The warehouse on a busy but unremarkable strip of auto repair shops and convenience stores draws little attention from passersby.
Inside, hundreds of migrants are eating, charging phones and using temporary bathrooms and showers. Within a few hours, a security guard escorts them to a gravel lot out front, where commercial buses take them from the remote Texas town of Eagle Pass to the San Antonio International Airport for $40.
The Border Patrol releases up to 1,000 migrants daily at Mission: Border Hope. The nonprofit group outgrew a church and moved to the warehouse in April amid the Biden administration’s rapidly expanding practice of releasing migrants on parole, particularly those who are not subject to a pandemic rule that prevents migrants from seeking asylum.
The United States Border Patrol paroled more than 207,000 migrants who crossed from Mexico from August through May, including 51,132 in May, a 28 percent increase from April, according to court records. In the previous seven months, it paroled only 11 migrants.
Parole shields migrants from deportation for a set period of time but provides little else. By law, the Homeland Security Department may parole migrants into the United States “only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit”. Parolees can apply for asylum within a year.
The Border Patrol turned to parole because it lacks holding space, according to court filings. It is a low-key but far-reaching change from President Joe Biden’s first months in office and from his immediate predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
When agents could not process migrants quickly enough for court appearances last year, thousands languished in custody under a bridge in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. In 2019, cells were so packed that some migrants resorted to standing on toilets.
Migrants released at the warehouse are told to report to immigration authorities in two months at their final destination in the US. A handheld device tracks their movements.
“The treatment [by US authorities] was good in comparison with other countries,” said Anthony Montilla, 27, of Venezuela. “They didn’t treat us like we’re thieves.”
He arrived with his family after a journey that included walking through Panama’s notorious Darien Gap, where bandits raped young girls in front of their parents and dead bodies lay on the jungle floor. After Border Patrol released the family on two months’ parole, they headed to a friend’s home in Washington, DC.
Jose Castillo, 43, arrived from Nicaragua with his wife and 14-year-old son, after overcoming fears of drowning in the Rio Grande. They were headed to Miami to live with a cousin. They say opposition to Nicaragua’s government made them targets for repression.
The day Castillo spent in Border Patrol custody was “easy”, he said, but he would advise others against the trip due to dangers of going hungry or being kidnapped in Mexico.
Mission: Border Hope, which is backed by the United Methodist Church, operates in an area that now rivals Rio Grande Valley as the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. Its services are modest compared with groups in other border cities that provide shelter and transportation to an airport.
It began in 2000 by serving 25 to 50 migrants a week at a previous location, said Valeria Wheeler, the executive director, who oversees operations with assembly-line efficiency.
On the busiest days, volunteers cannot keep pace as they register migrants, buy bus tickets and handle other logistics, Wheeler said. A typical day is 500 migrants but arrivals sometimes reach 1,000.
Boxes of spaghetti sauce, chicken soup and pork and beans are stacked near a makeshift kitchen. Migrants wait in clusters of metal benches and plastic chairs. A voice on a loudspeaker gives instructions to people dropped off in Border Patrol buses and announces when airport-bound commercial buses arrive for ticketed passengers.
The facility encourages migrants to leave quickly to make room for others, but about one in 10 end up sleeping on the concrete floor because they have nowhere to go.
“We are not set up to be a shelter,” Wheeler, a former paralegal, said as she walked the windowless building, often interrupted by migrants with questions.
Paroled migrants say they were not screened for asylum or even asked why they came to the US. They receive a stapled packet with a blue stamp that says when parole expires.
That contrasts with many others who are expelled without a chance to seek asylum under Title 42 authority, which denies migrants a shot at asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. A federal judge recently ordered it remain in effect over the administration’s objections.
Title 42 has been applied unevenly, largely affecting migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador because Mexico has agreed to take them back.
The head of the Border Patrol’s parent agency says migrants picked for parole have their criminal histories checked and generally arrive in families with an address where they will stay in the US.
“We’re trying to be smart about it, recognising that there are people that have been carefully vetted but are at much lower risk and would make sense to handle differently from others,” Chris Magnus, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in an interview.
Critics say parole encourages more migrants to come and the administration is defying the legal requirement that it be granted on a “case-by-case basis”.
But Magnus said it is “far more efficient” and about as effective as releasing them after Border Patrol agents prepare notices to appear in immigration court.
That time-consuming exercise now falls to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers when migrants report to them at their final destinations.
The Border Patrol still processes about 25,000 migrants a month for immigration court, which agents say can take more than an hour each. Parole, by comparison, is processed in minutes.
On one recent day, a Honduran woman who was about eight months’ pregnant was released with a notice to appear in immigration court in Cleveland, where she planned to live with an uncle. Wheeler said does not know why some migrants are processed for immigration court and others are paroled — and her organisation does not ask.
“Our purpose is to provide safety,” she said.