HARLINGEN — Migrant families walked north along the highway, a tent city stretched along Ed Carey Drive and a shelter was housing hundreds of immigrants in a San Benito neighborhood.

It was the 1980s.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Rio Grande Valley marked the path of the first mass exodus of Central American migrants to enter the United States.

Today, a caravan of thousands of Central Americans languishes in Tijuana, Mexico, full of hopes of claiming asylum across the border.

“Nothing’s really changed,” Jonathan Jones, who helped Central Americans fight for asylum in the 1980s, said, referring to Central American migration.

From 1981 to the early 1990s, tens of thousands of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, many fleeing civil wars.

Now in Tijuana, the Mexican government is sheltering as many as 6,000 migrants, many from Honduras, after journeying hundreds of miles to escape violence in their countries.

“The governments have failed their own people,” Jones said. “These countries are broken economically and politically. These folks are struggling to survive.”

The caravan, which left Honduras in October, led President Donald Trump to order as many as 5,000 troops to the U.S. border.

At one time, the caravan numbered about 7,000 migrants, most traveling on foot toward the U.S. border.

The caravan traces it roots to the 1980s and the mass exodus that would change the face of cities such as Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.

“You have real cataclysmic events in the ‘80s,” said Jones, a former paralegal with Casa de Proyecto Libertad, a human rights group in Harlingen. “The ‘80s were dramatic in terms of numbers. The numbers were pretty steady during the ‘80s and there were increases — surges.”

Central America became the last vestige of the Cold War.

At the time, the United States was supporting Central American militaries fighting Soviet-backed guerrillas then-President Ronald Reagan blamed were behind “all the unrest of the region.”

“A lot of people were fleeing the atrocities of the death squads,” Jones, now an English instructor at South Texas College, said.

Legal representation

In 1981, attorneys Lisa Brodyaga and Thelma Garcia founded Proyecto Libertad to offer legal representation to Central Americans.

“People didn’t have attorneys and the (federal government) didn’t have the numbers to advise them,” Garcia said from her law office.

The unprecedented numbers, she said, made it impossible for attorneys to represent most migrants.

“It was an exodus like you see in a movie,” Garcia said. “There were a lot of people just walking across the Valley trying to catch the train headed north.”

Sweeping changes

The 1980s Central American exodus led to major changes in the federal government’s migrant detention policy, said Rogelio Nuñez, executive director of Proyecto Libertad.

“Before 1980, you didn’t have a detention issue,” Nuñez said.

Before the influx, the U.S. Border Patrol detained migrants before releasing them with orders to appear in immigration court after arriving at their destination.

But faced with unprecedented numbers, the federal government began ordering migrants to remain in the Valley until they appeared in court.

“The Valley became a zone of detention where people couldn’t leave,” Nuñez said.

At the federal detention center near Bayview, he said, lack of room led officials to set up tents to hold migrants.

By the late 1980s, the government was holding migrants in a tent city off Ed Carey Drive in Harlingen, Nuñez said.

At that time, he said, the government began detaining children who had crossed the border without parents or guardians.

The Central American exodus led private organizations to open federally-funded shelters.

Soon, the government began contracting with nonprofits such as International Education Services, which was headquartered in Los Fresnos, to hold migrant children, Nuñez said.

The 1980s exodus helped lead to steady increases in the numbers of Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border.

In 1980, 2,268 Border Patrol agents worked along the southern border.

By 1986, the government was calling for 22,500 agents by 2010, Nuñez said.

Today, about 18,000 agents are working along the Southwest border.

Legacy

One of the largest waves of immigration in recent history helped change the face of America.

“The vast majority would go north,” Jones, who serves on Proyecto Libertad’s board of directors, said. “You have huge communities in Houston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles.”

By the early 1990s, about 20 percent of El Salvador’s population had fled the country.

Of those, about 300,000 settled in Los Angeles.

By 2015, about 3.4 million Central Americans lived in the United States, with 85 percent from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

New surge

Like those who make up the caravan stalled in Tijuana, Central Americans continue journeying to the United States, many claiming they are fleeing widespread gang violence.

This year, the Border Patrol apprehended 107,212 migrants traveling in family groups, up from 75,622 last year.

“There are such great numbers of people,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said.

Since 1982, Pimentel has helped shelter migrants after their journeys across the border.

“We provide humane care for them,” she said.

Since 2014, tens of thousands — most from Guatemala — have crossed the border, including many children traveling without parents or guardians.

This year, the Border Patrol apprehended 50,036 so-called “unaccompanied minors,” up from 41,435 last year.

Across the border, the Valley continues to be the migrants’ central pathway to the United States.

In strong and steady numbers, children are apparently making the journey alone.

This year, 23,757 children were detained in the Valley, up from 23,708 last year.

“Now we see more children than ever,” Pimentel said.