McALLEN — To see the changing face of immigration, drop by this city’s main bus terminal, where several times a day unmarked coaches pull up and drop off exhausted mothers, fathers and children.
No longer is it a young man sneaking in across the Rio Grande to look for work. Now it's parents seeking out the Border Patrol with their children and willingly surrendering in hopes of getting amnesty.
But to get a gauge of how McAllen is adjusting, walk down three blocks to Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
“We greet them at the door,” said Ofelia de los Santos, a church volunteer who was welcoming another group of immigrants recently released by the U.S. government. “All the volunteers you see around me gather together and we announce it on the microphone and we give them a big applause and we welcome them to God’s house.”
In less than a month, the church set up tents with cots, the community collected countless clothes, and Hidalgo County brought in portable showers for the broken families who've made it this far.
“They’re not lawbreakers,” de los Santos said. “They’re just people trying to make a better life for themselves. Would you pick death, or would you pick life?”
U.S. immigration officials started quietly dropping off undocumented immigrants at McAllen’s main bus terminal earlier this year. These are individuals the agency doesn’t have room to hold.
The church just found out about the immigration system’s daily buses last month. But already in the first 20 days, Sacred Heart has helped more than 4,000 Central Americans of all ages; the oldest was 97 and the youngest was just two days old.
“There was a 15-year-old girl, pregnant, she had no money. I had enough money to help her," said Omar, 32, who gave only his first name. "I bought her juice and cookies. I believe they’re going to send her to her mother, who’s here in the United States."
He and his son Christian, 14, went to the church for a shower, a change of clothes, and some rest.
On their way north recently, the father and son said they saw other children traveling alone on buses and trains.
“There were some younger than me and some older than me traveling without their parents,” Christian said.
Omar and Christian escaped the crumbling society in Honduras, where drug traffickers and cartels have gradually taken over in the last decade.
“The country has a lot of delinquency, the kids can’t study, the bad students will corrupt them and show them things, and the economy is bad,” Omar explained.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said up to a thousand parents and children surrender to agents each day in South Texas.
Omar said many people have heard rumors of amnesty once arriving in the states.
“I heard that if you brought a minor child and it was your son or daughter, they would let you stay,” he said.
"No matter what your age, you are not going to get legal papers. There is no 'permiso.' There is no permission to stay," said Gil Kerlikowske, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, last week.
Fighting rumors is costing the United States a million dollars this summer. That's how much it's spending on television commercials that will air in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The ads warn that not only is it dangerous to get here illegally, but there is no amnesty.
But that’s where the system sends a mixed message.
A few hours after interviewing Omar and Christian, they boarded a bus to Delaware — not Honduras. U.S. Immigration officials gave them a court date in Texas and released them.
Christian said he plans to enroll at a school on the East Coast; Omar hopes to work at a pizzeria.
They said the worst is now behind them, but the same can't be said for the growing crisis this country faces on its southern border.