Immigrant Surge: U.S. raids target Central American families

HARLINGEN — Federal officials are bracing for a new surge of undocumented immigrant children from Central America.

At least one local shelter will see an impact from this.

A Harlingen shelter will expand while hundreds of beds will be added to shelters across the Southwest.

Since Oct. 1, U.S. Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 10,588 children along the Southwest border, more than 6,465 in the Rio Grande Valley area alone.

The numbers doubled from October 2014 to September 2015.

Meanwhile, federal agents have cracked down on Central American families with final orders for deportation.

Immigration agents over the weekend conducted the first raids targeting the deportation of families who flocked across the United States’ southern border over the past two years, a senior government official said Monday.

Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement that the 121 people rounded up during raids in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina were primarily members of Central American families that have crossed into the U.S. via Mexico since May 2014. Most were placed in family detention centers in Texas to await deportation.

In Harlingen, federal officials requested BCFS Health and Human Services, a San Antonio-based organization, to expand its shelter at Valley Baptist Missions Education Center on Harrison Avenue, spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said yesterday.

Piferrer said the state has allowed the international organization to add 94 beds to its 290-bed shelter.

The organization is carefully monitoring the influx of undocumented Central American children.

Piferrer called spring “peak season for migration.”

“We know how important it is to maintain situational awareness so we can be prepared in our shelter capacity,” Piferrer said.

Piferrer said federal officials are monitoring the new influx after falling short of shelter beds during a 2014 Central American surge.

“The federal government is trying to assure adequate facilities so we don’t see children housed in Border Patrol facilities like last year,” Piferrer said.

In his statement, Johnson said the raids “should come as no surprise,” adding he has said publicly for months “that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”

Those targeted in the raids had been issued final orders of removal by immigration courts and had exhausted other legal remedies, including claims for asylum, Johnson said.

The latest actions affect only a fraction of the more than 100,000 Central American family members, mostly mothers with children, who crossed into the U.S. during an immigration surge that began in the spring of 2014. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not say further raids were planned for the coming days and weeks. However, ICE’s official position since November 2014 is that it would continue to conduct enforcement actions daily.

Meanwhile, federal officials are working to shelter undocumented immigrant children while they await court orders to continue deportation proceedings.

In Texas, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with BCFS to operate 1,400 beds in summer camps in Ellis, Rockwell, Somervell and McLennan counties, said Andrea Helling, an agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

“As we saw the numbers go up in October and November, we expanded bed capacity,” Helling said. “Our job is to make sure we’ve got enough beds.”

Helling said the federal government has earmarked $12.9 million to reimburse BCFS for operating its summer camp shelters.

Now, federal officials are planning to open bigger shelters.

“We are looking at a variety of options,” Helling said.

By mid-January, Helling said, the government will open 400 beds at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M., before opening 800 beds at the Homestead Job Core Site in Homestead, Fla., in February.

In April, the government plans to open 1,000 beds at the Denver Federal Facility in Lakewood, Colo., Helling said.

The children stay about 30 days at shelters before their release to sponsors who often are family members living in the United States.

In McAllen, Sister Norma Pimentel helps undocumented Central American immigrants after Border Patrol agents release them with orders to appear in immigration court to continue deportation proceedings.

Every day, she helps feed and clothe about 100 parents and children at Sacred Heart Humanitarian Center, Pimentel said.

“The numbers seem to be higher,” she said.

She said the latest surge surprised her because late fall and winter are known as the slowest periods for migration.

“They seemed to increase in the last couple of months,” Pimentel said. “The violence is increasing. Gangs seem to be taking over their cities. (Parents) fear for the life of the children. I would think that when they see others leaving, they leave, too.”

The 2014 immigration surge led organizations such as Los Fresnos-based International Educational Services, or IES, to expand federally-funded shelters in the area.

In 2013, Austin-based Southwest Key opened two shelters to hold undocumented immigrant children in San Benito — one at the former Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital on U.S. Business 77 and the other at the former Atrium Place Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at 502 E. Expressway 83.

Across the Valley, shelters offer about 1,500 beds for immigrant children, said Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen attorney who handles immigration cases.

Last year, the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America hit crisis levels, with federal officials projecting as many as 90,000 children would be held in shelters across the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.