MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Donkeys “Nico” and “Calendario,” along with their sidekick “Dolores del Rio,” a black-and-white goat, and three nosey dogs — “Bendido,” “Charlotte” and “Wiglett” — have become favorite playmates and are providing endless hours of entertainment to the hundreds of asylum-seeking families who this week have been receiving meals and a place to rest at a Catholic parish in the small South Texas border town of Mission, Texas.
The unusual mix of farm animals and canines are part of Father Roy Snipes flock at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, a parish he has run since 1992.
The priest is well known in the Rio Grande Valley for his love of animals. And every year, thousands bring their pets to his popular annual Blessing of the Animals Mass service.
He is also known for his compassion toward migrants and asylum-seekers, and has been an outspoken opponent of the border wall.
A few years ago, Snipes rallied the community as hundreds showed up for a walk from his parish hall 6 miles to the border to La Lomita Chapel to protest building a border barrier through the historic site which was one of the area’s first missions. Congress eventually exempted La Lomita Chapel from a border wall. And he likes to tell that story with a smile.
But he said that nothing has brought him so much joy as opening up his parish fellowship hall this week to feed and house and host an overflow of migrants sent from the Humanitarian Respite Center in neighboring McAllen, Texas.
These asylum-seekers are part of a wave of migrants who have been crossing the Rio Grande despite recent cold weather, and those traveling with “tender age” young children, or health conditions, are being released by the Department of Homeland Security and allowed to travel to other cities with the promise they will appear for any upcoming U.S. immigration court hearings.
“It just all came up at the last minute and it worked out beautiful,” Snipes said on Tuesday morning as he gave Border Report a tour of the facility just hours after waving goodbye to the latest group who spent the night inside at the church.
Since Sunday night, they have arrived at sunset and had burgers and hot dogs on the grill, slept in classrooms and then left after a breakfast of chorizo and egg and bean tacos, with extra milks for the children, he said grinning ear to ear.
“They said we have an overflow we can’t handle. We had a meeting with the two mayor and Sister (Norma Pimentel) and I said, well we’ve got a beautiful parish hall and a beautiful school that we can’t even use now because of the pandemic so y’all come on over and they did and it worked perfect,” Snipes said. “We say ‘welcome and have a taco.'”
I said, well we’ve got a beautiful parish hall and a beautiful school that we can’t even use now because of the pandemic so y’all come on over and they did and it worked perfect.”Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church
The first group of 125 arrived Sunday evening in a charter bus brought over from the Respite Center, which is run by the run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Then, another 100 came Monday night. And Tuesday morning, they were re-stocking water, hot-dog buns, and blankets for the additional migrants who were expected this evening.
A video posted on social media by Pimentel, executive director of the Humanitarian Respite Center, thanked him for welcoming the first batch of immigrant families on Sunday night.
“They’re all happy and all of our folks are so happy to see them,” Snipes said.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began last year, he said the parish school has been closed and the fellowship hall rarely, if ever, used. And their usual social gatherings have all been halted.
But he said these new visitors are breathing new life back into the parish and giving some members a purpose as they go out and buy food and bring donated clothes and blankets for the migrants to use on their journeys.
“This is even more fun. We can have a good time cooking and get together and we can help these people. These are the people Jesus would tell us to help. ‘When did we see you alone and afraid and abandoned and a stranger?’ Just this morning,” he said quoting scripture from Matthew 7:25 verse 35.
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited by half the number of people the Humanitarian Respite Center can safely house and that triggered the need for an overflow facility.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling told Border Report there were about 800 asylum-seekers at the Humanitarian Respite Center during the coldest of days last week when the arctic air blast hit the region. Darling reached out to the mayor of Mission and Father Snipes and said they set the wheels in motion to get city buses to start bringing over some of the migrants from the center.
“We don’t really have any other place to put the people,” Darling said. “It can’t go on like this.”
All of the migrants are screened for coronavirus at the Respite Center before going to the parish.
Darling said that for years the City of McAllen has helped to shoulder the majority of the thousands of migrants crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas. And he said he’s excited that now the neighboring community of Mission is jumping in to help.
Albert Solis, a church volunteer, said the new visitors are enjoying not only the donkeys and goat, but two ornery llamas, which they seldom bring around people, but are proving to be fascinating to the migrants.
Solis says after weeks of traveling to get to South Texas, and up to 48 hours in Border Patrol custody, he says the families enjoy walking on the playground and watching the odd menagerie of animals interact. “Several of the men played soccer in the courtyard till 9 p.m. last night. The children watched the animals. Everyone had a great time,” Solis said.
The families mostly come from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They have different cultures but he said they all share in common the new challenges they are facing in this new land.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com