McALLEN — The child whose dull eyes came alive when a shelter volunteer handed her a floppy-eared, pink bunny doll does not know she and her mother, who crossed the border with her, are in the middle of a political firestorm.
And Ofelia De Los Santos, a public information officer with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, wants to keep it that way. The latest surge of undocumented immigrants pouring across the border in South Texas has further polarized a country already grappling with immigration reform and border security. Republicans are demanding answers from President Obama, saying that his administration’s policies are responsible for the surge of migrants, most of them from Central America.
Obama, calling the surge a humanitarian crisis, has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate an effort to maintain detention centers for unaccompanied minors and help reunite them with relatives in this country. His administration is also moving to send more assistance to Central American countries. But the administration, conceding that misinformation about its
policies has helped drive the surge, has moved to detain more migrants and to deport them more quickly.
What is happening in McAllen, a busy gathering point near the border where many residents have responded to help the migrants, is just a snapshot; similar relief efforts are underway in cities along Texas’ southern border. Since October, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 160,000 undocumented immigrants in its Rio Grande Valley Sector and more than 33,500 unaccompanied minors in Texas.
Politics are left at the door at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a border parish where more than a thousand of the recently detained migrants, many fleeing violence in their countries, have been taken for temporary food and shelter after being ordered
to appear in immigration court.
“All of that is irrelevant," De Los Santos said of the political volleying. “For us, we just want to serve."
Volunteers here help
arrange medical appointments for immigrants being released from detention, and prepare travel bags for those facing long bus rides to stay with friends and relatives in the United States while awaiting their court dates in places like Chicago, Miami, New York and Miami. Most of the immigrants are women traveling with young children, including infants wearing nothing but diapers after days in detention.
Until a few weeks ago, the migrants were simply dropped off at McAllen’s downtown bus station after being processed. Volunteers from the local diocese showed up with food and offered what they could, filling their cars with toiletries and clothing.
Then the situation worsened.
The number of immigrants flooding the bus station increased so much that the volunteers called Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. “They said, ‘This is too much, this is not a location for them,'"said Brenda Riojas, the diocese’s public information officer.
In other Texas cities, shelters and churches were warned about the influx. In El Paso, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked shelters to provide temporary housing, food and perhaps a change of clothes before undocumented immigrants boarded buses or planes.
That was not the case in McAllen, volunteers there say.
Still, a makeshift shelter quickly sprang to life. City and county officials helped with logistics and security and were updated regularly. The Salvation Army sent food. All took their cues from the Catholic Charities volunteers.
When asked if Catholic Charities was in charge of the operation, Julia Sullivan, Hidalgo County’s director of public affairs, said: “Yes, as it should be. It’s their facility.” She added that she was not aware of federal officials reaching out to local officials to alert them about the surge.
De Los Santos does not know how long Catholic Charities' help will be needed. But she said the organization was prepared for the long haul. She also wonders how long the community support will continue. She has received hate mail, she said.
“We get calls to the office with people saying, ‘What are you all doing? You’re encouraging them,’” she said.
She is bothered less by those critics than by saying goodbye to the immigrants she has helped. As dozens left the church for the bus station, Ms. De Los Santos stood waving, tears streaming down her face.
“I cry every time,” she said.