PHOENIX -- By the time the women arrived disheveled and hungry at the Greyhound station in Phoenix, they had already spent weeks traveling thousands of miles with young children in tow.
Ranging from months old to adolescents, some of the children were sick and lethargic. Others played gleefully at arcade games in the crowded waiting room of the bus station.
The families were apprehended in Texas, flown to Arizona and dropped off by the busload at the station in Phoenix by federal immigration authorities overwhelmed by a surge of families caught crossing the Mexican border into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
It was signal of a shift in immigration that has seen the Rio Grande Valley surpass Tucson as the leader in border apprehensions, overwhelming border agents in Texas. The trend is being driven by a huge increase in the number of immigrants from Central America.
Yet while the number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley vastly surpasses those in the Tucson sector in Arizona, the area has fewer agents. From October 2013 to May 17, agents in the Rio Grande Valley made more than 148,000 arrests, compared with 63,000 arrests in the Tucson sector. But the Rio Grande Valley has about 1,000 fewer agents than Tucson.
"This shows that our strategy is poorly thought-out. Illegal aliens are always going to go where agents aren’t," said Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the U.S. Border Patrol union.
Immigration officials by policy do not keep children in detention.
In a sign of the political ramifications of the move, politicians in Arizona lashed out at the federal government over the fact that immigrants are being sent to the state when it has its own problems associated with immigration.
"What an astonishing failure of leadership at every level inside the Beltway," Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Smith said.
Floridalma Bineda Portillo and her two young boys were part of a group of about 400 Central Americans who were flown from Texas to Tucson last weekend. Bineda Portillo and many others were then shuttled to Phoenix after the Tucson Greyhound station ran out of space.
When they arrived at the station in Phoenix, a volunteer nurse found Bineda Portillo’s 5-year-old son, Hugo David, wheezing and struggling to breathe. His asthma inhaler had been lost when the family was processed by immigration. The boy’s three-year-old brother developed a cold after sitting on the floor for hours in the detention center, his mother said.
"We all started crying because we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. It was brutal," the Guatemala native said in Spanish.
Bineda Portillo said she fled Guatemala because of growing violence and to escape domestic abuse. Her mother, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, sent her money for a bus ride there.
In the meantime, volunteers from the Phoenix Restoration Project, a humanitarian group, have been at the Greyhound station since Tuesday handing out food, clothing, diapers and other supplies.
"It’s always heart-wrenching, especially when we’re working with women, because they’re less likely to be able to read and sometimes are coming from very rural areas of Central America, and Spanish isn’t their first language," volunteer Cyndi Whitmore said. "We see a lot of women who are very sacred, very vulnerable."
Like the other Central American migrants sent from Texas to Arizona this week, Bineda Portillo has 15 days from the time she was apprehended to report to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office in Nashville, where officials will begin proceedings against them there. ICE requires that migrants provide a valid address to their destination in the U.S. before they are released. The migrants’ cases are then forwarded to the ICE office closest to that address.
Immigration officials say they don’t know how many migrants will actually report to ICE, but that many who are fleeing violence are likely to do so to seek asylum.
Maria Eva Casco, of El Salvador, says she and her 8-year-old son fell ill while in immigration detention. On their way to meet the boy’s father in Orlando, Florida, Casco was now regretting the trek.
"It’s been terrifying. A lot of tears and regret," she said in Spanish.
The rise in Central American migrants in Texas and the Rio Grande Valley has exposed how few resources agents have in protecting the border, Moran said. Agents in Laredo, Texas, on Friday sent another flight of migrants to Tucson, and at least one other flight out of there was scheduled in the upcoming days.
"It really highlights that we’re behind the eight ball and it’s a difficult job to do, especially when we’re overwhelmed," Moran said.