MISSION, Texas — A few hundred feet from the murky, green waters of the Rio Grande River, a handwritten sign tucked inside a plastic Department of Homeland Security property sleeve is duct taped to the trunk of a weesatch tree.
It says “Asilo” — the Spanish word for asylum.
It is written in large letters on a piece of cardboard above an arrow showing the direction of the Anzalduas Port of Entry in Mission, Texas and the directive “Camine asi al puente, 3 km” or, roughly, “Walk this way to the bridge.”
“They used to have masks [stuffed inside],” Deputy Constable Ray Reyna from the Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office told The Post, adding the sign and another like it were hung up “recently” amid the changeover to the Biden Administration.
The signs were found by The Post Thursday night during a ride-along with the Constable’s Office in the brush behind Anzalduas Park that migrants hike through after crossing the Rio Grande on rafts from Reynosa, Mexico. Evidence of their presence, including a soggy, plaid blanket, water bottles and a child-size face mask printed with blue and pink fish, littered the well-worn paths they take through the brush from the river.
Local law enforcement officials believed the signs had been left by US Border Patrol agents because they’re sealed with DHS property sleeves — though Customs and Border Protection denied their agents put them there.
The signs are further evidence of President Biden’s more inviting approach to immigration that has caused a surge of border crossings. DHS officials said it is on pace to be the largest in two decades after a series of strict immigration policies set in place by former President Donald Trump were rolled back.
“They’re coming in with the mentality that they’re going to stay here… It’s just way different, we’re not used to it,” said Deputy Constable Ray Trevino, who took The Post for the ride-along as he worked Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program that funds local law enforcement units to assist with border security measures.
“Once Trump got out and Biden came in, everybody started coming in also.”
Under Trump, Trevino said he’d see a handful of migrants each night, “a trio here or there, a group of five, a group of seven” who were deliberately trying to hide and be smuggled in. But these days, at least a hundred migrants are coming to the area nearly every night, sometimes as many as 300 in the course of just a few hours, who readily turn themselves over to law enforcement and “want to be found,” Trevino said.
“As of right now these are all family groups, they’re volunteer turn-ins. They’re not here to get caught, they’re here to turn themselves in, they’re coming in for asylum,” Trevino, who has nine years on the job, explained.
“We’re just kind of guiding them, we’re showing them the way.”
Rich said they patrol the brush “mainly for safety reasons” and recently, the area has been dubbed the “family group area” because of the large numbers of children and parents coming in.
“The problem is it gets dark and you get turned around,” Rich explained.
“We’ve had people die out here, get lost and die.”
During the ride-along, The Post encountered a group of 11 migrants, including five adults, five young children and a 17-year-old girl, who’d been dropped off in a white truck on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and sent across in a raft.
Olinda Marilin Portillo Mazariegos was out of breath after hiking up the embankment and traversing through the mesquite trees with her 6-year-old daughter, Silvia Olinda Marilín López Portillo, following her 32-day long journey from Guatemala.
“My country is not the place to be, the children are killed and violated at night,” Mazariegos, who paid at least $8,000 for her passage and previously worked as a psychologist, explained.
She said a child had been raped in her hometown where gangs run rampant but when she reported the culprit, she was “threatened,” which is what spurred her to leave.
“There is no law in my country,” the mom, carrying nothing but the clothes on her back, said as she clutched her daughter’s hand, explaining her plans to join a friend in New Orleans and find work as a cleaner or a cook until she could transfer her professional certifications to the US.
“I am no longer afraid. I used to be really scared, but now I am not.”
Jhosselyn Rojas Solano, 25, traveled nearly 4,000 miles from Bolivia over the course of two weeks by bus and on foot with her five-year-old son, Matías Vegamonte Rojas, to escape domestic violence.
“For seven years he has been bothering me, threatening me because I had asked him for child support because he was my husband, and I needed financial support for my son,” Solano explained as she softly cried.
“He threatened me, he beat me and I reported him, and they didn’t do anything there,” the mom went on as Matías hugged her leg.
“And this last time he threatened me that if I continued seeking child support that he was going to harm me and my son and that he was going to take my other son. That is why I decided to come here.”
Solano, who worked as a hairstylist back home, described the harrowing journey she undertook to find safety and the difficulties she faced taking the long trip alone with a young child.
“The climate, the length of the trip, the pressure, and the fear of something happening on the trip. You hear about so many things happening, the fear I had for my child, and there were days that we would go hungry, all those things, it was hard,” the mom said, adding there were days she had to carry her child as she walked for miles.
Solano hopes to join her uncle in Virginia where she can start a new life and provide for her children.
“I came because I couldn’t take it there anymore. I hope that we are given the possibility to be able to settle down there in the United States.”
In fiscal year 2021, there has been an enormous increase of “family units” coming into the Rio Grande Valley specifically, accounting for 42 percent of all parents and children who crossed the southwest border, dwarfing CBP’s eight other sectors, data shows.
In FY 2020, 8,129 parents and kids crossed into the Rio Grande and in FY 2021, that number more than doubled to 16,583 — a 104 percent increase, data shows. In comparison, other hot spots in Del Rio and El Paso had just 6,438 and 5,798 families respectively.
The major jump in south Texas is likely because of a law passed in the Mexican state Tamaulipas, which is just on the other side of the Rio Grande, according to local media and aid groups.
It prevents the state from accepting migrants traveling with young children who’d typically be expelled from the US under Title 42, a rule imposed last year by Trump that allowed CBP to immediately deport migrants to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“Children under the age of six are not allowed to be sent back to Mexico. United States has the policy that the border is closed, they haven’t changed that, but Border Patrol cannot return any child under the age of six to Mexico and so therefore, they’re forced to release them into United States… [that’s] why we’re seeing so many families,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Catholic Charities Respite Center in Downtown McAllen where 200 to 600 migrant families have received care each day during the latest surge.
“They figured out that if they have a child with six years or under, they will not be sent back. So they’re actually hoping that the Border Patrol will see them… once they get processed, border patrol gives me a call and tells me that they have a group to drop off and we have that happen all day long from very early in the morning until very late.”
Local CBP officials wouldn’t confirm if they’re being forced to accept would-be Title 42 expulsions because of the new Mexican law and directed The Post to their national office, which didn’t return a request for comment.
Pimentel, who’s been working with migrants since the 1980s, said the families she serves aren’t bad people, they’re just trying to escape a bad situation.
“The situation in their country is difficult. It’s not safe. They’re afraid to be there. They’re afraid for their children and they find any opportunity that they can to try to bring themselves to this country with the hopes that they’ll be safer here,” the nun explained.
“Their kids can be easily recruited [by gangs], kidnapped, killed, they have a harder time working because cartels or the gangs make it impossible. There are no jobs available, if they work, they steal their money, they coerce them and so that’s the kind of life they see there and so they prefer just to go north with hopes that they find a safer place to be.”