McALLEN, RGV – I arrived at the McAllen refugee camp at 6:30 Monday morning.

The Valley sun was just beginning to light the three solitary barrack-like tents behind the cyclone fence. A little boy emerged briefly with his new backpack and soccer ball, and then ducked back in the tent.

Nothing had prepared me for seeing the camp so starkly rising from the Sacred Heart church parking lot in McAllen. It was sad. At first, it seemed like people were prisoners; but I realized they were safer than they had been for weeks, even months.

Most had traveled two weeks or more by foot, bus, and truck from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador at great risk, exploited at every turn by the coyotes (smugglers), leading them ever further north and charging them from $3,000-$9,000 each, playing on their fears at home, and luring them with fake promises of life in the United States.

James C. Harrington
James C. Harrington

We were one more group of volunteers from around the state and nation to help them transition to wherever they would happen to end up living, often with relatives already in the country, until their immigration hearings begin in a few weeks. Ours was an eclectic group of forty-seven, most from St. James Episcopal in Austin, joined by others from Houston Episcopal churches, two law students, and an entrepreneur.

Our caravan carried food, clothes, and diapers; but people donated so many supplies that a separate truck had to take what would not fit. It was an astonishing ecumenical effort; Christians, Jews, and others filled the atrium of the St. James with provisions.

The refugees we assisted had been in immigration detention for five days before being released to the camp at Sacred Heat, staffed by Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and Save the Children. Volunteers, young and older, from far and wide, of all faiths (and none), staffed the church center every day. Local volunteer doctors were on hand, and lawyers.

Once someone bought a bus ticket for a refugee – and they were all mothers or fathers with small children, they were paroled out to a relative somewhere in the country. They arrived to await departure of the bus that day or the next.

As refugees came into the center, the volunteers would clap, as much to extend a warm welcome as to applaud their courage and honor dangerous journey. They received a meal of chicken soup and fruit, bathed, traded their clothes and shoes for some donated ones, and received a tote bag with food, supplies, and a toy and kid’s book for the trip.

Three babies were born during the time we worked there. I spoke with an eight-month pregnant woman, who had spent 22 days walking and riding across Mexico, with her two-year-old daughter. Most were reluctant to talk about their journeys. One woman did tell me in front of her son that she was fleeing her violent husband, who tried to kill her.

I listened to a lawyer inform a group about applying for asylum and that, even with an attorney, it was about 50-50. Most won’t find attorneys, and the probability drops to 10 percent. I wondered what the people thought, after all they had gone through, about having to go back to the grinding poverty and random violence they had fled, at enormous risk and cost.

Then, we went out to wait for the bus. Eight women with ten children and two babies, all in line, looking a bit scared of where the next part of their journey would take them – but determined that their families escape the lot they had drawn in life. No hyperbolic governor or threat of National Guard was going to stop them. The suffering is too great. They were like my Irish ancestors, I figured.

I watched them get on the bus and felt like crying, as I had Monday morning.

James Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project