REYNOSA, Mexico — The siren and flashing red sign on the bridge into this border town meant a car loaded with donations from charitable Texans had to undergo a secondary inspection. Armed agents asked the passengers — a nun, a priest and a church volunteer from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen — what they were carrying and where they were headed.
The parish at Sacred Heart has acted as a shelter for thousands of Central American women and children crossing the border illegally into Texas. Donations have come pouring in, and shelter officials say they now have far more of some goods than they need.
But their efforts to take some of the surplus provisions from Texas into Mexico — where some border crossers have been deported, and where others are waiting out the massive law enforcement build-up in Texas — have been hindered by a combination of Mexican tax laws and the violence in the border city.
For starters, there's a value limit: In addition to personal belongings, travelers from the United States can only take up to $75 worth of products or currency into Mexico. It’s also a toss-up whether they will get hit with high taxes, face a long wait at the bridge or watch their items get confiscated by Mexican officials.
One Reynosa charity operator who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said a common strategy is to divide up goods across several travelers to avoid problems at customs.
“You don’t want to have to do it that way," the charity operator said, "but when you try to do it the correct way you get such a runaround, or you see that even though you have gone through the proper channels, it’s still not being declared."
Limits on what can be brought across also present a challenge. At Sacred Heart, used clothing – which is in high demand at shelters in Mexico — sits in stacks on banquet tables. Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Sacred Heart shelter in her capacity as executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande, said Mexican customs would not allow the clothing to cross the border for fears it could carry germs or disease. But church volunteer Myra Garza speculated that the real reason is because Mexican customs can’t tax used goods.
Despite these hurdles, the fledgling effort to get supplies across the border is gaining momentum — largely thanks to a partnership between border religious leaders.
Though she is still running the shelter operation in McAllen, Pimentel — part of the group whose car was searched, and then let pass, on the bridge — said the Mexican effort was also a priority.
Rabbi Claudio J. Korgan, who leads Temple Emanuel in McAllen, visited Reynosa a day later, and said he came away deeply moved.
“I wanted to come here to not hear but to see,” he said. “In the book of Deuteronomy, it says to see with your own eyes.”
Senda de Vida, a shelter in Reynosa just feet from the banks of the Rio Bravo, epitomizes a place in need. Run by Hector Silva Luna, the shelter has no annual budget, no strategic plan and no guaranteed supply chain. He and the migrants there live day to day.
Last week, the people housed there included Mexicans recently deported from the U.S. and Central Americans still hopeful they'll make their way north. In one ward, elderly men deported back to Mexico from the U.S. — people with no one else to care for them — sat in wheelchairs feeding baby chicks or reading the Bible. Most will spend their final days there, Silva said.
For the Central Americans still considering crossing the river, as tens of thousands have since October, Silva offers the cold hard truth. He doesn’t coordinate with smugglers or offer people help crossing, he said, which would be against the law.
“I am not going to tell them, ‘Go, the Americans are good people and will accept you,’" he said. "The reality is that they won’t get to cross over. We work with human rights groups and tell them the truth.”
Many of the would-be crossers stay at the shelter while they consider their options — for some that takes weeks; for others it takes days. Eneida Alvarez left Honduras two weeks ago, fleeing an abusive husband and in search of relatives. Alvarez, 28, was kidnapped by criminals in Tampico, Mexico, and rescued only after Mexican marines freed her and her fellow captors. Were it not for the shelter, she said, she would have been on the streets.
When Alvarez made up her mind — "I think she's going to try and cross," Silva said — a volunteer from the shelter gave her a ride to the border. The ride isn't to help people cross, Silva said; it's a way to protect immigrants from the drug cartels that wreak havoc on local streets. Local and state police no longer patrol the streets; that duty has been left to the Mexican military.
Violence and complicated tax laws are unlikely to hamper the efforts of the faith-based in McAllen. Kogan, the rabbi, said he was warned against traveling to Mexico and didn’t even tell his wife about his trip. After the visit, he was even more determined to figure out how to help.
“You ask yourself, ‘What’s going on?’" he said. "And seeing this phenomenon of helping people without getting into the political side, I think we as human beings need to help."