MCALLEN, Texas — Some had been on the road for weeks, others for days, and some entered looking haggard and sunburned with little more than the clothes they were wearing, some holding the hands of their children as a group of Catholic bishops joined a chorus of hands applauding in welcome.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, asked the bishops visiting the center during the arrival of the recent immigrants July 1 if they could help serve food to the children, whose eyes lit up when they saw fruit or soup and the smiling faces of volunteers replenishing their dishes and asking questions.
“Does the soup taste good?” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville asked in Spanish, as children shyly nodded toward the prelate.
Nearby, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, carried a tray with bowls of soup into the room filled with children’s voices. Cardinal DiNardo was leading the delegation of bishops toward the border communities in the Brownsville-McAllen area close to the southern border with Mexico July 1 and 2.
The visit to what’s known as the respite center run by Catholic Charities in downtown McAllen quickly took the prelates into the heart of the human drama of migration and its human toll.
A woman traveling with a 3-year-old said that along the way she’d heard children were being taken away from parents and she prayed that it wouldn’t happen to her because returning to her home country of Guatemala wasn’t an option — either way she risked losing her child.
But immigration authorities were kind and humane when she checked in, she said, and allowed her and her child to go free after filling out paperwork and a short detention. Then the welcome she received at the respite center, she said, was a sign to her that “God is so great and never abandons us.”
The center is a first stop for immigrants like her, fortunate enough to have a place to go to, such as the one in McAllen, after being released by immigration authorities. It, too, was a first stop for the bishops looking to understand the situation of family separation and other immigration issues along the border.
Cardinal DiNardo, along with Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pa., spoke with as many as they could in the room, addressing topics such as why they left home or simply asking the migrants where they were headed and how they were doing.
Bishop Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
Though the room held a lot of smiles and optimism, there was a silence about the journey that had gotten them there but whose details many of the sojourners weren’t ready to share, said Bishop Brennan.
“This gives me a deeper understanding of the experience that many of our folks went through to get the point where I’ve come to know and love them on Long Island,” he said.
Volunteers, which included many young adults, zigzagged through the room during the visit, handing out clothes, playing with the children, showing recent arrivals the shower, giving out water and heating a home-cooked meal for them.
“In this room is the core of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of life,” said Bishop Bambera.
William Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. bishops’ conference, who also accompanied the bishops on their visit, said the welcome was “a phenomenal act of charity by the Church, to receive these people released by the government and helping them go onward to family and friends.”
“This is what we call welcoming, this is the act of welcoming that we all like to see,” he said, especially knowing about the incredibly difficult journey they had just made.
“It’s the moment when our American, our human values come forward and it was nice to watch, people were extremely grateful,” he said.
At end of border visit, bishops call reunification of children urgent
By Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service
SAN JUAN, Texas — In less than 48 hours, a group of Catholic bishops saw the faces of triumph and relief from migrants who had been recently released by immigration authorities, but ended their two-day journey to the border with a more “somber” experience, visiting detained migrant children living temporarily within the walls of a converted Walmart.
During a news conference after the second and last day of their visit July 2, they stressed the “urgent” need to do something to help the children.
“The children who are separated from their parents need to be reunited. That’s already begun and it’s certainly not finished and there may be complications, but it must be done and it’s urgent,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, celebrated Mass in Spanish with about 250 children at the detention facility on what once was the loading dock of the Walmart superstore.
“It was, as you can imagine, very challenging to see the children by themselves,” Archbishop Gomez said during the news conference. “Obviously, when there are children at Mass, they are with their parents and families … but it was special to be with them and give them some hope.”
The visit to the facility known as Casa Padre capped the bishops’ brief journey to the border communities of McAllen-Brownsville near the southern border. Casa Padre, in Brownsville, gained notoriety earlier this year because it houses children separated from their families, as well as unaccompanied minors.
Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pa., along with Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Rockville Centre, N.Y., also were part of the delegation July 1 and 2, led by Cardinal DiNardo, and were present at the Mass at Casa Padre.
The building houses about 1,200 boys ages 10 to 17, said Bishop Bambera, and though the care they receive seems to be appropriate — it’s clean, they have access to medical care, and schooling and recreational facilities — it was clear that “there was a sadness” manifested by the boys, he said.
Though many of the boys held there are considered “unaccompanied minors,” some were separated from a family member they were traveling with, said Bishop Bambera. And when you see them, “those boys bear clearly the burden of that” separation, he said.
Cardinal DiNardo said at the news conference that the Church supports the right of nations to protect their borders. But having strong borders and having compassion are not mutually exclusive, he said.
He said the Church was willing to be part of the conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
He said the bishops gathered had floated around ideas for possible solutions and one of them included what’s known as family case management, which connects the family with a case manager and someone to provide legal orientation.
But a year ago, the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration ended such a program. Proponents had argued that it kept families together and had a great success rate in having adults show up to court dates.
Bishop Daniel E. Flores, who heads the local Diocese of Brownsville, accompanied the delegation. He said there’s a need to address the “push factors” driving immigration from Central America, from which people are fleeing a variety of social ills, including violence, gangs and economic instability.
The U.S. border bishops have frequent communication with their counterparts in Mexico and Central America on variety of topics, he said during the news conference, but the problems driving immigration to the U.S. are complex.
“These are extremely complex and difficult situations,” he said. “This is a hemispheric problem, not just a problem on the border here.”