Dear Mr. President,
We welcome you to our community here in South Texas along the Rio Grande, which connects the United States to Mexico. I wish you could visit us. Our downtown Humanitarian Respite Center has been welcoming newcomers for the past four years.
When families cross the border, they are typically apprehended by authorities, held for a few days and released with a court date to consider their request for asylum. After they are released, we receive them at our respite center. By the time they find their way to our doors, most adults are wearing Border Patrol-supplied ankle bracelets and carrying bulky chargers to keep those devices powered up.
Helping these families has been our work since 2014, when tens of thousands of people, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley Sector, creating a humanitarian emergency in our community. Before the respite center opened, dozens of immigrant families, hungry, scared and in a foreign land, huddled at the bus station with only the clothes on their back, nothing to eat or drink, and nowhere to shower or sleep. They waited hours and sometimes overnight for their buses.
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley first opened the center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen and worked collaboratively with city officials and other faith denominations and nonprofits, such as the Salvation Army and the Food Bank, to provide newly arrived immigrants with some basic necessities. We have moved to a bigger facility since.
Every day of the year, from morning to evening, families coming over the border are welcomed at our center with smiles, a warm bowl of soup, a shower and a place to rest. Most families are exhausted and afraid, carrying little more than a few belongings in a plastic bag. They come in all forms and at all ages. Few speak any English. Most are in great need of help. Some days, we see 20 people. Other days, it’s closer to 300. In recent weeks, it has been very busy. Some stay a few hours, but many spend the night before heading on to new destinations. Since we opened, more than 100,000 have come through our doors.
We work closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Rio Grande Valley Sector, and our team has cultivated a culture of mutual respect and dialogue. Our center staff, in communication with the Border Patrol, prepares to receive groups of immigrants who have been released. We try to meet the need. It is vital that we keep our country safe, and I appreciate the work of the men and women in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection who are vigilant as to who enters our country. I pray for them daily.
Mr. President, if you come early in the morning, here is what you will see: The families who have spent the night are tidying up their sleeping spaces. Some are sweeping, some are helping prepare breakfast, and some are getting ready for their bus departure to other places in the United States. You will see volunteers arriving to offer a hand either preparing hygiene packets, making sandwiches, cutting vegetables, preparing the soup for the day or sorting through donated clothing. Others may assist with the intake or help a mother or father contact family living in the United States. People come from all over the state and beyond to help.
Later in the day, you will meet some of the children who are playing in our small play yard and the mothers and fathers who are watching over them. Some will be resting, as for many of them this is the first place since they left their home countries where they feel safe.
In the evening, another group of volunteers arrives to cook and serve a simple dinner of pizza or tacos, beans and rice. Sometimes local restaurants donate the dinner. Either way, the families who will remain for the night have a meal and prepare to sleep. In the morning, we send them on their way, a little better off but armed with a sign (that we give them) that reads: “PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHAT BUS DO I TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!”
I am energized each day by the families I meet, especially the children. I am energized as well by the volunteers. They come from our local communities but also from across the United States. We witness daily how, working together, people of all faiths can focus on helping the person in front of us. Regardless of who we are and where we came from, we remain part of the human family and are called to live in solidarity with one another.
As the Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores, bishop of our diocese, says, “We must put human dignity first.”
Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus is director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley.
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