McALLEN, Texas — It was June 9, 2014, when Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, first opened up a makeshift rescue center for migrants in the fellowship hall of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, two blocks from the bus station in downtown McAllen.
Some parishioners and nearby residents had called her to say they had noticed an increase in immigrants wandering the area, sleeping on the bus station floor, and in door frames of nearby businesses. They appeared unwashed, disheveled, confused and were asking for food on the streets. They were missing shoelaces — which are confiscated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at detention facilities — and many had no money, and didn’t know what to do, or where to go.
Sister Norma, as she is known by all in South Texas, quickly reached out to the priest at Sacred Heart and asked if they could use his church’s fellowship hall for a couple days, possibly a week, at most.
That was five years ago, and since then her makeshift rescue center — which has been renamed the Humanitarian Respite Center — has helped over 150,000 migrants and families, relocated four times, and she, and the center, are now nationally and internationally known.
Sister Norma has met with the Pope a few times, spoken before the United Nations, testified before lawmakers, and been called to the White House more than once to explain how she and her army of volunteers have been assisting migrants by collaborating with other charities and local governments to help so many on the Southwest border.
Helping folks in a converted nightclub
In June, the Humanitarian Respite Center reopened right across the street from the McAllen bus station in what used to be a nightclub. The ceilings are still painted black, and there is a giant bar in the center of the windowless building where now every day hundreds of migrants come to get clothing, eat, rest, receive travel information, exchange pesos for dollars, and take showers. Most importantly, Sister Norma says they come here to “feel welcomed” after days, sometimes weeks, held in federal migrant detention facilities.
“This nightclub has been transformed into a day club for families. We give milk and Pampers and hygiene items from the bar,” Sister Norma joked as she gave the Border Report a tour of the crowded facility on Monday afternoon. “We are very happy to be here because we’re so close to the bus station where we receive and take the families.”
The City of McAllen helped the nonprofit to secure the location and even helped to clean it up and transform it for them. The once-black walls are now painted gray, and instead of dispensing alcohol from the bar, it now holds Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, soap and razors, which volunteers readily give out to anyone who asks.
This facility can hold up to 1,236 migrants and volunteers, and is much bigger than the Sacred Heart fellowship hall, which for years was crowded with racks of donated clothing, shoes, picnic tables for eating and a play area for migrant children. “It really gives us a lot of space to give the services we want,” Sister Norma said.
Over 500 people came through the center on Monday, “possibly 600,” Sister Norma said. There is no formal check in, or count system, and volunteers try as best as they can to meet their needs as they come through the doors.
Many need diapers for their children, clean clothes, a meal or just a quiet place to rest and think. Most only stay for a day or maybe a night before boarding a bus across the street to places with unfamiliar names, like Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago and Portland, Oregon.
Center volunteers give each one a large manila folder that contains their travel and contact information. On the outside it reads: “PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHAT BUS DO I NEED TO TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!”
Sam Won, a pharmacist from Dallas, came with his wife, Hanna, also a pharmacist, and their 11-year-old son Chris on Monday to volunteer serving food and folding clothes at the center. “We wanted to get a better idea of what’s really happening and the best way is to help,” he said “We always heard that Catholic Charities is one of the best organizations.”
Throughout the center children can be heard singing, crying and yelling. Some children are so tired they fall asleep face down on the concrete floor. Others rest with families in a back room on blue mats. Another room is equipped with showers, where lines of migrants wait. Other lines are for clothing and shoes, or for information on bus routes, medical care, or just to ask questions about what life is like in America.
Children are given small stuffed animals, pillows, toys and crayons, and most of the adults wear string backpacks bearing the names of dozens of nonprofits that have donated to the center.
Meals of chicken soup are served in an all-white room full of tables. Sister Norma discovered years ago that soup was a safe dish tolerable by most. Since so many migrants travel for weeks, even months, to cross into the United States, they often arrive at the center malnourished and dehydrated. Most are unable to eat heavy foods and many got sick until they found the perfect chicken soup recipe from the Salvation Army, she said.
But two weeks ago they ran out of chicken soup at the center with 300 people still left unfed, Sister Norma said. So she called a friend in San Francisco “who had 150 pizzas delivered within half an hour, which they devoured.”
Alone and afraid
Silvia Elizabeth Mendoza, 25, and her 16-month-old son, Jefferson, traveled for one month and 15 days from Guatemala before they crossed into South Texas and were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. Twenty-eight of the days they walked, she said in Spanish. Often they had no food, little water, or clean diapers. She was among a group traveling with a paid guide, known as a coyote. She said he didn’t care about them, adding. “We never got breakfast.” On Monday, Mendoza sat on a chair holding her sleeping son in a dark corner of the Respite Center. She arrived that afternoon after being held for six days in a detention center “somewhere,” she said. She was among a group brought by ICE in a bus to the McAllen bus station.
Migrants who can buy bus tickets, or have families who will buy for them, are released to the bus station by ICE agents once they are processed at a federal detention facility. All are issued upcoming court dates, which they promise to attend as a condition of their release.
But Mendoza’s bus ticket to Cincinnati wasn’t until Thursday. She had no money or any idea what she and her son were going to do for the next three days.
Sister Norma laid hands on Mendoza’s head and blessed her and the tears began to flow down the young girl’s face. “It was so hard. It was so tough,” she repeated with a blank stare.
As she has done thousands of times, Sister Norma comforted the young woman. She smiled and listened to her, and then she asked a volunteer to try and help Mendoza get an earlier bus.
Sister Norma turned to help another migrant woman from Guatemala, who was standing nearby, but this young woman did not speak Spanish, only the dialect of Quechua. They locked eyes and the girl fidgeted nervously with her hair, bringing it in front of her face. And Sister Norma gave a knowing nod, and set off to find someone who could help them.