McALLEN — The media tent that once stood in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church is gone, as are the television crews and reporters who descended this summer when the flow of Central American immigrants illegally crossing the Texas border was major news.
But after a brief lull, the surge of undocumented families passing through a temporary shelter set up by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley seems to be rising again. The spotlight may have turned away, but if the sense of crisis is gone, the people have not stopped coming.
“The numbers increased a lot this past month, almost to 100 every day [last week],” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. “We have seen some that have already been caught and tried again. They have hope that they have a chance at a better life here.”
After Christmas, she said, the charity will begin searching for a facility to turn what began as a temporary shelter into a permanent offering.
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Pimentel oversees the volunteer effort providing short-term shelter to some of the thousands of women and children who have trekked to Texas from Central America. About 52,300 families surrendered to the U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley during the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of more than 500 percent over 2013. About 50,000 unaccompanied children were caught or surrendered to border agents in the Valley in fiscal year 2014
The number of unaccompanied minors apprehended, or who have surrendered, has gone down from about 5,460 in October and November of 2013 to about 3,220 during the same months this year. But the number of parents with one or more minor children has stayed about the same: 3,430 in October and November of last year compared with 3,360 this year.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon,” Pimentel said. “[The Border Patrol] considered the fact that we’re here and we’re prepared to receive them.”
With so many arrivals, the Border Patrol releases most families to the church shelter with orders for them to appear before an immigration judge in whatever city they reach. Some stay in Texas. Others head for New York, Miami, Boston or Chicago, among other cities.
Some of the migrants now show up at the shelter with ankle bracelets so officials can track their movements. Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency's first priority is to make sure dangerous criminals aren't released.
Beyond that, she said in an email, the agency decides where to send families and children on a case-by-case basis.
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During the summer's record immigrant surge, Republicans accused the Obama administration of spawning the disaster with lax enforcement of immigration policies. Texas leaders responded by sending a flood of state police and the Texas National Guard to the area.
The administration, in turn, touted its quick response, and has since said efforts to curb the unauthorized migration have been working.
“Since the spring, the numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border illegally have gone down considerably,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month.
But should the numbers continue to creep up, national attention — and political jousting — will almost certainly focus again on the border. Republicans will likely seek ammunition to help shoot down the president’s latest unilateral move on immigration. Last month, President Obama announced he was using his executive authority to grant an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States a reprieve from deportation proceedings and a work permit. Though the president stressed the policy would not apply to people who arrived in the country recently, Republicans have argued it will act as a magnet, enticing people to risk their lives and come to America.
Spotlight or not, local officials and charities expect to be dealing with the flow of undocumented immigrants for the foreseeable future.
Through Oct. 17, local governments had spent about $560,000 to aid in the humanitarian effort. Governments including the cities of McAllen and Weslaco, and Hidalgo and Willacy counties, have asked the federal and state governments for reimbursement, but a McAllen city official said they haven't heard back.
The crisis has also put the area in the spotlight. Pimentel said the American and Latin American branches of Catholic Charities will hold their annual conference in McAllen next year. Pimentel has been nominated for The Dallas Morning News’ Texan of the Year award. She hopes people won’t lose sight of the root cause of the shelter's mission.
“It’s the right thing to do and that’s my position,” she said. “Your heart breaks and you want to help. It’s bittersweet. All of this attention comes from the fact that there are a lot of people suffering, a lot of people hurting.”