HARLINGEN — The U.S. Border Patrol has begun releasing fewer Central American migrants to the Rio Grande Valley’s shelters, indicating a drop in numbers entering the United States amid an influx in which family arrests have soared nearly 500 percent, human rights groups said Thursday.

Meanwhile, federal authorities are turning back some migrants seeking asylum in the United States to Mexico or their home countries, an attorney said.

In Harlingen and San Benito, Border Patrol agents are releasing fewer numbers of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to area shelters, the groups said.

“There’s definitely a decline,” Jorge Camarillo, the case manager at La Posada Providencia, a Catholic-run shelter in San Benito, said.

Since the influx began in mid February, the shelter has helped 206 Hondurans, 168 Guatemalans and 59 Salvadorans, he said.

This month, the numbers began dropping, he said.

Camarillo believes authorities are turning back migrant families with children six years old and above.

“They are returning families,” he said. “What happened is they are letting cross people with kids six and under and the rest are being sent back.”

Sending a message

Some migrant families are getting the message so they’re holding off on plans to cross the border, Camarillo said.

“Families are understanding who they let cross and who they are not,” he said.

However, Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen attorney who handles immigration cases, said authorities are also turning back families with children younger than six.

“There’s no magic number,” she said. “They’re sending people back with kids under six as well. Some people get sent back to their home country and some people get sent back to Mexico.”

Migrant children’s numbers down

Meanwhile, authorities are continuing to release migrant children to Catholic Charities in McAllen and Community for Children in Brownsville, Melissa Gutierrez, office manager at Harlingen’s Loaves and Fishes shelter, said.

“In all the shelters, the numbers are going down,” she said. “They’re still receiving families but they have less people.”

Shelter housing fewer migrants

In Harlingen, the Border Patrol continues to release small groups of migrants to Loaves and Fishes.

From Tuesday to Thursday, agents released groups of 15 men from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba, Gutierrez said.

“We’ve been getting two or three people a day pretty steady for about a month,” Bill Reagan, the agency’s executive director, said.

However, the Border Patrol has not been releasing families to Loaves and Fishes, he said.

“The people they are releasing to us now are all men,” Reagan said. “When it began, the people being released to us were families.”

Across the Valley, the area’s shelters are reporting the Border Patrol is releasing fewer numbers of Central American migrants, he said.

“Fewer people are being released than have been before,” he said.

The Loaves and Fishes shelter in Harlingen is seeing few Central American migrants released by the U.S. Border Patrol. Migrant men are being housed in a dining hall. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

COVID-19 threat

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, shelters facing the threat of migrants carrying COVID-19 are testing them for the virus.

At Loaves and Fishes, Reagan’s housing the migrants in a dining hall, where his staff has set up cots.

“The homeless people stay in the shelter,” he said. “They can’t go into the dining hall when we have immigrants in the dining hall. The two groups are completely segregated.”

Since the influx began in mid February, he said, migrants have not transmitted the virus.

From the shelters, migrants’ families help them catch buses or planes as they make their way into the United States to await immigration court hearings on their asylum claims.

March arrests soar

Across the U.S.-Mexico border, the Valley remains the main corridor for Central American migrants.

From October through March, Border Patrol agents detained 52,139 family groups, up from 8,853 during the same period last year, marking a 489-percent increase, according to the agency’s website.

Meanwhile, agents detained 20,964 children traveling without parents or guardians from October through March, up from 6,351 during the same period last year.

From October through March, agents also arrested 86,367 adults, up from 31,308 during the same period last year.

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