CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY
SACRED HEART RESPITE CENTER
In the summer of 2014, the number of migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border jumped significantly. This increase was especially apparent in southeast Texas: in FY 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector alone processed 94,450 family units and unaccompanied children, representing three-quarters of all migrant families and unaccompanied children that the Border Patrol encountered during the year. The community of McAllen, Texas, just over the border from Reynosa, Mexico, experienced the arrivals firsthand.
Border Patrol facilities could not accommodate the unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors arriving in McAllen. To make room for these children, officials began releasing adults with children from their custody. During stretches of the summer, immigration officials transported hundreds of migrants per day to the McAllen Greyhound bus station so they could continue on to their destinations in the United States where they would have their Immigration Court’s hearings.
Tired and hungry migrants crowded into the bus station, trying to buy tickets to reunite with their families in cities as far away as New York and Seattle. Not given a chance to shower in Border Patrol custody, many of the families arriving at the bus station were still muddy and wet from their journey across the border. Many were also in shock, having been through traumatic experiences in their home countries and during the journey through Central America and Mexico.
Sr. Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rio Grande Valley, and her staff first considered providing services to the migrants at the bus station, but the number of people made working on-site nearly impossible. As a result, Sr. Norma reached out to Father Thomas Luczak at the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and Fr. Luczak agreed to convert their parish hall into a respite center for the migrants. The City of McAllen assisted Catholic Charities with financial backing and other denominations agreed to support the work with donations and volunteers.
In June 2014, the Sacred Heart Respite Center opened its doors. By 6 pm the first day, 200 migrants had come to the Center. The number of people arriving grew to an average of 200–300 every day until the end of the summer. During the winter months, these numbers dropped to 20 to 50 migrants a day. However, as the summer of 2015 approached, the numbers climbed to approximately 100 migrants a day.
Staff and volunteers meet the migrants at the bus station and escort them to the Center. Sr. Norma describes their arrival: “You see them walk into Sacred Heart and you see their face break into tears. You see that moment where they begin to restore their human dignity.” Once at the Center, migrants shower and change into clean clothes that community members and local congregations have donated. Most of the migrants arriving at the Center have eaten little for days or weeks, so Salvation Army volunteers serve specially prepared meals to prevent them from becoming ill.
Three-quarters of the arrivals of the Center are children. Once they arrive they play with donated toys, while their parents rest or talk with other arrivals or volunteers. Volunteer doctors and nurses provide medical check-ups to ensure that the migrants are healthy enough to continue on their journeys. The Center provides telephones to allow migrants to notify their families that they have arrived in the United States. It also protects the migrants from fraud.
Migrants typically stay about four to eight hours, after which time the volunteers give them snacks and sandwiches to take on the bus. The migrants then continue on their journeys, which can last as long as two or three days. Staff members at the Respite Center work with the bus lines to track their progress and to ensure that they arrive safely at their destinations.
Sr. Norma believes that this work is central to the Church’s mission. “The current Pope is talking about the importance of welcoming the stranger, especially immigrants,” she says. “I would say that we are most certainly doing that.” She explains that many arriving migrants have been victims of assault, robbery and extortion in their home country and en route to the United States. Migrants at the Center have told her stories of people initially offering help, only to rob them or even hold them against their will until their family could pay a ransom. She explains: “They were not as willing to come to Sacred Heart until they saw me, a nun. Then they understood that we are here to help and not hurt.”
Catholic Charities has taken pains to incorporate the broader community into this initiative. “Every denomination” has become involved, says Sr. Norma. In addition, the Center never turns away a volunteer, no matter how well-staffed they are for the day. “They need to see and understand that this is happening. Then they can form in their own mind why this work is important,” says Sr. Norma. Having members of the community see the migrants’ experience firsthand helps them to empathize with their experience.
Sr. Norma would like to expand the work at the Center to include identifying and providing services to victims of trafficking. She hopes this work will prevent further exploitation, since traffickers force many migrants into prostitution or involuntary servitude as domestic workers. Sr. Norma would also like to educate community members about the realities of trafficking, including information on identifying migrants who may be victims.
The Center has served over 21,000 migrants since it opened in 2014. As one of the migrants’ first experiences in the United States, the Center eases their transition into the United States and lays the groundwork for their long-term integration.
USCBP. 2015. “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children.” http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children.
 “Represents the number of individuals (either a child under 18 years old, parent or legal guardian) apprehended with a family member by the U.S. Border Patrol.” (USBP 2015).
 Sr. Norma Pimentel (Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley) interview by Kyle Barron, July 31, 2015.
 The apprehension and detention experience can further exacerbate the trauma, leaving many migrant families fearful of anyone they encounter. Furthermore, the Border Patrol facilities where migrants stay—between 24 hours and up to a week—are often cold and cause sleep deprivation for many migrants.