Two-by-two, hands on the shoulders of the person before them, the immigrants marched through the field late Thursday afternoon to an awaiting Department of Homeland Security bus.
At least 80 people suspected of being in the country illegally encountered an unexpected stop — if not the beginning of their return south — on their journeys elsewhere into the United States.
U.S. Border Patrol agents uncovered a makeshift camp of tents and huts thatched from mesquite branches in the brush not far from an abandoned tennis club that workers were dismantling northwest of Sprague and North 10th Street in McAllen.
There, the immigrants — mostly from Central America — said they’d been holed up at least a week, receiving little food and a gallon of water somehow rationed among 35 people, according to agents and immigrants interviewed.
“We ate one burrito per day,” said Alfredo Espinoza Rivera, who said he left his hometown in El Salvador about six weeks ago. He said he paid $7,000 to a coyote to cross him into Texas and had lost about 40 pounds on his journey.
The 37-year-old man said he’d hoped to meet his father, a U.S. citizen, in Los Angeles.
Instead, he sat alongside 52 others as agents looked on, bringing bottles of water to share as they waited to be taken in for processing.
“I’m scared to go back to my country,” he said in Spanish. “There’s a lot of crime and it’s hard to live there.
“There’s no work.”
For Salvadorans like Espinoza, fear of the trip back coupled with economic hardship is a story echoed by the ballooning numbers of Central Americans who enter the U.S. through South Texas.
Border Patrol has apprehended more than 90,700 people in the Rio Grande Valley sector in the past six months, according to a recent report in The New York Times, up 69 percent from the year before. Most have arrived from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report released this month said Honduras had the world’s highest homicide rate in 2012, with El Salvador having the fourth-most and Guatemala ranking fifth.
That has prompted many migrants from those countries to request asylum upon their arrival and arrest by immigration agents in the United States, with more than 36,000 asylum claims from Central Americans across the country in 2013 — double the amount from the year before, the Times reported.
“Nationwide, you’re hearing more and more of the requests for asylums,” said Chris Cabrera, vice president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents agents. “They’re afraid to go back to their country, so they get the catch and release,” into the United States while they await a decision on their asylum request.
The Valley’s influx of so-called OTM’s — “other than Mexicans” — ties up agents’ time processing them into area detention facilities, Cabrera said. Requests for asylum out of fear of returning to an immigrant’s native country require more investigation from authorities to attempt to verify the claim.
“The manpower involved with that, the hours involved with that,” Cabrera said. “It’s such a lengthy process which leads to more gaps in the border, which leads to what we had today.”
Border Patrol has recently deployed 500 new agents to the Valley to respond with the spiking influx of immigrants.