As border detention fills up, asylum seekers are being dropped off in Inland Empire
A man and his teenage son, both from Guatemala, were taken by federal officials from the U.S. border to a Greyhound bus station in San Bernardino last week, part of what many view as a new federal response to a flood of asylum seekers hoping to get into the United States.
About 15 minutes after the man and his son and more than 20 other migrants were left at the station, they were picked up again, this time by immigration advocates from the San Bernardino area. After that, they were taken to a nearby church and a local motel, where they got some food, a place to rest and some cash to help them get to what they hope will be a final destination, in Houston.
The man, who gave only his first name, Ricardo, and his son, were among an estimated 230 Central American migrants, mostly from Central America, who over the past week have been dropped off by
Border Patrol agents in San Bernardino and Riverside counties after they’d been processed for future appearances before immigration authorities.
The drop-offs have pushed the Catholic Church and immigrant-rights advocates in the Inland Empire into high gear as they coordinate efforts to temporarily house, feed and assist the asylum seekers before sending them off to be with relatives and friends across the country.
In San Bernardino, the recent wave of drop-offs – which came with little warning from federal officials – strained the resources of advocacy groups. In Riverside County, meanwhile, advocates estimate that about 4,000 migrants have been helped by the Catholic Church and others since last October.
“We’ve been hearing that we should expect people every day for the near future,” said Javier Hernandez, director of the Ontario-based Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
“The challenge we have now is how do we respond with the resources we have.”
On Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials declined to answer specific questions. On Saturday, Acting Commissioner John P. Sanders issued a press release confirming that the agency is transporting hundreds of families, by bus and plane, from “severely overcrowded processing facilities to less-crowded stations along the Southwest border.”
It’s unclear whether the reference to stations also refers to bus stops and church shelters, and Customs and Border Protection officials did not clarify.
There have been more than 500,000 Border Patrol apprehensions so far this year and more than 16,000 people were in U.S. custody as of Friday. Sanders called the wave a “national emergency” and an ongoing “humanitarian and border security crisis, which has overwhelmed the entire immigration system.”
For advocates, the sudden flood of arrivals is straining their capacity to help.
“When this started, we didn’t necessarily have the infrastructure,” Hernandez said. “But we created one over 24 hours.”
That instant infrastructure in San Bernardino includes a local Catholic church, where the migrants are temporarily housed and fed. Advocates also have paid to put some migrants up in a budget motel that serves as a gateway to their next destination.
The migrants, who are crossing daily into the United States via Yuma and other ports of entry, are spending several days, on average, in immigration detention while they are being processed, said Emilio Amaya, director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, a non-profit that provides immigration legal assistance.
In Riverside County, the Catholic Church and other organizations have been assisting migrants left at bus stops and at churches since last fall, said John Andrews, spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino, which serves the Inland Empire. In April, the state gave $521,000 to the Catholic Charities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties to assist with the asylum seekers.
Pastor Guy Wilson, of the Our Lady of Soledad Catholic Church in Coachella, described the process as “a crisis.”
“People are just being dropped off at bus stations or, many times, in front of our church, without any resources or orientation for the next step,” Wilson said.
In San Bernardino, Andrews said the Catholic Church quickly worked to emulate the efforts underway in Riverside.
After being picked up at the bus station, Ricardo and his son and the others were taken to a local Catholic church, where they could shower, get clean clothes, eat and sleep. Some migrants were checked for medical problems. Ricardo and his son spent one night at the church before being taken to the motel, where one room – filled with boxes of instant soup, piles of used clothing, new blankets, backpacks, shoes and other donated goods – has been transformed into a makeshift way station.
The motel is “the last stop before they go” across the country, said Ericka Flores of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Jurupa Valley.
“I got one family squared away,” Flores said as she hung up the phone, having just confirmed plane tickets for one family.
She then switched gears to talk with a volunteer who was about to escort two sets of men and their children to the Ontario Airport. The volunteer doesn’t speak Spanish; the men don’t speak English.
“She’ll take good care of you,” Flores told the men, in Spanish. “She can be trusted.”
Most of the people are heading away from Southern California, mostly by bus. On Sunday, migrants who stopped by the motel said they were going to places as diverse as Arkansas and New York City.
Ricardo and his son, who were picked up at the bus station carrying a small blue Bible and little else, were greeted at the motel by Flores.
“Have you eaten?” she asked them in Spanish.
“Yes. At the church,” Ricardo said.
“Before you leave, do you want to rest? Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.
“We’re going to Houston.”
Young children at the motel are given coloring books. A boy from Guatemala, who celebrated his 11th birthday on Saturday, was surprised with a mini-pinata and a small chocolate cake.
“Make a wish,” someone told him.
Asked later what he wished for, he said in Spanish: “To reach my aunt.”
Another man, Jose, was ready to leave with his 3-year-old son. He traveled from Honduras, with the toddler, while his wife and a younger child traveled separately – a strategy they believed would make it easier for them to cross. On Sunday, to make sure he didn’t forget or lose his immigrant identification number, a volunteer wrote the information in large numbers with a marker – on his left arm.
Then, it was Ricardo’s turn to leave. He carried a new backpack, with his rosary and Bible from home, and some new donated clothes. He bid goodbye to the people who were helping him.
“Suerte! Bendiciones!” Flores called out, wishing the travelers good luck and blessings.
Then she picked up her cell and began the process of booking another family on their journey.