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Relief Team Forms on US Border When Public Funds Fall Short

Driving a jumbo canary yellow pickup truck in which he once fit 15 migrant mothers and children, Mario Garcia pulls into the Laredo, Texas bus station on an August afternoon.

He’s been waiting all day for a woman named Maribel and her child. Federal agents were supposed to have released her from detention after they issued her a court date.

The one-room bus station is buzzing with travelers. There is another woman waiting - her name is Ana and she has three children. They arrived from Mexico a day earlier. Mario asks her a few questions, and then herds them into his truck.

"Me introduzco como el pastor [I introduce myself as a pastor]," he says. "I give them my business card. I tell them who I am. I tell them I’m the executive director for the Laredo Baptist Association... the pastor of a church... and just tell them that I’m here to help."

He and the other members of the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team have a routine now.

Just three months earlier, these members of local faith-based organizations didn't have a formal group or a plan. They heard that the bus station in this border city was filling up with Central American migrants, so they took food and hygiene products to them. They saw that no one else was helping.

Unlike in McAllen, 265 kilometers to the south, where public funds have been allocated to deal with the problems of undocumented immigrants, the mayor of Laredo told local media in June that his city wouldn't use taxpayer money to deal with the influx.

Viky Garcia is a city council candidate in Laredo who was using office space at a Methodist community center, the Holding Institute, when the city began receiving the migrants who no longer fit into Texas’ over-capacity detention centers.

"The problem was, o.k., you get a bunch of people dropped off - they don’t have any money, they don’t have any food, they haven’t showered in some time. They’re all hanging out at the bus station," Garcia says. "How do you help them get a bus ticket faster than they are now, because they were taking a week, a week-and-a-half, to be able to find a relative and figure out a way - of how the money-transfer system works in the U.S. - to get the bus ticket out."

Relief workers like Viky refer to these immigrants as documented, but not in the traditional sense of the word used by the media and politicians. They are documented because even though they entered the U.S. illegally, they were caught or turned themselves in. The government has given them a Notice to Appear in immigration court - potentially the first step to being deported.

Until that court date, they are released to relatives around the U.S. if there is no space for them in federal facilties. But the migrants often don't know how to receive the money their families have wired for a bus ticket, or haven't been able to contact them.

The Holding Institute, which before touted computer classes and job skills workshops, became Laredo's hub for help. The Baptists, Catholics and Buddhists all pitched in. Soon, the supplies for arriving families filled two rooms. They set up a "call center" so migrants could phone relatives.

Now, the team prides itself on lowering the average stay of migrants from a few days to a few hours.

Which is why on an August afternoon, relief team staff and volunteers are hurrying Ana and her boys through the assembly line at the Holding Institute, as hundreds of families -- more than 1,000 individuals -- have since June.

Shirts, pants, new shoes for everyone. Ana tries to guess which shorts will fit her small frame.

The family has two hours to get new clothes and food, shower, call relatives, and make the bus to Houston.

Ana's case is unusual, the volunteers note. She tells them she fled from Michoacan, Mexico, five days ago, after her partner threatened to take their two youngest boys.

The log book at the Holding Institute shows migrants' names and countries of origin. Without fail, the majority have been from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They were part of the surge in young families that streamed across the southwest border at a breakneck rate since last October - 66,142 by the end of August, a more than 400 percent increase over the 12,908 families during the same period a year earlier.

Institute staffers have taken it upon themselves to fact-check each case. They ask Ana's boys where they are from, whom they are going to see, what life was like back home.

The 12-year-old describes their home state in Mexico convincingly.

There are other cases that raise bigger flags than Ana's case. A favorite story for the relief team is the reluctant Facebook Romeo, who professed to the woman he met on social media that they could be together if she just got to the U.S. But when she called him from the Holding Institute, he didn’t want to buy her ticket.

Mario Garcia says he got on the phone and told the man this wasn’t the time to go back on promises. Ultimately, the Facebook fiance bought the bus ticket.

As Mario does with most migrants he helps, he keeps track of them through social media. He shows a picture of the couple posted online, the two of them smiling in a yard, arms around each other. They seem happy, Mario thinks.

If the man's briefly stranded fiancee had entered the women's bathroom at the Holding Institute, she would have seen a small poster in Spanish.

"Look beyond the superficial" ["Busque mas alla de lo superficial."], it reads, giving a hotline number at the bottom. "Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery." ["La trata de personas es una forma modern de esclavitud."]

According to Viky Garcia, that's constantly a concern.

She says, "There’s always the suspicion that maybe the address they gave isn’t the - is not necessarily a relative’s address. How many of those people were actually going to meet strangers? I don’t know."

Because the rate of border apprehensions dropped in July and August, there are fewer migrant families passing through the Holding Institute. They don't know yet what the center will evolve into - they agree it will be more than a community center, but not a full-time migrant relief agency.

For now, though, the volunteers and staff still sit at the front desk, waiting for Mario's yellow truck to pull into the parking lot with new arrivals.

This report was done in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists “Bringing Home the World” Fellowship.