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Humanitarian crisis

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is accepting monetary donations for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in our area.

To make a tax deductible contribution, click here



Editor’s note: The story in our July issue offers a glimpse of the initial days of outreach to the stream of immigrants arriving in the Rio Grande Valley. The story keeps evolving and at press time it was estimated the situation could continue into September.


The Valley Catholic

McALLEN — Scared, tired, hungry, immigrants, mostly mothers with their children, arrive at the McAllen or Brownsville bus station at odd hours with hopes of traveling further to see family members who are waiting for them.

Hundreds of immigrants mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other areas of Central America are arriving daily, dropped off by U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents after being detained and processed. They are given permission to travel on to their final destination with instructions to report to ICE and appear in court. Hundreds of unaccompanied minors are arriving as well in unprecedented numbers.

For two months volunteers by their own prompting have met the immigrants at the bus station to give them something to eat and help them navigate their bus travels. As the numbers escalated, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley responded by opening two assistance centers.

When they arrive at the bus station, “they are scared, they’re hungry, they’re tired,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. “They don’t know who to trust. They fear someone will take advantage of them,” she added.

Sister Pimentel said she went to the bus station herself to talk to immigrants to ease their fears and let them know the volunteers were there to help, “Somos de la iglesia. Estamos aquí para ayudar.” (We are with the Church. We are here to help.)

The first center opened June 10 at Sacred Heart Church in downtown McAllen, which is located near the bus station. Volunteers helped approximately 200 people the first day, and continue to help as new immigrants arrive each day. A second center opened June 13 in the gymnasium across the street from Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville, and a third is planned in Harlingen.

Sister Pimentel said, “The assistance centers are an immediate and temporary response to the need. A long-term solution is needed.” It is uncertain how long the assistance centers will remain open.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores wrote a letter to United States Secretary of State John Kerry in May to give him “an idea of what conditions are like for many, especially the immigrant poor in South Texas.” The bishop wrote, “The Church will do all that we can to address the immediate needs of the women and children. We must stay focused on the needs of the children and those mothers who are with them. They are frightened, in need of food, water, clothing, and in some cases medical attention.”

The bishop said he is grateful for what Catholic Charities has been able to do to help coordinate a Church and community response to a rapidly developing human crisis. “I am also grateful for so many volunteers, Catholics and non-Catholics who have responded with compassion and seek to offer what help they can.”

He added, “Obviously it is important that local government, as well as state and federal jurisdictions act responsibly in addressing the current situation, and it is vital that a spirit of cooperation prevail so that the human needs can be addressed in a way that upholds and respects the human dignity of the immigrant population.”

False information circulating in their native countries led to the growing influx of immigrants. Some of the immigrants are under the false impression that they will receive asylum if they cross into United States with their children.

“They (immigrants) think they are being offered amnesty,” said Sister Pimentel, but in reality ICE “is giving themselves space to breathe.” She said ICE does not have facilities to house families and are overwhelmed by the number of people who are crossing. Many of the women with children are allowing ICE to detain them.

Officials from both the Guatemala and Honduras embassies predicted the recent phenomena. They said the coyotes, those who smuggle immigrants into the United States, are misleading the people and making false promises. They especially concerned about the dangers immigrants confront during their journey.

One young man in his early twenties from Guatemala arrived with his infant child. His wife had been kidnapped in Mexico and he was forced to continue without her.

Roger (his last name is withheld for his safety), 14, who is a U.S. citizen was living with his aunt in Miami, Florida and flew to Honduras in order to cross back with his mother into the United States. It took them four tries before finally crossing the Rio Bravo in the dark. He said he would do it again.

“A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people,” Sister Pimentel said, adding that she and the volunteers are inspired by the response from the community. The minute the call for donations was made via the telephone and social media, people started bringing needed items to the center. One business donated 600 new shoes, and others have since stepped in to provide portable showers.

Some immigrants, who have been traveling for days, sometimes between seven to 20 days without a shower or a change of clothing are relieved to have a place to clean up before they continue on their journey to see a family member they have not seen in years.

The centers are staffed with volunteers who offer food, clothing, toiletries, baby supplies and travel packets, which include supplies for their journey.

Sister Pimentel said she is pleased by the hundreds of volunteers who have come forward to help. One group stays until 1 a.m. cleaning and preparing for the next day. Some volunteers who come with their parents are as young as eight-year-old.

Ivania Molina Melendez, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in McAllen, said she was exhausted by the end of the day, but she was filled with joy from serving the women and their children who came to the center.

She said she and other volunteers are overwhelmed by the stories the women share about their journey. They see them arrive hungry and grateful for a place to rest, grateful for a bag of supplies, grateful for the prayers from strangers before their bus leaves, some in route to Boston, New York City, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago.

Sister Pimentel said, “They come with so many hopes.” It is difficult to know what waits for them, and how long they will remain.

To help with local efforts, Catholic Charities USA is sending additional volunteers and resources from other parts of the country to help with this national crisis. Media from all over the world have descended upon the Rio Grande Valley to cover the story. Sister Pimentel is also making counselors available at the different sites.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is accepting donations of food, bottled water, toiletries, diapers, formula, plain plastic baby bottles, baby juices, Pedialyte, diaper rash cream, gift cards and phone cards.

Material donations are being accepted at the RGV Food Bank due to lack of storage at the centers. The Food Bank is located at 724 N. Cage Blvd. in Pharr. Donations are accepted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Lower Valley residents who cannot travel to Pharr may leave their donations at the gymnasium of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in downtown Brownsville.

Center locations:
Sacred Heart Church (parish hall)
306 S. 15th St., McAllen
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral (gymnasium)
1218 E. Jefferson St., Brownsville
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.