McAllen, Texas – Four women sat on plastic chairs assembled in a perfect line inside a tent that shook furiously as a thunderstorm began to roll in. They clutched newly acquired documents they received from the U.S. Border Patrol and they waited for the volunteer legal aid to begin informing them of their immigration rights.
The women were strangers to each other. They were from different countries and had different destinations in mind. One was about to travel to New York City and another was headed to San Diego.
For now, they were in the same place: Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas.
A recent influx of young migrants and their families into the border town has sparked media attention and robust national debate. Most of the men, women and children crossing the border are from Latin America and are hoping to escape the escalated violence in their countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Border Patrol agents in the area have detained the migrants, who have entered the United States illegally. They are then processed and if they are from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, they are allowed to continue their journey north primarily by bus to their final destination. There they will stand trial in immigration court to see whether they may remain in the United States.
After Border Patrol agents process the migrants, they are taken to the bus stop and that’s when Catholic Charities RGV steps in.
Ofelia de los Santos, public information officer for Catholic Charities RGV, said volunteers approach the migrants and ask if they need assistance purchasing tickets and if they want to go to the Catholic Charities shelter before the bus arrives.
“Volunteers are alerted that families are coming and we clap for them to welcome them and tell them that they’re in God’s house,” said de los Santos. “People break down and cry because it’s the first time they feel that people care.”
The migrants travel through many countries before arriving in the United States. Along the way they often encounter abuse, theft and violence sometimes at the hands of transnational criminal gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
“A mother came through last night and said they killed her husband, then her brother and then they killed his other brother and then they were going after her son,” said de los Santos.
The threat of violence is a reality for many people.
“The families are worried about their families and their livelihood,” said de los Santos. “If they have a business then they (MS-13) come and ask for a tax and if they don’t pay up, then someone from their family, or the entire family, disappear.”
Sister Norma Benavidez, operations manager for Catholic Charities in McAllen, said their goal is to serve and return dignity to the migrants who have made the journey into the United States.
Sister Benavidez also said that prior to Catholic Charities, there were already volunteers helping migrants purchase the correct bus tickets, but the number of migrants arriving at the bus station became overwhelming for the number of volunteers available.
Catholic Charities opened their site on June 9. One thing volunteers have noticed is that the needs of the people tend to change day to day.
The city of McAllen has provided busses that transport the migrants from the bus station to the Catholic Charities shelter. When they arrive at the shelter, volunteers take their information in case their family members in the United States call the consulate in search of their traveling family members.
Families are then invited to eat a meal, while the volunteers search through piles of clothing at the shelter to give to the families after they shower. They are allowed a 3-minute shower and are given an extra pair of clothing for the bus ride.
“The community’s response has been excellent,” said de los Santos. “We’ve got people from all churchs coming to help.”
One of those people who came to help was pastor Juan de la Garza of Iglesia del Pueblo in Mission, Texas who brought 600 volunteers.
“We’re so happy they have allowed us to be a part of this opportunity,” he said.
De los Santos was extremely excited that de la Garza was able to gather so many people to help over the fourth of July weekend.
However, not everyone in the community, or in the nation, share the same excitement that de los Santos has. She said she does not understand people who question the motives of these families who are entering the United States illegally and they are in no position to judge, especially since they have not walked a day in their shoes.
“What would you do if your child was in danger and if you couldn’t make a living?” asked de los Santos. “Would you travel to another country in search of a better life, or would you stay in that country and face your death?”
Benavidez said one of the biggest reasons people are upset with the shelter is due to assumptions the public has made.
“We’re not using tax dollars,” said Benavidez. “Even the medical unit we have is donated and the workers are volunteers.”
It is unclear as to how long the shelter will remain open, but volunteers do not see the need going away anytime soon.
“If tomorrow the federal government were to take the responsibility and help, then I would not be unhappy and we could all go back to our regular jobs,” said de los Santos. “However long we have to help we’ll be here for these people.”
If you would like to help Catholic Charities, you can make a monetary donation to Catholic Charities RGV by calling 956-702-4088 to assist them with lighting, electricity, water and other bills to keep the facility functioning.