Yearning to Breathe Free

“I DON’T BLAME the Border Patrol. I blame our country,” Sister Norma Pimentel told Rep. Jim McGovern on a hot afternoon in McAllen, Texas, last August.

“It’s like a burning building,” explained Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, “and we’re sending them back into it.”

Pimentel was describing the U.S. policy of deporting Central American refugees back to their home countries, while Rep. McGovern (D-Mass.) nodded in agreement. He had just visited the Border Patrol central processing facility, and Pimentel was leading him on a tour of the humanitarian respite center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

The difference was striking: At the processing facility, children were detained in what McGovern described as “cages”; at the respite center, Catholic Charities staff and volunteers provided food, showers, clothing, medical exams, and an air-conditioned place for refugees to wait for a bus ride to meet family members living in the U.S.

Because of large influx of refugees last summer, initially those who could verify that they had relatives already living in the U.S. were processed by Border Patrol and released with papers allowing them to travel by bus to reunite with family, where they would await an immigration hearing—and possible deportation. But after being dropped off at the McAllen bus station by the Border Patrol, many waited for hours for their bus to arrive—often with nothing but the clothes on their back and papers in hand.

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