By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
As support pours in for Texas ministries caring for new immigrant children on the southern border, local congregations are catching their breath and refocusing efforts during a lull in what had been a surging crisis.
In the past month, the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas has received $110,000 in new donations to help buy snacks and hygiene items for parents and children who have fled violence in Central America and are now seeking asylum in the United States.
The situation has become less acute — at least for now. Since August began, volunteers have seen a sharp decline in the number of mothers and children arriving at refugee centers. A steady flow of 200 immigrants a day through the center at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church in early August has slowed to about 40 a week later.
“The numbers have dropped significantly,” said Kim Burgo, senior director of disaster services for Catholic Charities USA, which provides support for a church-run refugee relief center in McAllen.
Several factors could be driving the shift, she said, including the scorching hot, dry late summer, which is traditionally a slow time for immigration.
“I think it will end up increasing again once the rainy season starts up,” Burgo said.
Local Christians are still finding plenty of work to do for the cause. They’re stocking supplies for the next wave of immigrants. They’re also visiting unaccompanied children who are detained in a recently converted McAllen warehouse.
On August 11, about 25 representatives from McAllen area congregations met with U.S. Border Patrol staff to launch for what’s being billed as an experiment in daily pastoral visitation for unaccompanied minors, who are held for a couple of days in makeshift cells partitioned by chain link fencing.
“The agent kept using the word experiment to say, ‘We’re trying this,’” said the Rev. Nancy Springer, associate rector of St. John’s Church in McAllen. “I appreciate the fact that somebody in Border Patrol is willing to risk letting us in there, letting faith groups in there, with the sole intent of providing spiritual care for these children.”
Springer said the children will soon receive visits from clergy and other background-checked volunteers from local churches twice a day. The program is a pilot that could be replicated, she said, at other sites for unaccompanied minors if it proves beneficial to the children.
Between October 1 and July 31, 63,000 families were detained on the southern border, up from just 11,000 in the prior fiscal year. Another 63,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived during the same period, more than doubling last year’s rate. Most have come through the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Earlier this summer, individual parents with children were being dropped off, dehydrated and exhausted, at bus stations after weeklong detentions at U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. Church-run refugee centers in at least eight southern border communities helped them, providing basic assistance such as food, showers and cell phone access until their buses departed.
Now families detained in Texas are being processed and handed off to Enforcement and Removal Operations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE agents take them to a new facility that opened in August in Karnes City.
But unconfirmed reports say the center is already full. Calls to ICE in the Rio Grande Valley were not immediately returned. Meanwhile, immigrants processed at a Border Patrol facility and given a “notice to appear” in court continue to trickle into refugee centers near bus stations.
At St. John’s Church in McAllen, twice-a-week “packing parties” have been suspended until further notice. That’s because the refugee center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church does not need more personal hygiene and snack kits at the moment.
Now more than 30 volunteers from St. John’s work instead on Wednesday nights at a food pantry, where they help stack and organize donated goods that keep coming in. If the tide of immigrants surges again in coming months, they’ll be prepared.
“The Border Patrol told us, ‘We’re not counting on this being over. We’re expecting more, and we’re prepared for that,’” Springer said. “So we’re following suit. And these donations will be ready if they’re needed.”