MCALLEN, RGV – The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen is currently assisting around 700 asylum seekers a day, according to the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Sister Norma Pimentel spoke to the Rio Grande Guardian at a ceremony to bless the group’s new respite center. The blessing was conducted by Auxiliary Bishop Mario A. Avilés.

The new center is larger than the current one, on Hackberry Avenue, McAllen. The address of the new center is 111 S. 15th Street in McAllen. It is just across the street from the city’s downtown bus station.

Asked how many people are being helped at the current respite center, Pimentel said: “It is pretty high. We are hitting almost 700 every day. It is a lot of people to look after but we are getting help from all over the United States.”

The first major surge in Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States started in 2014. Pimentel said that since that date, Catholic Charities RGV has helped more than 150,000 individuals. 

“Half of those, if not more, have been children. Every parent comes with one, two or three children. Fifty-two percent, for sure, are children under the age of eight or ten years old,” Pimentel said.

The new center has been provided by the City of McAllen. The property has been leased by the city from McAllen businesswoman Monica Weisberg-Stewart with a view to an outright purchase if federal funding comes through.

Asked how many migrants the new center will be able to cater for, Pimentel said:

“The capacity is so big. The sky is the limit. The city will definitely help. I think it goes beyond a thousand. It is really a very large facility. We could up have to a 1,000.”

The asylum seekers Catholic Charities RGV assists are dropped off at the group’s center by Border Patrol and ICE. Most of them have crossed the Rio Grande without papers and turned themselves in to the authorities. After being processed at a Border Patrol facility they are taken by mini-bus to the humanitarian respite center. There, the migrants can take a shower, out on a change of clothes, have a hot meal, and a night’s rest, should they wish. After this they catch a bus from McAllen’s downtown station and head off to be with family or friends around the country. 

Pimentel said Border Patrol and ICE have been taking some of the processed asylum seekers to Brownsville and Harlingen so as to ease the pressure on McAllen.

“They are doing their best to distribute them. They are even flying them to San Diego, California.”

Pimentel said the number of migrants staying with Catholic Charities could shrink in the coming weeks due to new policies from the Trump administration. The plan is for the asylum seekers to be sent back to Mexico until further notice.

“With the new policies, I am sure things will change, as they have through the different years, as they implement the different policies and procedures. The numbers may drop,” Pimentel acknowledged.

“The stay-in-Mexico policy may be implemented here in the Valley very soon and that may bring the numbers down. We will continue to provide this care as long as the families are here.”

Sanctuary City status

Among the VIPs to speak at the blessings ceremony were McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and state Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. The Rio Grande Guardian asked Pimentel, Darling and Hinojosa to respond to the claims of some local residents that the city’s heavy involvement in caring for the asylum seekers means McAllen has effectively become a sanctuary city.

“We are responding to what we see here at the border. We work together as community, with law enforcement, Border Patrol, ICE, the city government, the churches, we come together and work together to respond to the needs we see before us, here on the ground,” Pimentel said, when asked about McAllen becoming a sanctuary city.

“The families we see are being released by Border Patrol and ICE. They are allowed to continue the legal process somewhere else in the United States, so we form part of that next step so these families are protected and they are guided so they can continue that process they need to follow.”

The issue of whether McAllen is, indeed, a sanctuary city has flared up in a local election. McAllen City Commissioner John Ingram narrowly failed to claim an outright victory in the May city elections. He came up just a vote short of securing 50 percent plus one of the votes. Ingram blamed News Talk 710 KURV for his loss.

“KURV ran commercials saying I voted to make McAllen a sanctuary city. That is an outright lie. That cost me my victory. KURV cost me my victory,” Ingram told the Rio Grande Guardian.

The ads on KURV were purchased by local activist and former McAllen City Commission candidate Tim Wilkins, not by Ingram’s challenger, Seby Haddad. KURV did not respond to a request for comment on Ingram’s remarks.

Asked if McAllen was, indeed, a sanctuary city, Mayor Darling said:

“I do not want to here any stuff about sanctuary cities, that is pretty ridiculous. If you watch whoever is going to drop them (asylum seekers) off at Hackberry, those are federal employees dropping them off. This is an extension of the federal service. It is Border Patrol, CBP. Our police department actually houses federal prisoners under contract, I go to briefings with the chief of Border Patrol, pretty frequently, we meet with CBP once a month at the bridges.”

Darling pointed out that the Hidalgo International Bridge, which McAllen co-owns with the City of Hidalgo, is choked down to one lane for southbound vehicles. Darling said the barricades had to go up because migrants, many of whom are reportedly from Cuba and Venezuela, were running against the traffic to make it onto U.S. soil. Once there they can claim asylum.

“We have 10,000 crossings a day and we are choked down. We cooperate with the federal government but, by the same token, now our bridge is down to one lane. Think about the wait times and all the commerce, 10,000 people per day,” Darling said.

“So, when people say we are a sanctuary city, I say, that is such a ridiculous a statement I do not want to address is. Not only do we house federal prisoners in our jail under contract with the government, we are trying to make sure we do not have that illegal activity going on (at the Hidalgo International Bridge).”

There was talk of city commissioners passing a resolution that states McAllen is NOT a sanctuary city. Darling said such a resolution was unnecessary. “Let’s not make it more political than it already is. Why do you have to pass a resolution if you are not something?” Darling asked.

Darling reiterated that those coming to the humanitarian respite center are being dropped off by the federal government.

“If you stand outside of here, the first load of people from Central America that will be dropped off here will be dropped off by the United States of America government, asking for our help in getting them to where they need to go. If anybody still wants to say we are a sanctuary city, well, God Bless ‘Em.”

Asked when the City of McAllen will purchase the new humanitarian respite center, Darling said: “We are in the process of purchasing it – if we get the Federal Transit Authority money. If we do not get the money we will lease it.”

Asked when Catholic Charities RGV will have its own respite center, Darling said: “In 18 months. Then, we will move the transit people down here and have a downtown division. We still think our downtown is valuable and this will be a great location for that.”

Darling added: “It is kind of ironic. I know the president is trying to do something (about immigration reform) but even when he had a Republican-controlled government he couldn’t get it done. That is Congress’s problem. I thought it ironic when he said he would slap a tariff on Mexico to make sure they control their southern border, we cannot even control one lane on an international bridge. That is how complicated it is.”

Sen. Hinojosa was interviewed after the blessing of the new humanitarian respite center.

“These families, through no fault of their own, are here in America. We are all family. We can not neglect them once they get here. We provide them with clothes and water. We bath them, give them healthcare, health checkups. It is a humanitarian crisis that we face,” Hinojosa said.

“For us as a community, as a family, we have reason to treat every person with dignity and respect. In other parts of the state, other regions of the state, in other parts of the country, they know where McAllen is, they know where the Rio Grande Valley is. We are people that are willing to help and give from our own resources to help provide support and dignity for these families.”

Asked to defend his remark that the asylum seekers are here through no fault of their own, when they came voluntarily and entered the United States without a visa, Hinojosa said: 

“That is one heck of a sacrifice. If my sons or daughters were threatened with death or being kidnapped or being forced into gangs, I as a father would do anything within my means to help them survive and find a way to provide a better life for their families.”

Asked if McAllen was now operating as a sanctuary city, Hinojosa said:

“Sanctuary cities is just a term used for political purposes. I do not think sanctuary cities are in the Valley or any place in the United States of America. It is a political term that is use as rhetoric in campaigns to bring out the worst in people. The reality is there are no sanctuary cities. We all in this together. We all have to work on this together. We are a great country and we are better than that; to start calling certain states, certain cities, certain communities cities sanctuaries. Pitting them against other communities.”

Hinojosa added: “Immigration is difficult. We need to continue to help. I am very proud of Catholic Charities, Sister Norma, Mayor Jim Darling and the bishop for contributing in one way or another to the well-being of these families.”

Sister Pimentel was asked for a wrap-up remark.

“We have come together as a community. I am talking about everybody, every single faith denomination has been part of this effort, doctors, lawyers, universities, law enforcement, everybody has been part of this effort in wanting to respond as a community. This is not about one entity, the Catholic Church, it is about everybody, it is about us as a community,” Pimentel said.

“My hope is to make sure this space truly is a place dignified for the families to receive the care they need, before they go on to their final destination. So, thank you to so many people in the community, both here locally and throughout the United States who have stepped up and said, I care, I want to help. I say thank you to you.”