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THE GUARDIAN: US-Mexico border braces for summer migrant surge as children risk lives alone

say US is better prepared after last year, when 67,339 unaccompanied minors arrived – but ‘every day we’re getting more than the day before’

The child-sized blue jeans lay twisted and forlorn in the scrubland along one of the most popular routes for undocumented migrants crossing from Mexico into Texas.

Chris Cabrera surveyed the scene from his white pickup truck. A border patrol agent for 13 years, he knows how to spot the clues, some obvious – like the jeans – others more subtle, like the flattened grass nearby that formed a northwards path through dense bushes.

Its width suggested two or three people walking side by side, which Cabrera said was an indicator of drug smuggling activity: migrant groups tend to move in single file.

“In a week or so that’ll be a really good trail,” he said.

Only a couple of hundred yards away, cars rushed along the Anzalduas international bridge, gateway to one of several legitimate ports of entry in the area.

But spring and summer are peak seasons for crossings by other means. A couple of minutes earlier a border patrol van drove under the bridge along a bone-jangling rutted single-track path, carrying 13 women and children from Guatemala and Honduras who had turned themselves in to border patrol agents.

“Every day we’re getting more women and children than the day before,” said Cabrera, 41, a local border patrol union representative. He estimated that 60% of those apprehended are turning themselves in.

It is almost a year since a surge in crossings by unaccompanied Central American children overwhelmed local processing and holding centres and put the Rio Grande Valley at the centre of a humanitarian and political crisis.

Senior security and immigration officials have expressed confidence that this summer will not see a repeat of those scenes: fewer people are attempting to cross the border, a result which officials attribute to a successful campaign in Central America to persuade would-be migrants that even if they reach the US, they will have little prospect of remaining.

A Pew Research Center study published last week suggested that a substantial increase of deportations by Mexican authorities has also had a major effect.

A lookout tower is parked at Chimney Park at the banks of the Rio Grande in April. Photograph: Joel Martinez/Demotix for the Guardian

“All these countries have just done a better job,” said Henry Cuellar, a US congressman whose district includes much of the Texas border. “The federal government is a lot better prepared. They were caught off guard last year, [but] they’re doing much better this year,” the Democrat said.

If “crisis” is defined as a meltdown of the system, then it seems unlikely there will be another this summer: in 2014, 67,339 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala,El Salvador and Mexico reached the US.

But even if this year’s final tally turns out to be half as many, that would still mean tens of thousands of unaccompanied children making long and dangerous journeys on routes controlled by smugglers with links to drug cartels. And the figure would still be more than twice what it was five years ago.

“It’s still a problem: that’s still thousands of kids that are coming in every month. This is why we need to do more to work with Mexico and Central America so these kids don’t make their very dangerous travels,” said Cuellar.

According to official statistics, the number of unaccompanied minors stopped at the south-west border was down 45% from October 2014 to March 2015 compared with the same period a year earlier. The figure is 53% lower in the Rio Grande Valley, the site of about two-thirds of all crossings.

But in four other sectors – Big Bend and El Paso in Texas, as well as San Diego and Yuma – the tally has shot up.

 The border patrol is bracing for a surge in migrants, with much activity centered in Texas.

A spokesperson for the Office of Refugee Resettlement – the federal agency responsible for looking after unaccompanied children until they can be placed with a sponsor – said that even if there is another sudden influx, officials expect existing permanent shelters to be able to handle it without the need to resort to the kind of temporary accommodation that opened at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California last year. The current average stay is 35 days or less.

The border patrol’s latest figures for the fiscal year to date show 5,465 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, a country of only 15 million people whose western border is 1,200 miles from Texas by land.

Beyond the statistics, images lodge in Cabrera’s memory: the dead 14-year-old in the brush last year; the eight-year-old girls leading their younger brothers and sisters through the desert (“She’s caring for them like she’s their mother. Her childhood has gone”). And he wonders about the ones he never meets, the unknown numbers of children who vanish in Mexico on the way.

One of the most popular crossings remains Anzalduas Park, in Mission, Texas, a favourite weekend barbecue spot for local families where the Rio Grande curves and narrows – and crossing on a raft or boat takes a matter of seconds.

It’s not far from the riverbank to the picnic tables and playgrounds, but the wild brush here, as in many parts of sun-baked south Texas, holds hazards: snakes, spiders, mosquitos and more. Cabrera once came home so covered with ticks that he washed himself with a shampoo for dogs.

The migrants are sometimes used as pawns by drug cartels, Cabrera said. Spotters on both sides update smugglers on the movements of law enforcement and rafts of families are dispatched to distract the border patrol so drugs can be moved across in unguarded places a little further along the river. The cat-and-mouse game might be less intense than last year but the fundamentals haven’t changed, here or a couple of miles away.

A migrant child from Honduras plays with a collection of toys at a shelter at Sacred Heart Catholic church in downtown McAllen, Texas. Photograph: Joel Martinez/Demotix for the Guardian

Families who have been processed and released to join relatives while they wait for their court hearings still arrive in droves at the Sacred Heart Catholic church hall in downtown McAllen clutching A4 manilla envelopes containing official notices about their cases.

Opened by Catholic Charities as a way to centralise relief efforts when the bus station began to overflow with migrants, the shelter was supposed to be a temporary response to last summer’s crisis.

Now it looks practically permanent: well organised and efficient, with neat piles of clothes and food brightly labelled in Spanish and English and bilingual volunteers wearing “disaster response” bibs ready to help clean, clothe, feed and entertain the migrants for a few hours before they head to the nearby bus station.

When new arrivals walk through the door, the volunteers clap and say “bienvenidos”, often moving the exhausted migrants to tears, said Deborah Boyce, a transplant from Ohio who came to help for a few days last August and never left.

Families are sent on their way with backpacks of toiletries and photocopies with a map of the US and a note in large font reading: “Please help me. I don’t speak English. Which bus do I need to take?”

The shelter is handling about 50 to 90 people a day, down from last summer’s peak of 270.

“Our numbers a couple of weeks ago were approaching very high levels again. We’ve been hearing projections that the numbers are increasing,” Boyce said.

“This humanitarian crisis didn’t start last summer. It’s been going on for a long time … The needs for volunteers and donations continue.”

The seven arrivals on a recent morning included Brazilians, Hondurans and a mother and daughter from El Salvador waiting for the 3.30pm departure.

One family had recently come from Eritrea via Ukraine.

Cabrera said that border patrol apprehends a wide variety of nationalities in the Rio Grande Valley: people from countries in Africa and the Middle East, China and increasingly Brazilians and Cubans choosing a much longer route in preference to the usual tactic of trying to reach Florida by water.

Cecilia, the 16-year old Salvadoran, said she, her mother and her 23-year old sister had taken 18 days to reach Texas in a journey which culminated in a three-day stay in a detention centre she described through a translator as “horrible”. They were processed and released but did not yet have court dates.

Used clothing, intended for use by migrants, is folded and stack according to gender and size by volunteers at a shelter at Sacred Heart Catholic church in McAllen, Texas. Photograph: Joel Martinez/Demotix for the Guardian

Cecilia’s mother, who asked not to be named, said she had been deported twice previously. She said she had been told she would have to leave the country again but had been freed to accompany Cecilia on buses to Maryland, where they would be reunited with the child’s father, the woman’s husband, whom they had not seen since he left for the US to find work 13 years ago.

Above the rattle of a small boy dragging a Mickey Mouse train toy along the floor and another artlessly playing a xylophone, Cecilia explained that the reunion would be joyful but bittersweet because one of the family would not be there.

Officials in the McAllen detention centre had suddenly separated them from her 23-year-old sister and they had not heard from her in two days. The 16-year-old said that she and her sister had been happy at home until gang violence made them fear for their lives.

The rush of migrants heading for Texas was a common topic of conversation in the community, Cecilia said – but not for her family. To minimise risks, they departed without saying goodbye to relatives and friends.