Faith in Action in the Rio Grande Valley

By Norma Pimentel 7-14-2015 | Series:
Security fence
Security fence, Maren Winter / Shutterstock.com

“Refugees are persons and all their rights as persons must be recognized. These rights must include the right to enter a country in hopes of being able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. We publicly approve and commend every undertaking, founded on the principles of solidarity or of Christian charity, which aims at relieving the distress of those who are compelled to emigrate from their own country to another.” —Pope John XXIII, Pacem In Terris Encyclical, April 11, 1963

The families arrive at the center after having traveled for weeks. Their bodies are completely filthy dirty. Their clothing and shoes have a darkened, grey, muddy appearance. In some cases, their clothing is still wet from having crossed the Rio Grande River. Since June of last year, large groups of refugees, mostly mothers with a child or two, walk through the door of the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, their faces full of joyful tears as they experience the warm and welcoming faces of the many volunteers applauding, shouting out, “Bienvenidos!“Welcome!”

The refugee families just spent several days at the Border Patrol Processing Station – the “Hielera” – the “Ice Box” as the refugees call it, because it is freezing there. While in this processing facility, the refugees are kept in cells, where they wait fearfully for what is to become of them.

Fortunately, those who arrive at our center are released to travel because the family unit facilities are filled and they got “lucky” (to be released). They are not sent to a refugee family detention center; instead, a GPS-monitoring ankle bracelet is placed on them.

When we talk to the mothers, they break into tears as they share how humiliated they feel to be wearing the ankle bracelets. They are mothers, with their children, walking as criminals, as they travel to their destinations inside the United States of America. Every day, they must find electrical outlets along the way to charge the device, a minimum of three hours.

Neither of their options, whether they’re sent to a detention center, run as a federal prison, or released with a GPS-monitoring ankle bracelet, is humane. Their only reason for entering this country is being compelled to emigrate from their own country to another because of the violence in their homeland and fearing for the life of their children.

The stories of the families are heartbreaking. They are mostly children. The parents uproot themselves, leaving their homes, their families, and their ways of life. They leave their lives behind because they fear for the lives of their children. The children face death because of the gangs who hunt them out to recruit, kidnap, and rape them. In some cases, mothers send their children with others, hopeful in the United States their children may have a chance, an opportunity, the possibility of attending school and having a life.

This reminds me of the story in Exodus of Moses’ mother, who placed Moses in a wicker basket, hoping someone up the river would rescue him. What anguish a mother must feel, sending her child into an unknown future, with only the hope the child may be blessed to find someone who will rescue him or her?

Thank God there are good people who practice Christian charity and demonstrate solidarity with the refugees by showing them they matter.

The community of the Rio Grande Valley, and folks from all over the United States, from all faith communities, come together to be one presence of love. We all come together with one thought ­– to restore human dignity, putting our faith in action!

People of all faiths have helped more than 20,000 immigrants to date. And immigrants continue to come. Every day, groups of 50, 60, 100 arrive at our welcoming center in McAllen, Texas.

Matthew 25 comes to life every day among us as we live the Gospel. We welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and continue to be one presence of love to our brothers and sisters.

After the families have an opportunity to shower, put on clean clothes, eat warm soup, and call their families, they are totally transformed. Their faces radiate with life. Their human dignity has been restored.

As they prepare to leave the Humanitarian Respite Center, refugees and volunteers embrace, their faces full of joyful tears and smiles. Best wishes for a safe journey are extended and everyone waves goodbye.

“Vaya con Dios.” “Go with God.”

Sister Norma Pimentel is the Executive Director for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

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