HOUSTON, Texas — A Haitian family waded across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas on Thursday and surrendered to police who took them to agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which held the asylum-seekers for one night and then released them.
Instead of making their own way on the streets, the family accepted a bus ride to a new Family Transfer Center sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the YMCA and other charitable organizations in Houston, Texas.
"We can finally sleep at night without fearing our daughter will be hurt or killed or starve," said Geraldo Joseph, 28, who lived in Chile for the past five years before a harrowing four-month journey through nine countries with Christine Zamor and their 2-year-old daughter, Mikailalay. "We're finally at peace as a family."
Renewed border crossings are stressing the U.S. system all along the nation's southern border, and charitable groups are struggling to provide humanitarian aid.
The center hosted its first 223 guests last week. It has the capacity to process up to 500 migrants a day. The partners involved in the project expect to operate the center for at least six months, officials said in a news conference in Houston announcing the partnerships Monday.
Latter-day Saint Charities is providing funding, volunteers and senior missionary couples at the center, which is located in a warehouse operated by The National Association of Christian Churches near Bush Intercontinental Airport.
These are places where they will be served with human kindness and dignity, fed, allowed to rest, catch their breath and prepare to travel on to their destination where their claims of asylum will be determined.
–Jeff Watkins, chief international initiatives officer for the YMCA of Greater Houston
Other partners include Catholic Charities, YMCA International Services, Texas Adventist Community Services, Houston Responds and The Houston Food Bank.
"This center is an example of the tremendous good that can result when the community comes together as one to offer resources to ease the burden of others," said Elder Carlos Villarreal, an Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Villarreal is the center's director.
"We want these migrant families to feel safe, welcome, and comfortable as they continue their journey," he said.
Thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States are released by the Border Patrol into border cities from Texas to California every day to await asylum hearings weeks and months in the future. Many of those cities are being overwhelmed, and the governor of Texas recently declared a disaster in 34 counties along the border.
Each person helped at the center is in the United States legally.
"They have a permit to be here in the United States," said César Espinosa, executive director of the Immigration Advocacy Group.
The center's work is separate from politics, said Jeff Watkins, chief international initiatives officer for the YMCA of Greater Houston.
"These people have presented themselves at the border and claimed asylum, which means that they feel that they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, their religion, their participation in social groups," he said. "At the border, they had a credible-fear interview, where their claim received an initial assessment. This population was granted entry into the United States to pursue asylum.
"Whether they stay long-term or not will be decided later by immigration courts."
Joseph, Zamor and their daughter spent one night in the Family Transfer Center, then caught a Saturday afternoon flight to Florida that was paid for by friends and family.
"We're really happy here in the migrant center," Joseph said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News before they left. "We have food. We have a shower and beds. Everyone has been really happy to see us. This is the happiest place we've been in three centers here."
He said the first two centers were crowded and overwhelmed. On the journey from Chile to Mexico, he said the family faced discrimination and bands of robbers preying on their company of 20-30 migrants.
"Here, nobody cares that we are Black," Joseph said. "Everyone here is nice, happy, and they ask us if we are OK and what we need."
Migrants are screened at the center for COVID-19 symptoms and other medical issues. Emergency Medical Services are available on site.
On Thursday and Friday, the first buses pulled up to one entrance to the warehouse and the asylum seekers from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and other countries emerged into an intake area. They were provided food, hygiene kits, cots, some clothing and more.
Most, like Joseph and Zamor, leave within 24 hours to travel to stay with sponsor families and friends all over the United States while they await their Title 8 hearings before an immigration judge. The National Association of Christian Churches provides shuttle buses to the airport and the train station.
A few asylum seekers remained at the center on Monday, stuck in limbo due to special circumstances.
Nadege Lafrance and his wife Evenor Elisca found out that their friend and sponsor accidentally had purchased tickets for them to fly out of Austin, Texas, instead of Houston. Their two children — Ehna, 10, and Nabendjie, 5, played with another little girl at the center Monday afternoon while they worked with a Latter-day Saint senior missionary couple, Elder Dirk Richards and Sister Claudia Richards, to find a resolution to the mixup.
The Rio Grande River crossing was very dangerous, Lafrance said. The father and mother each carried a child on their shoulders as the current reached up to their necks as they crossed from Acuña, Mexico, to Del Rio, Texas.
He said border protection officers were very busy with asylum seekers from Central and South America, Africa and the Caribbean islands.
Elder Villarreal said the federal government is aware of the Family Transfer Center's humanitarian efforts and welcomes them.
People interested in volunteering can visit the Volunteer Houston website. Volunteers undergo background checks.
The coalition of churches and charities plans to open a second Family Transfer Center in a YMCA on the south side of Houston if needed.
We can finally sleep at night without fearing our daughter will be hurt or killed or starve.
–Geraldo Joseph, 28
The YMCA of Greater Houston operates an International Services Center focused on providing for the holistic needs of refugees, victims of human trafficking and other newcomer populations.
The YMCA's Watkins said the organization is proud to partner with the coalition supporting asylum seekers at the two family transfer centers.
"These are places where they will be served with human kindness and dignity, fed, allowed to rest, catch their breath and prepare to travel on to their destination where their claims of asylum will be determined," he said.
Elder Villarreal and his wife, Myrna, moved to Houston from Boerne, Texas, three hours away, for what may be a six-month assignment to direct both centers. He is the son of Mexican immigrants who crossed the border 60 years ago.
"What has touched me the most has been to watch the tear-filled reuniting of families," he said. "And if that is all I was able to experience, for being here, it would be well worth it."