(CNSNews.com) -- Standing on the American bank of the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County, Texas, 31-year-old Velma Santos told U.S. Border Patrol officers she did not know what to expect when she first set foot on American soil – only that now her two daughters would be able to go to an American school.
“People told me, they said if you go to the United States, your children can go to school,” she told CNSNews.com.
She also said she had been told by other people that if she came to the United States, she could stay.
Reporters from CNSNews.com were shadowing border patrol officers responsible for monitoring a portion of Anzalduas Park, a recreational area in Hidalgo County, Texas. The park sits in a section of the Rio Grande Valley Sector – a 250-costal-mile portion of the US-Mexico border that has struggled under a massive wave of illegal immigrants since February.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 181,000 illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico have crossed over the river into the United States in this one sector alone since October 2013.
Velma Santos was one of three women, all from Guatemala, in the group that had just been picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents on Sunday, June 22, after being ferried across the river by smugglers from the Mexican side. The three small children with her, ranging from 5 to 11 years old, stood nervously at her side, squinting in the bright spotlights beaming from the border patrol vehicles.
Santos was tired and relieved, but not afraid.
One border patrol agent asked Santos if she had heard children were being granted “permisos,” a written authorization to stay in the United States, once they arrived. She said no, she had not heard that, but she knew of others who had come and had not been sent home.
“In Guatemala, there is a lot of poverty and violence and gangs,” Velma Santos told the officers after they took down her name and whatever other identifying information she could provide. “But here my daughters can go to school.”
She said she came to the United States because she wanted the Americans to help her. She had heard from others in Guatemala that if she came to the United States, she could stay.
“I asked and I asked what people knew and what they had heard,” she said. “People told me, they said, if you go to the United States, your children can go to school.”
Velma said her husband is in North Carolina working in a restaurant. She is hoping to join him there and find a job.
The more-then-two-week journey from Guatemala to the United States had cost about $5,000 for Velma and the three little girls with her, she said. She had taken a bus through Central America to Reynosa, a Mexican city just across the border from Ganjeno, Texas, but most of the money was paid to smugglers to get her across the river.
Another woman in the group said that while the trip was dangerous for her and her three daughters, it was a risk she was willing to take.
“Some people were dangerous,” she said. “Not all, but there were some. And we knew it was dangerous crossing the river, and other things along the way. It wasn’t safe.”
After speaking with the women for a few minutes, another problem presented itself: one of the three children clinging to Velma is not hers.
According to Velma Santos, the shivering 9-year-old is her cousin’s daughter, who Velma has been rearing since she was only a year old and the girl’s mother came to the United States for work. While Santos wants to go to North Carolina, she plans to send the little girl to her mother in Miami, Fla. All she has to find her mother with is a telephone number.
The little girl is one of thousands of UACs – unaccompanied children – that U.S. Border Patrol agents have picked up on the banks of the Rio Grande in the past few months. While many of the older teenagers come by themselves, most of the younger children have been brought over by an extended relative who claims the child’s parents are already in the United States, one border patrol agent said. But because they are not brought by a parent, they are listed as “unaccompanied.”
As of June 15, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have already crossed the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border since October of last year, according to a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security. The number is twice as high as the total of UACs that entered the United States during the same time period in fiscal year 2013.
Thousands of them are still hung up in the processing pipeline, as large numbers of illegal immigrants continue to flood the system and create a backlog of people with nowhere to go.
By U.S. law, the Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to take unaccompanied children off U.S. Border Patrol’s hands after a maximum 72-hour period, border patrol agents explained.
But with nowhere to send them and no plans to deport them, they continue to sit in makeshift detention facilities, including converted warehouses and bus ports, for up to a week before they can be moved to a different location or sent to a relative already in the United States.
“We’re just not equipped to keep them this long,” one agent told CNSNews.com.
According to another border patrol agent, the Rio Grande Valley Sector – currently the busiest and most overloaded stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border – is detaining more than 1,500 unaccompanied minors, with more added daily. The number of UACs are in addition to family units, which make up the majority of the total, and single adults.
With more than 1,200 new immigrants crossing the border every day, the problem continues to grow, another agent said.
“We’ve always had people coming in, but now it’s exploded,” said Albert Spratte, the sergeant-at-arms of the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307 in the Rio Grande Valley. “Technically, we should have them for no more than three days, but we’re holding them now for more than a week.”
“It’s like being stuck in a nightmare you can’t get out of,” he added.