SAN ANTONIO – Bus stations in border states, such as the one in downtown San Antonio, have come to represent the nation’s new Ellis Island, in a sense.
For decades, millions of immigrants who entered the U.S. were processed below the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island.
At the Greyhound bus station on St. Mary’s Street, thousands of immigrants -- most of them asylum seekers -- have been dropped off in buses by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
At the bus station, volunteers with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition are the first to greet them.
“That’s the first time that mother, father, child has someone smile at them and say, ‘Welcome, bienvenidos,'" said Lenna Baxter, the coalition's co-chairperson.
Baxter said the volunteers help the families get their bearings by going over their travel plans and giving them toiletries, snacks for the trip ahead and coloring books for the children.
Baxter said they also direct the immigrants to legal resources in the cities where they’re going.
Baxter said the volunteers can tell there’s been a large increase in the number of immigrants just by the number of backpacks they’ve given out. They give one to each family. She said they’ve handed out more than 16,000 backpacks since the beginning of the year, compared to just over 4,900 last year.
Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for ICE, confirmed that more families have been released over the past few weeks, but that's not due to the caravan. Rather, increased apprehensions at the border and limitations on how long families can be held in detention have caused the increase in the number of releases.
Pruneda sent KSAT the following statement:
"Over the past few weeks, in response to rising arrest numbers, ICE has increased its number of releases from our two Texas family residential centers. These releases are part of normal ICE operations. Before releasing families, ICE reviews their cases individually. Currently, due to the increased workload, ICE is diverting local resources to augment these residential centers to efficiently accommodate the increased operational workflow. ICE operational activities are continuing without interruption at this time."
"It tells me that they’re trying to make room for the next group that’s coming through,” Baxter said.
As plans are announced to send 5,000 military troops to the border, the government also is weighing how to further restrict asylum seekers.
“That is so not who we are," Baxter said.
She said plans are being made by the faith community to meet the caravan if and when it reaches the border.
“There will be people there to welcome them because they need to see that,” Baxter said.
Sarah Rodriguez, with ICE, sent KSAT the following statement:
"After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the U.S. As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions. To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the timeframe allotted to the government, ICE began curtailing all reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended along the southwest border on Tuesday, October 23. Family units that are released will be enrolled in a form of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention or released on another form of supervision. Aliens will be issued a Notice to Appear in immigration court, as appropriate. ICE continues to work with local and state officials and NGO partners in the area so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation or other services."