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Central American migrants just released from U.S. Border Patrol detention wait at a bus station in McAllen, Tex., on July 25, for their continued journey to various U.S. destinations.John Moore/Getty Images

The white and green pickups of the U.S. border patrol dot the landscape every few hundred metres, rolling slowly along the frontier, kicking up dust plumes as they comb the riverbanks and surrounding brush for signs of anyone attempting to cross.

It's clear, standing at the river's edge, how easy it is to penetrate the border in the Rio Grande Valley. It just means crossing the Rio Grande. There's no fence in most places. The river bends frequently, limiting visibility, and in some sections it's relatively narrow and shallow. Migrants say it takes only a few minutes to load a rubber dinghy and push across. Yes, some drown every year but it's nothing compared with the other perils on the journey north. Every day in suffocating heat they come by the hundreds to pile onto rafts, inner tubes and fishing boats and chart a course across the muddy, green waters for the opposite bank.

For as long as there has been a border here, the authorities and migrants – historically Mexicans in search of a better economic future – have played this game. But since October a new kind of migration has made this stretch of river the focal point of what U.S. President Barack Obama has called a humanitarian crisis.

The number of children – alone, frightened and desperate for refuge – fleeing crime-ridden Central American countries has doubled. The number of families, most with just either a mother or a father with a child or two, has jumped nearly five-fold. It is not just the size of the migration that's new. Many of these migrants are seeking asylum, and their arrival is creating a unique humanitarian, political and logistical conundrum for a country balancing demands for tighter border security against a tradition of welcoming refugees.

"The U.S. has never really had refugees arriving on its land borders before," said Marc Rosenblum, an immigration expert with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

But the political outcry – demonstrations at facilities that house child migrants, the decision by the Republican Governor of Texas to send the National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border – doesn't square with the country's tradition as a place of asylum and refuge, he said. It's been tangled up in the partisan fight in Washington over immigration reform and has sparked a debate between those who see this primarily as a failure to control the border, versus those who see it as a humanitarian emergency.

"Many see this as unauthorized migrants coming to the U.S. to reunite their families or better their economic prospects – and there's not a lot of patience for that in the U.S.," Mr. Rosenblum said. "We're describing this as a mixed flow. Some are refugees, some aren't."

Perilous journeys, then safe haven

In the border city of McAllen, Tex., the tide of migrants is most visible at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where the parking lot and parish hall have been commandeered by a massive relief effort: There are air conditioned tents, cots, medical facilities, showers, a kitchen, food, a play area for children and tables piled high with donated clothing. The system was set up barely two months ago , in early June, when the number of migrants overwhelmed initial relief efforts at the city bus station. The church is staffed by as many as 100 volunteers a shift, every day, a sign of the sympathy for the migrants in this area where more than 90 per cent of residents are Latino.

The migrants arrive in a steady stream all day, usually in groups of 20 or 30, having been released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. Volunteers at the church greet them with applause. They are mostly families, mothers with children primarily, and they have been released into the United States on the condition that they will at some point have their asylum claim heard before a judge.

Jose Rivera, 48, carried his disabled daughter in his arms, as he had done for most of the past month, ever since they left El Salvador. His brother-in-law was extorted and eventually killed by the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13. When the gang turned its attention to him, Mr. Rivera said he paid a coyote $12,000 (U.S.), or $3,000 per person, to bring his family to the U.S. They travelled north by bus with a group of 30 Salvadorans. But when they reached the outskirts of Tampica, a few hours from the U.S. border, the bus came to a sudden halt. Men with guns ordered them out and spirited them by van to a filthy, empty house. The gunmen said they belonged to the Gulf Cartel. They were told their families would have to pay a ransom of $3,000 per person to win their release. Mr. Rivera hoped his older sons, who live in Virginia, would be able to come up with the money.

"The conditions were bad," Mr. Rivera said. They gave them just a little food every day and some unclean water to drink.

"I was very afraid. Four people tried to escape. They ran away but they got caught. They tied their hands to their feet behind them. The cartel held a gun to their heads and told them they would kill them. Then they beat them with a baseball bat."

On the eighth day of captivity he was told that he and his daughter were leaving. The cartel had received $6,000 from his sons. They dragged him to his feet before he had time to speak to his wife.

"It was a horrible feeling, a terrible feeling, saying goodbye. It all happened very fast and all we got to do is wave to her," he said. It had been a week since he had heard any news of his wife, but a volunteer at the church helped him phone his sons. She had been released, had crossed the border and was now in U.S. custody, he was told. Mr. Rivera held his daughter and wept.

Save them, but will they change us?

Peter Pranis, a local parishioner and volunteer, listened to that story and shook his head in horror. These people are fleeing for their lives, he said. But he's conflicted. He also thinks the border policy is broken and that Mr. Obama's actions have only created incentives for people to cross illegally. He wants to help, but he also wants it stop. The U.S. is a country of laws, he says.

"I'm a sailor. When you see somebody in the water the first thing you do is get them on board," Mr. Pranis said. "But we have to shut it down," he added, meaning the unauthorized entry of migrants. "If we don't the society they are seeking will cease to exist."

Armando Garcia is also a strong believer in the rule of law. He and his three-year-old daughter, Ashley, made the journey north from Honduras, which is reputed to be the world's most dangerous country, seeking the protection of U.S. law. Honduras has a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000, which is about 50 times higher than Canada and 10 times higher than Iraq.

His father was killed by the gangs, he says, and he was working as a labourer for $7 a day. He knew things would be better for his daughter in the U.S., and trusted that if they crossed together the authorities would let them stay, at least for a while. He paid a coyote $6,000 to get them across and they surrendered to border agents immediately.

"I know the U.S. has strict rules and they like to follow them, so I trusted those laws," he said.

He intends to tell an immigration judge that his life would be in danger if he's returned to Honduras. He's not sure if he'll succeed.

"The courts will decide," he said.

Courts are overwhelmed

This week's juvenile docket in the local immigration court was held in a small, nearly empty courtroom in the neighbouring Texas city of Harlingen.

The docket was full of names, but only one person actually appeared in court. Most children on the court's list had already been dispersed around the country, having been released into the custody of a relative. Judge Eleazar Tovar spent the day contacting them by telephone and through a translator informing them that their cases were being transferred to courts close to where they're staying. It served to illustrate that although the border issues are felt most keenly in this region, the impact of this migration will extend all across the U.S. The child migrants were now living in such far-flung places such as Chattanooga, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C.; and Sioux City, Iowa. It appeared as though only one or two of those the judge called had legal representation.

Case records studied by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that over the past decade roughly half of all children in immigration court are left to argue their cases alone, without a lawyer; there's no legal requirement for the state to appoint counsel. It also found that when the child did have a lawyer, the chances of winning the right to stay in the U.S. were about 50 per cent, compared with 10 per cent for those without an attorney. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the cause, saying that it runs counter to everything the U.S. stands for if children are left to defend themselves in deportation hearings without counsel.

At the end of the day's proceedings, Judge Tovar gave some indication of the scale of the caseload that he's facing as a result of the surge in migrants. He told court staff to prepare for some difficult weeks ahead, as there would be roughly 100 cases a day on the docket. There are currently 375,000 cases pending in immigration courts, which contributes to long delays in the judicial process. As a result it could be several years before the migrants making asylum claims today can have their cases decided.

What bus do I take?

At the central bus station in McAllen, the migrants are given some final instructions on how to navigate life in the U.S. Here, nearly everyone speaks Spanish and the bus departures are announced in both languages. But it won't be that way everywhere, the migrants are warned. A volunteer in a green bib circulates, handing each family a white sheet of paper with large lettering that says: "Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?" The volunteer demonstrates how to hold it up and ask for help.

Maria – she is too frightened by the horror she left behind to give her real name – sat waiting to depart for an Atlantic coast city with her two children. Only a few hours earlier, she had arrived at the church with her pants covered in mud, shoes without laces, and a black and swollen eye after being hit with an oar on the river crossing. Before the church, they had spent a miserable three days in a crowded U.S. government detention centre, where they said they were cold and hungry and Maria slept standing up in the bathroom. She was relieved to be able to shower, have a bite to eat and pick out some new clothes.

They left El Salvador because their lives were threatened, Maria said. Her husband was a police detective assigned to extortion cases, which meant frequently running across the Mara Salvatrucha. The gang threatened to kill his family and then gunned down his partner. He quit his job, sent his family north, and hopes one day to follow.

"Why are so many coming? Because of the gangs," Maria said. "They're in every city and in every neighbourhood. They're everywhere."

As their departure time approached, they grew more and more relaxed. Her daughter, Rocio, went to the vending machine and bought a Twix, then sat down with her phone, which had survived the crossing. The three of them posed for selfies, smiling. Then they sat back and glanced up at the three TVs playing a kind of American trinity above them. One showed baseball, the other the Disney channel, the third Fox News. And at the appointed time, the three stood in line for the bus, each with a single bag that held nothing more than a change of clothes, ready to build a new life in this nation of immigrants.

Obama says he will have to 'act alone'

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday immigration legislation on track to pass in the House of Representatives is unworkable and will force him to act on his own to address pressures from a surge of illegal immigrants on the southwestern border.

"House Republicans, as we speak, are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere," he told reporters at a news conference.

"Without additional resources and help, we're just not going to have the resources we need to fully solve the problem," Mr. Obama said. He had asked for $3.7-billion (U.S.) to deal with the migrant influx.

Republicans on Friday were set to vote on border-security measures that would make it easier to deport Central American child migrants, satisfying demands from conservative Republicans. The legislation has nearly no chance of becoming law because the Senate is not expected to take it up and the President has said he would veto it.

"I'm going to have to act alone," Mr. Obama said. "We are going to have to reallocate resources in order to just make sure that some of the basic functions that have to take place down there, whether it's making sure that these children are properly housed or making sure that we've got enough immigration judges to process their cases, that those things get done."

Report from Reuters

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