Unsecured Border: Catholic Charities Helps Weary Border Crossers in South Texas

By Jerry Kammer on July 1, 2014

Read and view our entire Unsecured Border Series

Introductory Comment: On several occasions this blog has criticized the Catholic Church's position on immigration, especially its position on illegal immigration. But last week I was proud as a Catholic to see the effort that Catholic Charities has mobilized to meet the basic human needs — for food, clothing, shelter, and compassion — of Central Americans released by the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.

Looking weary and worn, a group of four women and six children walked slowly into the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, last week. They looked up in surprise to see that they were being welcomed with applause by the dozens of volunteers mobilized by Catholic Charities to help them transition from detention to the long bus rides they will soon take, traveling to relatives across the United States.

"We're basically providing a place for the immigrants who are coming through to catch a breath, to take a rest, to receive a meal, and take some supplies as they continue their journey," said Brenda Nettles Riojas, who was working at the shelter. In her regular job, she is editor of The Valley Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

Brownsville, 60 miles to the southeast of McAllen, is the home of Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Sister Norma explained how she and her staff learned about the mounting humanitarian crisis in McAllen, where the Border Patrol has been detaining thousands of OTMs (illegal immigrants from countries "other than Mexico") and then releasing them to travel on to relatives or friends across the United States.

Nearly all board buses at the sprawling terminal a few blocks from the parish hall, which houses about a dozen bus lines that travel across Mexico and the United States.

"People were seeing large numbers of families being dropped off at the bus station in very poor condition," Sister Norma said. " Families in the community started to become aware of this and started to reach out to help. When that happened, the bus station became chaotic. Then I got a call and they asked if I could help."

Now, just a few weeks after that call, Sister Norma is presiding over a remarkable effort that has been supported by other religious denominations, the City of Brownsville, and such organizations as Save the Children. It is using social media to list items in short supply, such as one calling for children's sweaters, men's tennis shoes, children's Tylenol, women's socks and undergarments, and deodorant.

The number of OTMs crossing the border illegally in the Rio Grande Valley has climbed slowly since 2011. But a few months ago, their numbers spiked. Suddenly there was a flood of Central Americans pushed north by desperation in their home countries and by stories that have spread like wildfire about the amazing opportunity to be admitted to the United States simply by crossing the border and turning oneself in to the Border Patrol.

The reasons for the abrupt surge are unclear. But Ofelia de los Santos, whose work with the OTMs at the parish hall has taken her away from her regular job as director of the diocese's Office of Jail Ministry, has a theory.

"To me it was a perfect example of a tipping point," said de Los Santos. "The word spread slowly — 'Come to the U.S., the land of opportunity!' Then it was suddenly a lot more."

Said Brenda Nettles Riojas, "I think they're hearing that this is an opportunity right now to cross, especially if you cross with children. So I think that's why we're seeing the numbers increase. They feel like this is the time to do it."

If you want to make a donation to support the work of Catholic Charities, you can do so here. Or you can send a check to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley; 955 West Price Road; Brownsville, TX 78520