Texas bishop to lead Sunday service at migrant tent encampment in Mexican border city

Migrant Centers

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas Catholic bishop will lead a special Christmas service Sunday at a migrant tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.

Bishop Daniel Flores will travel across the border for the services, which is part of the effort to improve the conditions for migrants in the tent cities, church officials said.

Flores, who runs the Diocese of Brownsville, will hold a traditional Las Posadas Mexican Christmas ceremony at noon on Sunday at the refugee camp at the base of the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Las Posadas ceremonies symbolize the biblical figures Mary and Joseph searching for lodging prior to Jesus’ birth.

This will be Flores’ first visit to the tent encampment where 2,000 migrants await their U.S. asylum hearings. The migrants, also called MPPs, were sent to wait in Mexico during their immigration proceedings under the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol program, implemented in mid-July.

This Sept. 14, 2019, file photo shows children and asylum-seeking families living at a tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. The Mexican government wants to relocate the families by Jan. 1, 2020, to an area on the river embankment where they are building large pavilion tents to house them. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Since then, each day more women, children and families have been sent by U.S. immigration officials to this Mexican border town, where most find a tent and a bundle of donated clothing to make a home beside other migrant refugees.

U.S. volunteers from organizations like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley; Angry Tias and Abuelas, the Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico, Lawyers for Good Government, Global Response Management, and Team Brownsville, have basically sustained the swelling numbers, providing daily meals, clothing, medical supplies and exams, and legal services to the migrants, most of which come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel is seen on July 15, 2019, helping a migrant at the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen. Over 1,000 migrants had gone to the center daily in the summer but when the Trump Administration on July 17 began sending asylum seekers from South Texas to Mexico, the migrants stopped coming and were instead sent to Matamoros, Mexico, where many live in a tent encampment. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Pimentel recently was selected to oversee the volunteer efforts. She said several grassroots organizations asked her to lead the initiative and to be the new go-between with officials with the state and local Mexican governments.

So far, she said the initiative appears to be improving conditions at the camp.

Already Pimentel has appointed coordinators to help with the organizing of educating the migrant children, meals, clothing donations and legal services.

Read a Border Report profile on Sister Norma.

“The Mexican government has been very supportive. … We’ve been working very well together where we are able to establish a coordinator for every area,” Pimentel said. “By doing that we can identify the group that provides assistance and services and how the government can best help us accomplish those needs and I happen to be the middle person that ensures that happens.”

She said that federal Mexican immigration officials with Instituto Nacional de Migracion have been helping them to expedite the crossing of medical supplies from the United States, and most recently federal Mexican officials began building several large pavilion-style tents higher on the embankment of the Rio Grande, a bock from the bridge. She said they want to relocate all the migrants there by next month.

The structures are expected to have a solid floor to get the migrants off the dusty ground, which floods when it rains and blows dirt when dry. She said that initially, Mexican officials wanted the migrants to live underneath the pavilion side by side, but Pimentel implored upon officials to allow the families to pitch their individual tents under the pavilion to afford them more privacy.

“I asked the government, I told them the families want to keep their tents to keep it private and they said ‘yes,'” she said.

Helen Perry a nurse practitioner who runs Global Response Management, a nonprofit organization that provides medical care to the migrants in Matamoros, has recently been allowed to set up a medical trailer at the camp, for more private evaluations of her clients. Prior to that, all exams were done under a tarp in the open.

“We find when we offer people the dignity of having a private space and allow people that confidentiality with their medical providers that they tend to open up,” Perry said last month, as she examined patients before they got the mobile trailer unit. “Because we do have concerns that there is human trafficking and gender-based violence and sexual exploitation taking place in the camp both for women and children.”

We do have concerns that there is human trafficking and gender-based violence and sexual exploitation taking place in the camp both for women and children.”

Nurse practitioner Helen Perry of Global Response Management

“That’s why the church has the responsibility to call on governments of all kind to address the humanitarian in a cooperative fashion because people deserve to be treated better than they’re being treated, no matter who they are and it really is beyond tragic,” Flores said in November. “There’s violence all over the world but the immigrant is a victim of violence in a particularly consistently brutal way. … We can’t pretend it’s not there.”

Read a Border Report exclusive interview with Bishop Daniel Flores.

Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel is seen with Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores, to her right, and other church leaders on Dec. 20, 2019, in this Facebook photo. (Courtesy Photo)

Last weekend, the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, began doing mental health evaluations at the camp, said Charlene D’Cruz, with the pro-bono group Lawyers for Good Government, which is providing free legal care to the asylum-seekers.

Pimentel says her volunteers do not condone MPP, but are working as best they can to improve the camp conditions as winter sets in.

Temperatures in the 30 degrees earlier this week caused much suffering in the camp, she said.

These photos taken in October and November show cam conditions. (Border Report Photos by Sandra Sanchez).

“We wish MPP would end and would be replaced by a policy more humane but until that happens — and we don’t see that happening because impeachment seems to be priority — in meantime families suffering with wind and cold and rain so we have to move forward to ensure we provide the proper care and we will try to respond,” Pimentel said.

“They are languishing there and our government keeps sending people there. I dread the possibility of someone dying there but the conditions are so dire and have been for weeks and months that I’m so concerned that will happen and there is no doubt in my mind that will be the consequences of American polices,” said Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is based in South Texas.

On Tuesday, lawyers for a gravely ill 7-year-old girl suffering from a perforated abdomen reached out to Border Report after they said officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection refused to allow her to cross into the United States to seek the services of a pediatric surgeon. That evening the girl and her mother, both from Honduras, were granted asylum in the United States and the next day were headed to Louisiana for medical care.

Read a Border Report story about the 7-year-old girl.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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