MCALLEN, RGV – Members of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation say they were deeply moved by what they saw and heard after meeting with Central American asylum-seekers in McAllen.

More than 20 members and supporters of the nonprofit group made a two-day trip to the Rio Grande Valley. They were taken to dinner by local businessman Alonzo Cantu and held a prayer breakfast with Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV). 

While the prayer breakfast was going on, an immigrant family was sleeping on blankets in the corner of the same large room at CCRGV’s humanitarian respite center.

“Rallies are great, protests are important. But to physically and emotionally and spiritually connect with these (immigrant) families gives you a unique perspective, one we can take to other parts of the country,” said Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. 

Jose Antonio Tijerino

Established by the White House in 1987, HHF is a 501(c)3 award-winning nonprofit that seeks to “identify, inspire, prepare and position Latino leaders in the classroom, community and workforce to meet America’s priorities.” It is headquartered in Washington, DC and has offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.

HHF has been helping Pimentel and her humanitarian respite center since 2014, when a so-called “surge” of unaccompanied minors from Central America came across the Rio Grande. The purpose of this week’s visit, Tijerino said, was to hear the stories of parents and children that have left their homeland in Central America for fear of persecution.

“We wanted to be able to share their journey, and also to welcome them to this country,” Tijerina said. “This is one of the big things we need to do, to welcome them to this country, the same thing that it says at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, to lift your lamp by the golden door is what we are trying to do here.”

Tijerina said HHF is developing a strong bond with the Valley. Through a myriad of networks across the country, the group’s members, many of them young and emerging leaders in the corporate and nonprofit sectors, plan to assist the region as it helps assimilate new immigrants. 

“I love this area, the Rio Grande Valley. I love being able to come in here. The great work that is being done by Sister Norma, we have been supporting her since 2014. Being greeted by Alonzo Cantu, who took us all out to dinner last night, listening to the stories of the families, this has been a great visit,” Tijerina said.

Asked what happens next, Tijerina said:

“We are going to raise money so that Sister Norma can get the respite center to be able to accommodate these families in a more comfortable and efficient and a more effective way. So, one is we are fundraising. 

“Two, is telling their stories, being ambassadors for these families, to welcome immigrants into this country and welcome refugees into this country that are seeking asylum for reasons that we would do as well if we had the same situations. 

“You hit the lottery and you are born into this country into very different circumstances. That is by chance, or by the grace… helping others that don’t have that opportunity, is what we are all here to do.”

Norma Cardenas’ perspective

Norma Cardenas

Norma Cardenas is the wife of Tony Cardenas, the U.S. Representative for the 29th Congressional District in California. For two days she swapped the San Fernando Valley for the Rio Grande Valley as part of the HHF visit.

Asked why she came, Cardenas said: 

“In California, all over the place, people want something tangible to be able to do to be able to help with the situation here. It is more than just separating families. There are people being affected emotionally and mentally. These are asylum-seekers who are being treated like prisoners. They are being processed like prisoners and we are having these after-effects that nobody is paying attention to.”

Cardenas said HHF’s network of members and supporters can help.

“We have a great network. I got invited by Jose Tijerina. We are mixing our resources and networks so we can bring more resources to Sister Norma in more of a direct effect. It will be more immediate,” Cardenas said.

“The more resources these (immigrant) families have, the better the assimilation they are going to have. They are coming into a country they do not know. But, they are here because they need safety. That is different than someone coming here for a better life. We really need to pay attention to the people that are coming here as refugees. They are refugees and we have to respect that. This is the United States. This is what we are here for.”

Cardenas was one of many HHF members and supporters who told the Rio Grande Guardian they had been moved by what they saw.

“We spoke to the families. We spoke to the children. We saw them come in after they were processed. They had no shoelaces, they were still in dirty clothes. They were treated like prisoners. These are people seeking asylum. That is not cool. That is not the way it should be. They are going through a system that is mandated by one person. That is it.”

Asked what impressed her the most about the visit, Cardenas said: “The biggest thing for me is that it gives me so much hope and joy to see that there are so many people in the higher platforms willing to extend their resources to make a difference. For me, that is a big deal. This is what we need to get back to. We need to get back to the basics of bringing a lot of love and compassion and peace to all the things that we do, so it spreads that kind of vibration versus being distracted by what is going on in the media.”

Cardenas added: “As caregivers, we want to feel like we are giving and that it is productive and that it is going somewhere. Being here, literally speaking to Sister Norma about what she needs, we are taking that information back to our networks and our communities and letting them know, this is what she needs.”

Alejandro Velez’s perspective

Alejandro Velez

Alejandro Velez is an HHF member from San Francisco and an entrepreneur in the natural and organic food industry. Although his fiancé lives in Monterrey, Mexico, this was Velez’s first visit to the Rio Grande Valley.

“We really reached a peak of dehumanizing this tough experience with the change in policy to separate families but I think there is a lot more depth to it than that. This has been happening for years, rape, suffering, the pain of wanting to seek asylum in this country,” Velez said.

“That has been happening and it is going to continue to happen so we have got to remember that when some of the media goes away. We have got to be here and support.”

Asked what he will be doing next, Velez said: “I have a food company. The first thought that comes to mind is, let’s donate food but it is very clear we can do much more. There is a $5 million building they (Catholic Charities RGV) are looking to build, with $2 million raised already. How do we gather my community to help with that?”

Monica Ramirez leads Alianza Nacional De Campesinas, or the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance. A third-generation Mexican-American, her great grandparents came to the United States through South Texas. 

“My family worked for many years as farmworkers, traveling around the country. For me, I just feel very strongly that everyone deserves the opportunity to be safe, and to live with dignity and to be free of all forms of violence and oppression,” Ramirez said, following the prayer breakfast.

“My family came this country for a better opportunity and we have had a better life because of it. These families deserve this opportunity as well. People that come from immigrant families and backgrounds, we don’t just receive better opportunities, we also help make this country better. That has to be front and center when we are talking about immigrants coming to this nation. Immigrants don’t just take from this nation, immigrants give.”

Ramirez added: “This issues is not about politics. It is about humans and lives. We all need to care about what happens to other individuals. Politics has to be put aside at this moment because this is about mothers and children and families who are just trying to survive. We have an obligation to have human compassion towards one another.”