McALLEN, RGV – The care and compassion for the stranger that defines the Rio Grande Valley is now on full display at the assistance centers that have been set up for the huge influx of mothers and children from Central America.

So says Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Pimentel has set up two such centers, one in McAllen, four days ago, and the other in Brownsville, yesterday. A third will open soon in Harlingen.

“There is a big heart in the Valley and came alive today and this week. It brings a smile to my face,” Pimentel said, in an interview at the assistance center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.

“From the moment we opened this site the response has been overwhelming. By that first evening the center has been packed with donations of food and clothing and help and people volunteering. One person said, ‘I am the owner of a restaurant. I can prepare as many hot meals as you want, just give me a call.’ The volunteers come with their children. It has been incredible.”

Pimentel said it is “amazing” what social media can do. “I called one lady and she said I will call all my friends. She put it on Facebook and there is a trigger effect. This is the result,” she said, pointing to the food, water and clothing at the McAllen assistance center. “The whole community has learned what we are doing and everyone has rallied round.”

Sister Norma Pimentel points to the clothing available for immigrants at Catholic Charities' assistance center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.
Sister Norma Pimentel points to the clothing available for immigrants at Catholic Charities’ assistance center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.

Sacred Heart Church is just a few blocks from the McAllen bus station. At the bus station, Border Patrol is dropping off sometimes hundreds of immigrants a day, mostly women and children from Central America. They have tickets to get on a bus to go and stay with family around the United States but they are lonely, hungry and need to bathe. This is where Catholic Charities steps in.

“When we have a bus load dropped off, almost all of them women and children, we are able to respond immediately. We have to respond immediately because some of them leave immediately on their journey. We want to make sure they have what they need for their travel,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel said some days there have been a couple of hundred women and children in need of assistance. Other days it has dropped to 50 or so. “At first we were getting all the buses here in McAllen but then they (Border Patrol) decided to take some of the buses to Brownsville and Harlingen. So, we have opened a center in Harlingen and we are planning to open another in Harlingen.”

At the McAllen assistance center, Catholic Charities has about 30 to 50 volunteers working every day. They need volunteers to work around the clock because they never know when Border Patrol is going to drop off another bus load of immigrants. Among the items being offered to the mothers and children are food, bottled water, toiletries, diapers, formula, diaper rash cream, baby clothes, gift cards and phone cards. On Friday, the Salvation Army parked a van outside the bus station and served hamburgers to the immigrants. “The Salvation Army said they want to help. They are providing hot meals. It is fantastic,” Pimentel said.

Juan Mares is shelter manager for the Salvation Army. He said he is pleased to be helping the immigrants.

“We were called about an hour ago to say a bus was arriving. We started cooking the burgers as soon as they called us. One lady said she had not had a good meal in a month. I do not know what the situation is back home but they (the immigrants) are here. They are on our doorstep and we need to help them. Whether they are legal or illegal has nothing to do with us. We are here to help. We are in 127 countries. Whether it is war, flooding, tornados, hurricanes, we are there, that is the mission of the Salvation Army,” Mares said.

Many people around the country are wondering why immigrants from Central America are coming to the United States. Some reports say it is because of the violence occurring in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Some say it is because the immigrants believe the Obama Administration is about to give amnesty to undocumented immigrant children. Pimentel was asked what she has heard from the immigrants.

“We have a golden opportunity to talk to them and to welcome them. We want them to feel the warmth of the community here. They share their story. We asked, what made you come, with all the hardship of this journey? They say, ‘well, the situation in our country is very bad. We fear for our lives. We do not have money because they will steal it from us. Our children are in danger.’ I think that is what brings them here,” Pimentel said.

Asked if the immigrants believe they are going to get amnesty or asylum, Pimentel said: “They do not say this but I think they must have the idea that some form amnesty is going to be given to them because they are allowed to travel. I do not think they understand the concept that because you get the permission to travel that you have amnesty. You have permission to travel but you then proceed with the process of deportation. How can you explain that to them? I do not know what they are hearing in their home countries but it seems as though they are hearing some kind of propaganda that is misleading them. Somebody has started a rumor. This is a man-made disaster and everyone is hurting because of that.”

Asked if human smuggling operations are involved, Pimentel said: “I am sure that human smugglers are part of this because they are paying $3,000, $6,000 for their trip. They are involved in this. They are benefiting from what is happening.”

Pimentel said Catholic Charities could do an even better job if Border Patrol would communicate with them.

“As of now, Border Patrol is not working with us. I wish they would. Unfortunately, we have not established those connections. It is so important that we do. We never know when the buses are coming. It is a guessing game. We wish we could have some sort of coordination.”

Currently, Catholic Charities learns when a bus full of immigrants is arriving at McAllen bus station thanks to the managers at the station. “We have to call the bus station, they are very helpful. If they know a bus is coming they call us. We started at 7:30 this morning. We got a call to say, ‘we have some ladies here, we need your help.’ We will go through midnight if we need to. I have made some attempts to speak to officials with Border Patrol. I am hoping we can soon establish a seat at the table. I know that it is a difficult job for Border Patrol, with the overwhelming number of people that are coming. They do not have the means to respond, we want to be able to help,” Pimentel said.

On Friday, the Rev. Michael Amesse blessed Catholic Charities’ assistance center at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville. Pimentel said she is delighted with the location of the center because it is only half a block from the Brownsville bus station. “It is the perfect location. I just came from there and met with Father Michael and his staff and they work with St. Vincent de Paul. They said, ‘we are here to serve, what do you need?’ Father Michael gave us his blessing and so they are all ready to welcome the stranger.”

Pimentel also praised the City of Harlingen for offering to help. “The City of Harlingen is very keen to work with us and so we are working with the Harlingen Economic Development Office. They want to identify an assistance center site as close to the bus station as possible. They want to respond. That is beautiful, that is what we want.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series on the current immigration situation in the Rio Grande Valley. Click here for Part One. Part Three, featuring an immigrant from Honduras, will be published on Sunday.