By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Seventeen-year-old Alejandro and his mother, Nora, had no luggage or supplies when U.S. Border Patrol agents dropped them at a bus station in the border town of McAllen, Texas, on July 17. But at least the death threats were finally far away.
Ten days earlier, they had fled their home in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Three gangs had been trying to extort a large payment and recruit Alejandro, a top student with good looks and no desire to become a gangster.
That Alejandro’s father is a Santa Ana detective did not help. He had tried unsuccessfully to prosecute a gang, whose members now have a bounty on his head. And their threats do not ring hollow. A gang recently killed one of Alejandro’s friends, he said, and chopped his body into small pieces.
Nora said in Spanish: “The gangs told my son, ‘We know where you go to school. We know what time you get out. We know where you go. Either you pay us and join our gang or we’ll kill you.’”
The journey across Guatemala and Mexico cost them $8,000 in the hands of a coyote, or human smuggler, who delivered them to U.S. Border Patrol agents swamped by a massive recent influx of violence-scarred Central American immigrants. Then came a multi-day stay in a facility where detainees are packed shoulder-to-shoulder on floors, even in bathrooms, with no room to stretch out or lie down. By the time they’re released, many are exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated, according to volunteers who interview them.
As the Border Patrol van pulled away, the mother-son pair had few options. They needed food, a shower, and a phone to call Los Angeles, where they would stay with Alejandro’s brothers and make their quest for asylum. They spoke no English and had no contacts in southern Texas. They hoped someone would have mercy and help them.
Moments later, their prayers were answered. The help they needed was freely offered in Christ’s name five blocks away at a rapidly assembled, church-run refugee center.
What they tasted there, besides cool water and stomach-soothing soup, was the fruit of new ecumenical partnerships, born out of an unexpected crisis and now positioned for sustained outreach to the needy in months ahead.
“Everybody just came on their own, saying, ‘We want to help, we want to volunteer,’” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the refugee center. “Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, United Methodist — all of us are working together and taking responsibility for one aspect or another.”
At Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a transformed parking lot and parish hall help weary immigrants regain strength as they wait, sometimes hours or a full day, for buses to depart for points north. Two air-conditioned tents provide quiet, partitioned space for as many as 100 to nap or sleep overnight on cots. One mobile unit provides showers; another allows for doctor visits. Inside, bilingual volunteers applaud each new arrival, then guide their guests through tidy stacks of donated clothing.
From early June through mid-July, nearly 4,000 immigrants — almost entirely mothers and children — received refreshment and their first warm welcome north of the border at Sacred Heart. Thousands more were blessed with similar ecumenical assistance at church-run refugee centers in the Texas cities of Brownsville, Laredo, and El Paso, as well as Artesia, New Mexico; Tucson and Phoenix; and Fontana, California.
These projects mark churches’ collective response to a massive flow of children into the United States, some unaccompanied and some with one parent, from violence-scarred pockets of Central America. More than 52,000 have arrived since October, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The unaccompanied are kept in detention centers and then turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services. The thousands who arrive with a parent are released with a court date and given permission to live with relatives, at least temporarily, in the United States. That’s how they end up at bus stations in border towns, with no belongings and lots of vulnerabilities.
For McAllen’s Christians, tackling poverty- and immigration-related problems is part of daily life, but the scale of this year’s sudden crisis has required an entirely new level of working together.
By late May, Border Patrol was picking up 100 to 200 children and mothers a day in McAllen and dropping them off by the dozen a week or so later at the bus station. Church leaders assessed needs and doled out tasks until each community had a specific, major role to play.
Nora and Alejandro were direct beneficiaries of this ecumenism in action. Volunteers from an evangelical church found them at the bus station, where coyotes have been known to stalk and entice immigrants, and steered them to safety. At Sacred Heart, their soup was served by the Salvation Army. Cot linens were laundered by Calvary Baptist Church.
By the time mother and son left to catch their bus, they were no longer empty-handed. Nora held a satchel with toothpaste, shampoo, and other personal hygiene items. Alejandro carried a bright yellow backpack with water, crackers, and other snacks.
All they carried had been packed the night before in McAllen at St. John’s Church. For an hour, members of three Diocese of West Texas congregations had set aside their political differences on whether undocumented immigrants fleeing violent conditions should be allowed to stay in the United States, focusing instead on the need at hand.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or if you’re liberal on this issue,” said the Rev. Jim Nelson, rector of St. John’s. “There are children and people here that are hurting and need our help. End of story.”
The human toll of this year’s immigration surge is visible long before children arrive in the United States. Every time a freight train nicknamed La Bestia (“The Beast”) leaves the Guatemala-Mexico border, more than 1,000 immigrants — mostly women and children — cling to its roof and sides for the perilous journey north. Some die en route, and some get kidnapped. One man broke down in tears in McAllen as he recalled being held for days with 50 other Hondurans.
“They could hear the girls in their group being raped, but there was nothing they could do,” said Hermi Forshage, the refugee center volunteer who interviewed him. “His son was clearly traumatized by what happened.”
Meanwhile tensions have been running visibly high on the Texas-Mexico border. On a 102-degree afternoon in July, Border Patrol vehicles crawled along the U.S. side of a steel border fence. A surveillance helicopter flew slowly over every winding turn in the Rio Grande River, while Border Patrol boats combed the banks below. Local police and a legion of state troopers lay in wait across the Texas border region. To drive 20 minutes along U.S. 83 was to pass dozens of official vehicles, all idling in low-profile spots where they might nab the next undocumented immigrant child and parent.
Yet on a Wednesday night at St. John’s, no one needed prodding to prepare supplies for people like Nora and Alejandro, even though they had entered the United States without permission. “Packing parties” have become twice-a-week events at St. John’s. This one had an air of urgency as the parish hall became a beehive of activity at the strike of 6 p.m.
More than 50 volunteers formed vigorous assembly lines that packed every available item. A youth group from St. Stephen’s Church in Wimberley handled non-perishables and restocked boxes. A team from St. Peter & St. Paul’s Church in Mission folded Spanish-language prayers and sealed them in plastic bags.
Laypeople from St. John’s oversaw operations until the day’s purchases, made with help from a $10,000 Episcopal Relief & Development grant and in-kind donations, gave out. The final tally: 1,707 kits, all packed and sealed in 35 minutes.
The event drew people of varied minds on the politics of immigration. All three congregations have parishioners who want the new immigrants deported, participants said, and not all volunteers hope they will stay in the United States. Immigration is such a charged issue in this region that on-duty refugee center volunteers may not talk about it. The topic is banned from the premises.
Support for refugee relief efforts, however, is broad-based, according to the Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge, Bishop of West Texas. As of mid-July, the diocese had raised more than $30,000 (not including the ERD grant) for refugee relief efforts in McAllen and Laredo. About 90 percent had come from within the diocese, but the fundraising effort is becoming national in scope.
“This is a crisis right now at the border, but it is not a border issue,” Bishop Lillibridge said. “It is a broader issue that affects what the whole country looks like and what the whole country acts like.”
Meanwhile the situation’s poignancy is inspiring once-hesitant churchgoers to become involved in outreach. For Beth Lindner Thaddeus, who joined St. John’s this spring, the immigration crisis has prompted her first foray into mission with the congregation. She’s become a packing-party regular.
“We might be the only Christians that they see,” Thaddeus said. “I want them to see the church as something worthwhile and good that they might want to become a part of. … When they hear the word Christian, they might say, ‘Oh yeah, those people were nice. They helped.’”
The crisis in McAllen has been so massive as to warrant a second layer of help from congregations 150 miles away in Laredo. They too have stepped up, despite having none of the infrastructure that is crucial in McAllen.
In early June, Customs and Border Protection officers identified a new problem: McAllen did not have enough buses to handle all the immigrants they were dropping off each day. Just like CBP, the private transportation system was overwhelmed. Agents started busing former detainees to terminals in Laredo and other border-region cities. Laredo residents began noticing this unusual practice and wondered what was going on.
“I saw a line of about 100 people waiting to use the phone at the bus station,” said the Rev. Paul Harris, pastor of Laredo First United Methodist Church. “I thought, What are all these people doing here?”
New immigrants in Laredo had the same needs as those in McAllen: water, food, a place to rest and clean up. But unlike McAllen, the City of Laredo did not supply tents or other infrastructure for an impromptu refugee operation. Christians would need to handle the daily influx on their own. That would mean marshaling resources and cooperating on an unprecedented level.
Bethany House of Laredo, a nonprofit homeless shelter and soup kitchen with Roman Catholic roots, bore as much of the burden as it could. The number of daily meals surged from 130 to 230 virtually overnight. The number of towels laundered daily jumped from 40 to 150 as mothers and children got clean. But the hungry kept coming and needing more assistance than a maxed-out, no-vacancy shelter could alone provide. St. Peter the Apostle Church welcomed hundreds of new immigrants to community meals. Then a question arose: what about the Holding Institute, a former seminary turned adult education center, run by a mission group known as United Methodist Women? Could the institute adapt its space to become a refugee assistance center?
Board members quickly approved the plan, and soon the institute was managing every need as it arose. Twenty refugees slept one night in what had been a classroom a few days earlier. Meeting space filled with tables piled high with donated clothing. Six thousand hygiene kits arrived from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Holding’s one-block campus became an oasis where tired immigrants could make calls, meet with friends, have a sandwich, and sit outside under the trees. None wanted to stay indoors after more than a week in crowded detention, said Rebecca Solloa, executive director of Catholic Social Services of Laredo, which now has a facility at the Holding Institute.
Even as migration slowed for a week in mid-July, volunteers kept helping. One afternoon, a team from Save the Children and La Iglesia Bautista Santa Fe in Laredo hauled gravel and prepared space for a playground. Members of Christ Church in Laredo raised money and pitched in as well, especially during the early crush.
“There was a mother trying to look for clothes and holding a baby at the same time,” said Christ Church member Kathie Alexander. “I said, ‘Well, let me hold the baby. You look for the clothes.’ Another little baby was crying. It just broke my heart, so I ended up getting some toys for them to play with. You just end up going where you need to be.”
No level of effort could equip the immigrants entirely for challenges ahead. During a TLC reporter’s visit, a Honduran woman left Laredo’s bus station with a man, possibly a coyote, Solloa said. Another woman was kidnapped earlier in the month by a coyote at the McAllen bus terminal and held for ransom.
Yet Laredo has nonetheless met countless needs of immigrants and has forged new bonds. By late June, a group of faith organizations and nonprofits had formed the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team, which meets regularly to coordinate efforts. Now former acquaintances are working partners with a common cause.
“They were our partners before, whether they were cleaning cafeterias, serving meals, or donating items for Bethany House, but we weren’t all hanging out and having lunch together the way we are now,” said Beatriz Saldana, director of operations for Bethany House. “It’s going to help us all be stronger and reach out to each other more easily since we now know each other on a personal basis.”
The new relationships even span the border with Mexico. When the crisis peaked, Pastor Jaser Davila of Iglesia Metodista Apocento Alto in Nuevo Laredo brought volunteers from his congregation across the international bridge regularly to help at the Holding Institute. It was the first time the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo Methodist communities had worked together on a project.
Even when the tide of immigrants slowed in mid-July, Mexican Methodists returned to visit their new friends, who one night offered three cases of self-heating meals. The need had shifted south. Women and children from Central America were now piling up on the Mexican side in Nuevo Laredo, waiting for a chance to cross into the United States, he said. Members of Pastor Davila’s team accepted, saying they would hand out the meals to hungry families on Nuevo Laredo’s streets later that night.
“The infrastructure isn’t in place yet, but the goal is for us to raise the resources and have something similar to this operation in Nuevo Laredo,” Davila said in Spanish as his crew paid a visit to Holding. “We’ll keep learning from each other.”
In the United States, relief projects are expected to continue for at least six more months with the continued immigration wave. And more efforts could be forthcoming from the strengthened ties among area Christians.
Clergy have been among the first civilians invited to make regular visits to detention facilities housing unaccompanied minors. Once inside, they can monitor conditions and advocate for unaccompanied children, according to John-Michael Torres, a community organizer in McAllen. Faith leaders might also borrow a page from past eras and advocate in courtrooms for undocumented children and families who cannot afford legal representation, according to Harlan York, an immigration attorney in Newark, New Jersey.
Looking ahead, the Diocese of Arizona is exploring how people of faith might provide foster care for unaccompanied immigrant children. And the Diocese of Guatemala is circulating a letter from the Rev. Nancy Springer, assistant rector at St. John’s in McAllen, in which she cautions families not to send children to the United States, where they face an uncertain fate and potential abuse in the foster care system.
Whether new relationships from this summer’s relief projects will blossom into further care for immigrants or other types of local outreach remains to be seen. What’s certain is that new partnerships among Christians are in place and energized for action. And participants plan to keep the momentum going.
“In the long-haul witness of this, we have to continually hold up the human-being factor,” Bishop Lillibridge said. “This isn’t going to be a short-term problem. Whether a person is going to be allowed to stay here or be sent back to their country, compassion needs to override all of these considerations.”
TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.