In sign of immigration shift, government drops off women, children at bus stations in Arizona

The Associated Press

Elana Carmen, middle, with her daughters Abigail, right, and Ayala, of El Salvador, tie their shoes with yellow rope for shoe laces, Thursday, May 29, 2014 at the Greyhound bus terminal in Phoenix. About 400 mostly Central American women and children caught crossing from Mexico into south Texas were flown to Arizona this weekend after border agents there ran out of space and resources. Officials then dropped hundreds of them off at Phoenix and Tucson Greyhound stations, overwhelming the stations and humanitarian groups who were trying to help. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

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By ASTRID GALVAN, Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — 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. When agents in Texas caught an unusually high number of families with young children crossing the border over Memorial Day weekend, they were stumped as to where to process them. So they turned to Arizona.

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."