HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) – Elmer Maldonado spent a week in immigration custody with his one-year-old son after crossing the Rio Grande through Texas to seek asylum. One night the Honduran father and his son slept on the dirt under a bridge, shivering from the cold temperatures at a reception point where large groups of migrants face the border guards.

His experience illustrates a cycle that is repeated a thousand times a week amid a dramatic increase in migrant children and families on the US-Mexico border: dozens of them arrive in the middle of the night and are then held at outdoor reception centers well beyond the time limit set by the court Taken to overcrowded detention centers for 72 hours. From there, the families are either released to the USA or deported to Mexico, the lucky ones are handed over to a COVID-19 test center with documents. Children traveling without their parents go to federal shelters, which also fill up quickly.

The process is largely out of the public eye. The Associated Press was not admitted to any of the Border Patrol facilities. Journalists are often restricted by authorities even when visiting the banks of the Rio Grande to witness the process and speak to immigrants.

Immigration authorities have prevented Associated Press journalists from approaching popular border crossings, an outdoor pick-up point and prohibitions on several occasions in the past few days.

One recent afternoon, Maldonado, 40, of Olancho, Honduras, lay on the lower couch of a bunk bed in a Harlingen, Texas accommodation where migrants stay before taking buses or flights to other U.S. destinations. His son woke up crying and coughing, and he hugged him to his chest and rocked him back to sleep.

“He’s caught a cold since the night we were out,” he said. “We were shaking. For a moment I thought my body wouldn’t heat up. “

After the discharge, the father-son duo could shower and put on new clothes. The shelter donated diapers to his son. When the boy got up, he grabbed a container of chicken nuggets, which he tried and quickly tossed aside, rather a small juice box.

Biden’s government says it is working to combat the surge in migrants coming to the border. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden hired Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House’s efforts on the US southern border and work with Central American nations to address the root causes of migration. The government also issued a statement saying it will provide a daily list of immigrant children detained.

According to the government, almost 5,000 children were in custody by the border patrol and another 11,551 in emergency shelters operated by the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, three groups of migrants with young children were seen on a short helicopter flight with Texas state troops over the Rio Grande Valley on unpaved trails in the bushes north of the river. Boys jumped up and down, waving in apparent excitement to see the helicopters soar.

“When he saw the helicopter, he said, ‘Papa, papa, papa,'” Maldonado recalled his boy saying. “He’s happy when he sees exciting new things. Sometimes he hears loud noises and it scares him, he’s still little and doesn’t understand much. “

Victor Escalon, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Security, says he is concerned the more people are smuggled across the Rio Grande, the more opportunities for criminal organizations to thrive in the region.

“As a parent, as a person, you want to make sure that (migrant children) are looked after. They are children. You don’t know any other way, ”he said. “But the more people you bring with you, the more people in charge of coordinating the criminal element and drug smuggling will be looking for opportunities.”

Escalon says the busiest immigrant corridor currently in Texas is from La Joya in the east to Roma in the west, where Associated Press journalists observed what appeared to be smugglers taking people across the river in rubber dinghies early Wednesday. Most of the migrants were women who carried sleeping babies and toddlers in their arms or on their backs. Officials in other sectors also see an increasing overload of their capacities.

One of the migrants who recently arrived was Magdalena Banegas from Yoro, Honduras. She was released after just one day in detention and received a small package from border guards before being dropped off at a coronavirus testing facility in McAllen. One page had her name, photo and fingerprint, which testified that she was arrested on Sunday, and another said she had been given a “release order for surveillance” but no date to appear in court.

Banegas, 23, was puzzled to see other migrant families traveling from the border to other US cities were dating. She flew from McAllen to Houston while her toddler knocked and looked out the airplane window. Then she got a connection to New York, where her aunt lives.

She wasn’t sure what was coming next.

“I don’t know where to go or what to do now,” said Banegas.