McALLEN — At a makeshift shelter in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church, an army of volunteers is helping weary Central Americans just released by the Border Patrol.
“In some miraculous way, everybody has reached out and helped,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Catholic Charities is leading the humanitarian effort with aid from others as communities and charities try to respond to the mass migration from Central America.
“It wasn’t just our Catholic church; evangelical churches, Baptist churches, Methodist churches [are] giving us monetary donations, giving us some of their students doing community service hours,” said volunteer coordinator Ofelia de los Santos. "It’s been an incredible response."
The parents and kids who arrived at the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs were detained and released because the Border Patrol has nowhere to house families.
Immigration authorities released families on their own recognizance while their cases are being decided, so many converged on the McAllen bus station trying to reunite with relatives who live elsewhere in the U.S.
With bus tickets sold out daily, immigrants had nowhere to turn; so Catholic Charities set up “rest stations” in McAllen and Brownsville on June 10.
Since then, volunteers have helped about 4,000 people of all ages — from a newborn baby girl to a 97-year-old grandmother.
“It’s an oasis in the desert," said "Maria," a woman who set off for the Texas-Mexico border from El Salvador 20 days ago with her 15-year-old daughter. Catholic Charities asked that full names of families who agreed to share their stories not be used.
“Girls my daughter’s age are forced to join gangs,” the tearful mother explained. "If not ... they’re raped, killed or disappear.”
The woman said the church shelter was the first and only place she had been treated with any kindness since leaving home.
“It’s as if God said, ‘I’m here on the other side waiting for you. Everything you suffered, here I will relieve your burden,'" Maria said.
She and her teenage daughter were in line to board a trolley to the McAllen bus station. The city is helping pay to shuttle migrants from the shelter to the bus station.
Maria is on her way to Florida, where her husband is working. She hopes their daugther can attend school there.
"She wants to be a lawyer," Maria said.
For now, their legal status — and that of all the other immigrant families — is in limbo. All have been told to report to the nearest immigration court within 15 days after their release.
The shelter in McAllen is only a temporary refuge before migrants leave to try and reunite with relatives living and working elsewhere in the U.S.
As the trolley pulled up, a little girl wearing a "Dora the Explorer" T-shirt pulled a stuffed "Hello Kitty" doll from her bag.
Volunteers organized donations — including toys, shoes and clothes — by gender and age group.
There are places to shower and eat.
In one area, volunteers prepare snack bags — including animal cookies for the group of departing parents and kids.
"God bless you," said de los Santos in Spanish to the migrants as they continued their journey.
While politicians point fingers and argue over immigration policies, volunteers like de los Santos and others at this church shelter tend to the immediate needs of the people at the center of that debate.
“Who are we to criticize them for seeking life instead of death?” she asked.