Migrants accuse well-established Laredo non-profit of taking advantage of the border crisis

Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 10:22 PM CST
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LAREDO, TX. (KGNS) - The migrant crisis at the U.S./Mexico border has been brewing for years and looks to have no end in sight.

As part of the response to the influx, cities like Laredo have left it up to non-profits to handle the humanitarian aspect. But questions have arisen about one organization and whether they’re taking advantage of the situation.

For almost a year now, since March 2022, the KGNS On Your Side team has been investigating allegations made against the Holding Institute of Laredo. Many people have spoken to KGNS saying the organization is taking advantage of the people they’re meant to help: the migrants.

Before airing the story, KGNS reached out to the non-profit to hear their side, but they refused to comment.

The Holding Institute of Laredo has had a long history in Laredo. It was originally established in the 1800s as a school, situated in the heart of the city. Over the last few years, the facility has become a refuge for those seeking asylum, and while the organization is best known to the local community as a humanitarian center, to others it’s something much different.

The community center has a promotional video on its website that states, “The Holding Institute is a place where everybody’s welcome. No one’s ever turned away.”

When KGNS asked one migrant staying at the Holding Institute if the organization gave them anything to eat, they responded in Spanish by saying, “No, there wasn’t even anything to drink, not even water. There wasn’t even an opportunity to go to the bathroom. It was horrible, really horrible.” The video on their website goes on to say the Holding Institute is “a full-fledged community center that offers counseling, food, medical assistance” and that they “want to make sure people don’t leave this place empty.”

According to many migrants and people close to the non-profit’s busing operations who we spoke to, the organization is charging $100 per rider for a bus ticket to San Antonio, Texas.

When many of these migrants found out about cheaper transportation options available in Laredo, they told KGNS they felt taken advantage of. One migrant in Spanish said, “they partially robbed us. Everyone – we’re almost 60 people” while another said they felt “betrayed.”

According to the migrants we spoke to, they were told by the non-profit that they are the best option in town.

“They never explained anything else to us,” one migrant said. Another said that the Holding Institute told them that their trip would be cheaper with them, saying that “immigration authorizes [the Holding Institute] to sell us the tickets and as migrants, we can buy them and then we can get out of here since they will give us our papers.”

“[The Holding Institute] said it’s the cheaper option for us,” said one migrant who came to the United States. He added that the organization said, “it’s the only option available that’s cheaper and more accessible to get to San Antonio.”

One family we witnessed leaving the non-profit’s downtown facility said they were afraid of not using their bus services.

“I’m going back because they told me if I didn’t, they would make a notation, and that when we go to our court appointment, there would be a notation that we didn’t comply with the requirements they made.”

This isn’t the case for everyone, KGNS spoke to others who say they were told of other options in Laredo.

Surrounding the Holding Institute’s downtown office are multiple bus companies like Greyhound and Tornado that we found charge riders, at most, $50 dollars for a ticket to San Antonio.

Brian Flood is a bus driver with Aguila Express who first brought the situation to light by asking the question: [Is the Holding Institute] helping the migrants, or are they helping their own pockets?

“If they’re making $100 per rider, and you’ve got four to eight buses a day with 63 passengers—that’s $6,300 per trip,” he said. “Do the math. That’s a hell of a lot of money going in and out, and somebody’s making money.”

Flood says he’s done his best to warn migrants and even the federal government about his belief that the non-profit is taking advantage of the situation. Here is an exchange between Flood and the agents working at the migrants processing tent facility in south Laredo:

According to agents at the tent facility, they only release migrants to organizations they have an agreement with. KGNS filed an open-records request to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get access to any agreement between them.

In response, CBP said that the tent facility in Laredo does not fall under its purview and ICE said they have no record of an agreement with the non-profit on file.

So, the question remains: is there an agreement with the federal government or not? It’s a question the Holding Institute has not answered.

Every day, the non-profit works with different bus lines to pick up migrants from the tent facility, and then the busload of migrants is taken to the non-profit’s downtown building and their shelter in El Cenizo, Texas.

The Holding Institute rents vans and buses from roughly eight bus companies. KGNS knows of one company in particular that is not authorized to transport, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The company also has no insurance on file. We tried contacting the company to ask about their operations but were unsuccessful.

Some of the other companies we’ve kept track of are using buses that have previously had violations such as “no or defective bus emergency exits” and an “oil and/or grease leak.”

It’s unknown how much money the Holding Institute is making on the bus trips. The executive director of the Holding Institute, Pastor Mike Smith, and chairman Jaime Arizpe Sr. declined to answer our questions.

However, what we do know is that according to their tax return from 2020, the Holding Institute received over $401,000 in contributions and grants between September 2019 and August 2020. Often, these funds come from sources like the federal, state, and local governments.

While their tax returns for 2021 are not yet visible, we do know that they’ve received money from entities like the city of Laredo, including a recent $45,000 grant to go towards the shelter’s homeless and migrant family reunification, as well as food and water.

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