ChildSafe leaders believe the well-being of children should be a top priority in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At Travis Park United Methodist Church’s nursery room on Wednesday, a few dozen families sat among stuffed tote bags and shedded jackets, feeding babies and watching their kids play. They were part of the 100-plus women and children traveling that day through the downtown Greyhound bus station from the Dilley Detention Center, a family detention center 80 miles south of San Antonio.

Of those families, about 20 came straight from the border, which is usual, Sister Denise LaRock said. What was not usual was the number of detainees released from the Dilley Detention Center and Karnes County Residential Center, which also holds immigrant families.

LaRock serves as the bus station coordinator for the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a local organization that helps released immigrants find their way to their next stop and gives them supplies such as food and toiletries.

Monday and Tuesday at the Greyhound bus station were fairly par for the course, LaRock said — IWC served around 40 to 50 families, an average day’s work. On Wednesday, the number rose sharply to 104 families. On Thursday, 115 families passed through, and on Friday, 106 families did the same. Most of them came from Dilley and Karnes County, which usually release much fewer detainees at a time, La Rock said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attributed higher release numbers to increased arrest numbers.

“Over the past few weeks, in response to rising arrest numbers, ICE has increased its number of releases from our two Texas family residential centers,” spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said in a statement Friday. “These releases are part of normal ICE operations.”

Erica Schommer, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law who teaches immigration law, said bed space considerations have factored into ICE’s decision to release more detainees than usual.

“ICE has discretion to release people from detention whenever they want to, at any time if they want to,” Schommer said.

Border agents are also speeding up the process of releasing immigrant families into the United States, the Texas Monthly reported Thursday. Border Patrol will no longer be helping them contact families or friends, or transport them to bus stations or airports.

Women and children who just arrived from the Dilley Detention Center walk from San Antonio’s Greyhound bus station to Travis Park United Methodist Church. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio has dealt with unexpected numbers of immigrant families released to the city before. In December 2016, over 400 women and children were suddenly released from the Karnes and Dilley Family Detention centers after a judge in Travis County ruled that Texas could not use detention centers as child care facilities.

Pruneda said that ICE reviews each family’s case individually.

“Currently, due to the increased workload, ICE is diverting local resources to augment these residential centers to efficiently accommodate the increased operational workflow,” she said in her statement. “ICE operational activities are continuing without interruption at this time.”

The increased releases from Dilley and Karnes County comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s order to send 800 troops to the border in an attempt to block immigrants from entering the country, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Trump has focused on the so-called migrant caravan, still hundreds of miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border, as Election Day nears. He also is considering taking executive action to block immigrants from entering the country through the southern border, the New York Times reported Thursday.

LaRock said she dislikes the way immigrants have been used as political fodder.

“Sometimes I think immigration is just a political pawn and is used for one side to fight the other side,” she said. “And that doesn’t help anything. There’s all this fighting back and forth, but what is being done to help these people whose lives are changed in their countries? Where’s the holding accountable of governments who don’t protect their citizens?”

Where are they coming from?

Most of the immigrant families passing through San Antonio traveled from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, San Antonio Mennonite Pastor John Garland said. Traveling from Central America to the United States takes about a month, he explained.

Children watch The Lion King at Travis Park United Methodist Church. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“They’re exposed to massive amounts of violence, extortion, and sexual violence,” Garland said. “They fled horrific violence and they’re moving through Mexico and they also have two problems — either all of their wealth is on their person or they have connections in the U.S. that are extortable.”

Wendy, who declined to give her last name, left her husband behind in Honduras to escape extortion and assault from the organized crime in her village. She arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday with her 2-year-old son and said she was heading to Dallas to meet her aunt. She said she had been traveling on buses and trucks for a month; the trip cost her more than $12,000.

Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin law school who directs the school’s Immigration Clinic, said in her work she’s heard immigrants from Central America share similar numbers.

“That money goes to a smuggler,” she said. “I have heard people talk regularly of $7,000, $10,000, $12,000. It depends where you’re coming from.”

Where will they go now?

Release doesn’t mean immigrants are finished with ICE, said Schommer, the St. Mary’s professor.

“I think it is important for people to know that when people get released, there’s still a very long road ahead,” Schommer said. “And that people’s lives, when they’re released, is not easy. Certainly it’s better than being detained, but it’s difficult to figure out what they need to do: to find lawyers, to fight their case and navigating new cities, putting kids in school. It can be overwhelming.”

Most families don’t have money for a lawyer, and without one, the chances of winning their case and request for asylum are much slimmer, Schommer said. The process of applying for asylum is complicated, as immigrants must have evidence to document their claims and show they cannot be safe anywhere in the country they are fleeing.

There are 58 immigration courts total in the U.S., Schommer said, which only adds to the backlog of asylum claims.

LaRock said she’s not sure when the detention release numbers will go down but that the Interfaith Welcome Coalition would continue to greet released immigrants at the Greyhound bus station as well as the San Antonio Airport. And Gavin Rogers, associate pastor at Travis Park UMC, said IWC called the church Wednesday asking if people who needed a place to rest could stop by the church.

“We had just had a staff meeting where we decided that we would open up our nursery and fellowship hall and other rooms to those with long layovers,” Rogers said. “We’ll continue to do that when the need is great, or when IWC needs that.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.