into the country. Organizations like Catholic Charities became a target of harassment by local Trump supporters and far-right personalities. In early April, Alex Jones, the Infowars founder and right-wing conspiracist, had an associate film him threatening a man who was escorting children into a car, alongside their parents, in front of the shelter in McAllen. “We know you’re smuggling these kids,” Jones falsely claimed, as he stepped in front of the car to prevent it from driving away. The video, titled “Alex Jones Stops Smugglers from Illegally Transporting Migrants,” garnered more than a million views online. In response, Pimentel denounced the video as a “staged confrontation” and an attempt to “sensationalize” the organization’s work. She urged viewers to “look past the fearmongering and mischaracterizations.”
The reality along the border is far more complicated than many would allow. At the heart of the debate around immigration in the Rio Grande Valley is a question of whether it’s best for the United States to let its southern neighbor deal with the problem. After Biden took office, he ended Donald Trump’s policy of expelling all migrants who crossed the border illegally and requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims were adjudicated in U.S. courts. Joe Biden began allowing asylum-seeking families with children to wait temporarily inside the U.S. until their cases are resolved. He also made it a priority to rebuild the Department of Health and Human Services’s capacity to care for unaccompanied children. But his Administration continued to deport adult migrants under Title 42, a public-health order put in place by the Trump Administration that critics say improperly uses the coronavirus pandemic as a justification for expelling migrants. Of the more than a hundred and seventy-two thousand people who were apprehended at the border in March, Biden sent back about a hundred and three thousand. The following month, apprehensions at the border remained largely unchanged, but the number of unaccompanied children held in C.B.P. custody dropped dramatically.
Over the years, Pimentel has seen the numbers of apprehensions at the border rise and fall under several Administrations, with surges during the Obama and Trump years. The current increase, she said, is the latest chapter of a decades-old American conundrum that the Trump Administration exacerbated rather than solved. During the past two years, Pimentel had been making nearly daily visits to a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where thousands of migrants waited for their asylum cases to be processed, living in a squalid collection of makeshift tents. Drug cartels preyed on migrants in the camps along the border, and the nonprofit group Human Rights First documented more than fifteen hundred cases of migrants being murdered, raped, kidnapped, tortured, assaulted, or extorted. “The policies that the previous Administration put in place were meant to deter migrants, to push them out, to keep them in Mexico as a way to solve the problem,” Pimentel said. “All they really did was put them under the rug.”
Pimentel found Biden’s vision for a safer, more prosperous Central America to be a reason for optimism. But she also recognized that his commitment to the region could disappear in four years, if not sooner than that. The desperation driving many migrants, even after all these years, is still the same. “A lot of us here will never come to fully understand what it means to uproot yourself, to tear apart the inner sense of who you are,” Pimentel said. “One of the questions that I always ask myself is, ‘What does it take for a mother to have to hand over her child to a smuggler?’ ” Families spend no more than a night or two at Pimentel’s McAllen shelter. It is usually a brief stopover on the way to being reunited with family members already in the U.S. At a booth near the front of the shelter that day, volunteers helped migrants book bus tickets, which are typically paid for by relatives. On the back of a manila envelope, families wrote down their itineraries; a white sheet of paper stapled on the front read “Please help me, I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?” When Pimentel senses that someone might need help, she comes closer and asks, “¿Hacia dónde va?” (“Where are you headed to?”)