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A woman in El Paso is trying to unite migrants with the pets they had to leave behind

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Some asylum-seekers arriving to the southern border are doing so with their dogs, but when they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, they're separated from their beloved pet. Enter Ruby Montana. She's helping to reunite the dogs and their families. Reporter Angela Kocherga paid a visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: It's a sunny afternoon. And Lupe, a miniature white poodle, is enjoying a walk through a quiet El Paso neighborhood.

RUBY MONTANA: Oh, my gosh. She loves walks.

KOCHERGA: That's Ruby Montana holding the leash.

MONTANA: She definitely has learned quite a few words in English. I can't say the word walk unless it's walk time.

KOCHERGA: Montana runs the Bridge Pup Rescue group that helps dogs along the U.S.-Mexico border. Lupe is from Venezuela. Her family brought her with them on their more than 2,700-mile trek to El Paso to seek asylum this fall.

OLDIMAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Oldimar, Lupe's owner, says a swamp they crossed in the treacherous Darien Gap was up to their hips. She asked us not to use her full name because her immigration case is pending. Oldimar says they waded through water for 6 hours.

OLDIMAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: She says her 14-year-old daughter ditched her suitcase with all of her belongings from Venezuela to carry Lupe on her shoulders. The family got the dog as a puppy and never considered leaving her behind when they fled. Montana with Bridge Pups remembers getting a call about them from the U.S. Border Patrol one night.

MONTANA: This agent said, you know, this family just made it all the way from Venezuela. Their dog is going to be taken from them. They're hysterical.

KOCHERGA: Animals are not allowed in Border Patrol processing facilities. Here in El Paso, Border Patrol officials say agents call the city's already overcrowded animal shelter for pickup. Some reach out to Montana's rescue group like they did in this case. She started to get calls about dogs like Lupe last summer when more Venezuelan migrants began showing up at the border. After people are released from Border Patrol custody to await immigration hearings, they try to get their dogs back. In Lupe's case, the family was quickly put on a bus that they eventually found out was bound for New York City. Only then were they able to call Montana, and they were frantic.

MONTANA: Incredibly emotional. Wanted to know where Lupe was. Was she OK? Did I have her?

KOCHERGA: The family is still in New York and video chats with Montana often to see Lupe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

MONTANA: Hola.

OLDIMAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: The dog sits on Montana's lap and looks at the screen.

OLDIMAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Pets aren't allowed where the family is staying.

MONTANA: I have promised them that I am more than happy to keep Lupe for as long as necessary even if that means forever.

KOCHERGA: Montana has reunited four dogs with their families in recent months, like Simba, a little terrier mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTANA: Here we go, Simba (laughter).

KOCHERGA: Montana recorded as Simba and her family ran towards each other in the El Paso airport. After being released by Border Patrol, this family was also headed to New York City to wait on their asylum case but not without their dog.

MONTANA: These dogs are part of their family. They're not objects to be taken like a sweatshirt or a jacket. And it's just cruel to not have a set policy or procedure in place.

KOCHERGA: Instead, it's only happening because caring Border Patrol agents, the city shelter and Montana all work together to help people who migrate and their dogs stay together. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Angela Kocherga