MISSION, Texas — As the sun sets near the Rio Grande on an evening just days after the US presidential election, the air is still and calm.
But some see this remote stretch of land as the center of a storm that’s brewing.
Officials say a new wave of undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America, are arriving on America’s doorstep. And many of them are crossing here, along the US-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas.
Did the election have anything to do with their decision to come to the United States? And how much will their chances of being allowed to stay here change once Donald Trump is in the Oval Office?
The answers depend on who you ask.
‘They all know about President Trump’
Last week, while most Americans were focused on the 270-plus electoral votes Trump won to clinch the presidency, the Department of Homeland Security announced another number: 46,195.
That, the agency said, is the number of people who were apprehended at the southwest border in October. The number grew so much in a month’s time (nearly 17%) that officials sent 150 more agents to this part of the border to help handle the influx.
Manuel Padilla Jr., chief of the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector, says the driving forces behind immigration remain the same: violence and poverty. And so far, Padilla says, he hasn’t seen the US election playing much of a role.
But McAllen Mayor Jim Darling sees things differently.
Words said in Washington have a big impact here, says Darling, who’s been McAllen’s mayor since 2013. In the years since he took office, Darling says he’s seen several waves of immigrants coming across the border.
Two years ago, a surge of Central Americans from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador drew national attention and pledges from US officials that they’d put a stop to it. Darling says he thinks that wave of immigration had a lot to do with President Barack Obama’s comments about immigration reform.
Now it’s happening again. And the mayor says his conversations with recent arrivals have revealed that Trump’s campaign promises have a lot to do with it.
“If you talk to them, they all know about President Trump,” he says. “They all know about a wall. … The cartels that are encouraging and making money off this travel, they go down and they exploit that.”
The message, he says, is clear: “You better get over here before January and the swearing-in ceremony.”
Even though thousands of immigrants pass through McAllen, according to its mayor, few of them stay. They’re released from detention wearing ankle monitors and carrying paperwork that requires them to appear at immigration offices soon. Then they’re allowed to continue their journeys. Most are traveling to meet up with family members across the United States.
“The people here … they’re coming to a neighborhood near you, America,” Darling says.
Hope and fear
The small bus station in this city near the border is filling up with people. Nearly all of them cling to manila envelopes displaying a message in bold print: “Please help. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?”
It’s a solution bus companies came up with to help the throngs of passengers who are passing through, many of them undocumented immigrants just released from detention.
Godofredo Lopez tears up as he talks about why he came to the United States from El Salvador.
“To save my son’s life. It’s because they’re killing them,” he says. “They’re killing young people.”
But even as he gets emotional about gang violence in El Salvador, Lopez says he can understand why Trump said the things he did on the campaign trail. He’s simply trying to protect his country, according to Lopez. But he also says he hopes the President-elect will approach his new role with an open mind.
“Maybe God will touch his heart and he will see why we came,” he says.
Like Lopez, many of the newly arrived immigrants inside the bus station appear hopeful.
They’ve made it this far. It seems like the hardest part is behind them. Crossing the border and asking for asylum in the United States, they say, is their best shot at a better life.
Some say they’d heard about Trump before they got here. But most say the President-elect didn’t factor into their decision to make the dangerous journey to the United States.
‘They are not illegal people’
The parking lot outside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church used to fill up with cars. Now two large, air-conditioned tents here have become a refuge for hundreds of immigrant families who come through daily.
Some stay for just a few hours, Sister Norma Pimentel says. Others remain for a few days. No matter what happened to them before they got here, she says, they share one thing in common now: fear.
Could the election results be contributing?
“Most definitely,” Pimentel says. “There is a big fear in our community about what’s going to happen. But ultimately, what we have to respond to is the fact that they’re human beings. They are not illegal people. They are human beings who are asking for protection, and we cannot overlook that fact.”
A new arrival
Back beside the Rio Grande, night has fallen.
It’s hot and humid. Swarms of mosquitoes are everywhere. It’s getting hard to see the muddy roads that are carved out through the rough terrain.
The only light in the sky comes from the full moon overhead and an occasional vehicle driving on the Mexican side border.
It doesn’t take long for three figures to emerge from the darkness along the riverbank.
It’s a woman and two teens who say they just braved the swift current of the river to make it to the United States.