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‘All hands on deck’ for flood of immigrants

EL PASO – Avi brought her two young boys and teenage daughter with her on the journey north from Honduras with a determination that defeated deportation from Mexico, extortion by Mexican “coyote” handlers and – for the time being – deportation by U.S. immigration authorities.

Like many other women and children in recent months, Avi joined the tens of thousands of Central American men headed to the United States in search of jobs and security. In the Honduran port town of La Ceiba, her father had been killed by gang members, and she struggled to feed and clothe her children.

Overwhelmed by the number of immigrants crossing into south Texas – many from Central America fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries – federal enforcement agencies are looking to aid groups in West Texas and southern New Mexico for help in what President Barack Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement flew Avi, and more than 260 other adults and children – mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – from detention centers elsewhere in Texas to El Paso this past weekend. Aid workers say ICE is processing the families and giving them notice of a future court date. Then they are free to go.


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But, like Avi, many of the families deplaned with little or no money and with nowhere to stay the night. That’s where local nonprofit and faith-based organizations are stepping in to help with food, clothing and shelter. “Everyone is going to be ‘all hands on deck’ for this,” said Sister Janet Gildea, of the Sisters of Charity in La Union, N.M.

Obama was speaking in particular about the influx of unaccompanied child immigrants. The children arriving in El Paso range in age from toddlers to teenagers, but on the whole were accompanied by a parent or other adult.

The immigrants sent to El Paso represent a fraction of those arriving in south Texas, geographically the closest point of entry into the United States from Central America. Customs and Border Protection reports the number of “other than Mexican” migrants apprehended in Texas’ southern Rio Grande Valley more than doubled in one year to nearly 50,000 in fiscal 2012 and surged again in fiscal 2013 to nearly 97,000 people.

It’s not clear how many more immigrants may be transferred to the El Paso area in the coming days and months.

Complex factors including rampant gang violence and weak economies are driving people in Central America to risk the journey to the United States.

“In many ways, this wave has been coming for years,” said Patrick Timmons, an immigration expert and human rights investigator, at an El Paso news conference. “A lot of these people have families in the United States. They have places to go to. This is part of a migrant chain that didn’t just surge up in the past two months. It’s been going on for 30 years. It’s part of a long-term problem that we have failed to deal with.”

Avi and her children planned to board a bus to Florida on Monday. She said she would show up to immigration court when the time came and would fight her case.

“We’ve gone through really difficult days but God has repaid us with all these people,” she said, looking around the high-ceilinged church hall filled with busy volunteers. “I just want to say thank you.”