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McALLEN, Texas — It’s 11:45 p.m. on the eve of Independence Day, and the dull glow of a Chevy Tahoe’s parking lights breaks the darkness on this dirt road, a meandering trail that mimics the serpentine curl of the Rio Grande.

The silence is disturbed by a far-flung crackle and snap, the unmistakable sound of footsteps in the brush. A Border Patrol agent shines a spotlight mounted on his SUV into the sparse trees that separate the river from the road, where scores of used diapers, lost shoes and children’s clothes mark the way to an elusive promise, to “El Norte.”

He scans. Nothing. The light’s blast evaporates. Silence. Another crackle. Another beam of punishing light. Only trees. The beam fades.

Another agent hones in on the source and shines his SUV’s headlights. Out of the darkness, the short legs of a 9-year-old in khakis emerge, then the legs of two mothers and, finally, the forms of two toddlers clinging to their sides. The agents trade the headlights for their less affronting flashlights.

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“Por que vas para El Norte?” the agent asks. Why are you headed to the north?

“Tienes miedo?” the agent asks Flor Garcia, a 19-year-old mother with tears in her eyes and a wide-eyed 1-year-old on her hip. Are you afraid?


Garcia and her daughter, also named Flor, crossed the border with the help of a so-called coyote, a smuggler, along with another single mother and her two children.

Like tens of thousands before them, the two families came to surrender to agents, concluding a lengthy and dangerous trek from their home country of Honduras. They traveled through Mexico, where migrants face very real threats of violence, rape, kidnapping and human trafficking.

About 90 Hondurans a day pass through this region of South Texas, the Honduran Consulate said. Many tell immigration officials the journey’s risks pale to the grim certainties of their home country, which reports the highest murder rate in the world. Tens of thousands have also fled to the U.S. from El Salvador and Guatemala to escape violence.

Most of those making the perilous trip are mothers with young children or are children on their own hoping to reunite with family in the U.S.

“Here, the people live better than in my country,” said Dayana Isabel Ortez Mendez, a single mom who fled El Salvador with her 2-year-old daughter, Adriana Nicole, to join family in Los Angeles.

Gripping her bus ticket at McAllen Central Station, Ortez Mendez said gangs have besieged her hometown of San Miguel. On certain Fridays — residents call them “Black Fridays” — people stay in their homes out of fear.

“On those days, you can’t be in the streets after 2 p.m.,” she said. “You must hide yourself or you can be cut to pieces by them.”

Republican Party leaders say President Obama’s 2012 executive order, dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which delayed deportations for undocumented immigrant children, sparked rumors that children who come to the U.S. illegally will be granted “permisos,” or permission to stay.

Some travelers, such as Lilian Noemi Alfaro Gomez, a 26-year-old single mother from Honduras joining family in Austin, also cited these rumors.

“I wanted a better life for my daughter,” Alfaro said. “And when I heard President Obama was offering permission, I started the trip to U.S.”

Border officials report that more than 150,000 Central Americans have crossed the border this year, more than 52,000 of them unaccompanied children, and the unprecedented surge shows no sign of abating. More than two-thirds crossed in this Rio Grande Valley Sector alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials.

Children who cross the border without parents or guardians are detained in tight quarters in temporary shelters for 72 hours, sometimes more, before they are transferred to the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For families,the federal government’s response has been to divert immigrants to cities across the state and the country with orders to appear in immigration court. The U.S. has only one long-term family detention facility, in Pennsylvania, and it’s full.

The influx of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has grown so large that it now requires its own transportation system: government buses that spend each night idling on a Texas roadside, awaiting the latest arrivals.

Migrants’ willingness to surrender to authorities has created a system in which smugglers need only to get their human cargo to the American side of the river, rather than guiding them to a populated area.

The zone is patrolled by no fewer than six local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, including gunboats crewed by Texas state troopers with night-vision goggles and the Border Patrol’s white and green trucks. Helicopters swoop above the winding waterway.

But there’s little cat-and-mouse pursuit. Every day, hundreds of immigrants walk up to agents, wave to their remote cameras or simply wait to be picked up on the side of a road.

Downriver, the landscape reverts to a band of thick mesquite and underbrush along the Rio Grande, a thin buffer between the more than 600,000 residents of Reynosa, Mexico, and a master-planned community in Mission, Texas, with more than 1,900 homes just a couple of miles to the north.

Across the river is a garbage dump and a Reynosa slum that reaches nearly to the bank. Smoke from burning garbage sometimes drifts across the river so thick it’s difficult to see. At the river’s edge, discarded clothing, orange life vests and deflated inner tubes litter the sand.

A few days earlier, as a reporter in a kayak approached a hairpin bend in the river, a cartel sentry on a bluff 20 feet above the river slammed a magazine into his assault rifle. He asked the paddler who gave him permission to be there. A radio squawked at his waist. The cartel controls what crosses the river.

The city of McAllen, which draws its water from the Rio Grande, has pumps on a narrow strip of land between the border fence and the river. Workers there started carrying handguns after they came under fire.

McAllen has become the reluctant focal point in a bitterly partisan immigration debate and a case study in the current paradox of the American promise.

City officials have funded a special bus system that escorts about 180 migrant women and children a day from Central Station to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is less than a quarter-mile from the downtown station.

On a recent 92-degree afternoon, a handful of mothers, their children in tow, approached the open double-doors at the rear of the church.

About 40 volunteers set down their brooms and boxes and unfolded shirts and clapped and cheered, “Bienvenidos!”

The mothers, bemused by their reception, soon looked to the dozens of tables with ascending stacks of donated clothes, food, toys and baby food. And loads of Pedialyte, which has proved crucial in treating dehydrated infants and children.

In a corner, volunteers play with children, a calculated distraction to afford their mothers the sleep that they’ve been deprived of for several days. The community here — mostly Hispanic, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants — have flooded the place with free stuff.

Though large air-conditioned tents, stocked with Salvation Army cots, accommodate about 30 visitors each night, few travelers stay for long. With the help of the church, most purchase bus tickets and head out the same day or the next for larger cities.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said it’s not an issue of enforcing immigration laws, but of morality. Helping those in such dire need, he said, “it’s just the humanitarian thing to do.”

Includes material from The Associated Press.

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