Church’s humanitarian outreach ongoing for immigrants crossing border

By Rose Ybarra
Catholic News Service

MCALLEN, Texas (CNS) — "My family and I were on the wrong side of the political fence," said Rita.

"We received death threats, we were detained by the police for absolutely no reason," said the Honduran woman, whose last name is not being used at her request for safety reasons. ?Had we not left, I don’t know if we would have survived."

Rita is one of the more than 18,000 immigrants who have passed through the immigrant respite center at Sacred Heart Parish McAllen since it opened last spring.

The immigrants, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are dropped off by U.S. Immigration and Customs agents at the McAllen bus station a few blocks away, after they have been detained and processed. They are given a court date and granted permission to travel to their final destination.

Before the center opened, many were sleeping on the floor of the bus station and had no food or water. They hadn’t showered in days and sometimes, weeks.

Over the last year, the number of people coming through has fluctuated but the need for the center still exists.

"We haven’t had a day where nobody has come in," said director Eli Fernandez. "The need is still there."

"We have kept our promise," said Sister Leticia Benavides of the Missionaries of Jesus, a counselor and administrative assistant for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. "From the very beginning we said, as long as there is a need, we will be here. It is also what Jesus calls us to do in the works of mercy — Matthew 25."

Recently, the numbers have trended upward, Fernandez said.

"In the last two days, we have had close to 200 people," he told the Rio Grande Catholic, newspaper of the Brownsville Diocese. "We’ve been busy."

The staff and volunteers usually receive notification from Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a group is en route to the bus station.

"We’ve kind of learned to expect the unexpected and be ready for whatever comes our way," Fernandez said.

The McAllen center and another that operated for a few months at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville, have provided food, clothing, water and a place to rest.

In the first weeks, hundreds of people a day came through the centers.

"I remember the day Sister Norma (Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley) called Father Tom (Luczak, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish) and asked, ‘Can I borrow your parish hall for a couple of days"’" recalled Sister Leticia. "Never did we imagine that we would be here a year later."

Sister Pimentel was asked to speak at the United Nations in New York in March and was invited to attend the General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis in Rome in May.

Immigrants like Rita "will forever be grateful" for the center and the volunteers who cared for her.

After a 20-day journey, including a few days in ICE custody, she and her 2-year-old son arrived at the center Aug. 6. They stayed for a few hours as they waited to catch a bus to New Jersey.

"I left my parents and the rest of my family behind," Rita said. "I arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on my back — and with a baby.

"My time at the center was a beautiful experience. We ate, we took a nice, warm shower, and we were given clean clothes to wear. We were welcomed like family," she continued. "It was the first time since I left Honduras that I felt hopeful and it was because of the love and care we received at the church. … Months have passed, but I have not forgotten the kindness and the compassion you all showed me and my son. I’ll never forget it."

Rita and her son are now settling into life in New Jersey and awaiting an immigration hearing to find out if they will be allowed to stay in the United States.

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