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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)
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)

Crossing over: A flood of migrants at its southern border challenges America's idea of itself Add to ...

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.

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