MCALLEN, Texas - Inside the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel is giving her usual orders to volunteers. Except on this Sunday afternoon, they include bishops.
“We’re putting you to work, Cardinal,” says Pimentel to Houston Archbishop and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, in front of dozens of Central American immigrants released by U.S. immigration authorities just hours before.
The cardinal follows his fellow bishops into a separate room at the makeshift halfway house to serve chicken soup and tortillas to children who have just arrived with their parents from a local detainment center run by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Center.
The scene inside the cramped Respite Center run by Pimentel is a form of organized chaos. Some children play with toy cars while an episode of Curious George plays on a TV screen. Others are spread out on mats, still exhausted from the weeks-long journey from Honduras or El Salvador and their days spent at ICE detainment centers. Adult men try to sleep nesting their heads against the chair in front of them, while young women look for outlets to charge their ICE-issued GPS ankle bracelet monitors.
When the children are invited to eat first in the adjacent dining room, some refuse to leave the arms of their parents, even while being offered their first hot meal in days or weeks.
This is the reality in the Rio Grande Valley that a delegation of bishops has traveled from as far as Long Island and Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see for themselves, amid an immigration crisis that has garnered increased media attention in recent months with reports of more than 2,000 children forcibly separated from their parents by the government on orders from the White House.
“We’re in constant triage - that’s the word that comes to mind,” remarked Brenda Riojas, Diocesan Relations Director for the Diocese of Brownsville, as a toddler scuttled past her on the floor.
It was the uproar over the consequences of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that prompted the U.S. bishops to organize this visit, the fruit of an idea suggested by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark at the USCCB’s annual spring meeting in Florida last month.
But for Riojas and Catholic officials in the Brownsville-McAllen area such as Pimentel and Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores, the situation has looked like this for quite some time.
“You have to be adaptable,” said Flores while serving water to recently arrived children, repeating a theme he stressed earlier that morning in his Sunday Mass homily at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.
At the Mass presided by DiNardo, the South Texas native connected Jesus Christ’s healing of a woman with a flow of blood to the need for Christians to respond to new events.
“The plan of the Lord is to always be attentive to what’s right in front of Him,” he said during the bilingual homily. “That’s Jesus’ way.”
On Sunday, the bishops were treated to up-close reminders that while political developments on this side of the border are in constant flux, the reality faced by people in Central America isn’t expected to change anytime soon.
Along with DiNardo and Flores, Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brennan of Rockville Centre, New York, spent two hours visiting the rented storefront staffed by volunteers from as far as Seattle. Also accompanying them was Brownsville Auxiliary Bishop Mario Avilés. U.S. Bishops’ Vice President and Archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gomez arrived later that evening.
As many as 250 migrants pass through the building each day, according to Pimentel. During their visit, each of the bishops pulled up chairs to chat with the immigrants scattered throughout the room.
Three men from Honduras explained to Bambera why they’d made the perilous, three-week journey with their children.
“The maras make it impossible to live,” said Pedro Marquez from Intibucá Department, Honduras, referencing the street gangs that he says grow stronger in number any time the government tries to crackdown on them. Sitting between him and the bishop was his 11-year-old daughter Yamilet.
“They tax us to live in our own house, tax us to have a business, and if we don’t pay, we get killed,” said Marquez, who on Monday would take a Greyhound bus to be with family members in Philadelphia, just two hours south of Bambera’s diocese.
The two other Hondurans, Germán and Hernán, were headed to Chicago and North Carolina, bringing few belongings but wearing the GPS ankle bracelets placed on them as they left a nearby ICE detention center. The devices are a way of tracking the migrants to help ensure they show up for their immigration court date nearest to their destination in the U.S.
Their worries were briefly forgotten when a birthday cake was brought out to celebrate Pimentel’s birthday. At the end, none was left for her nor Flores, who both took their time serving slices and cupcakes to eager children.
At the Mass earlier that day, DiNardo had to explain his choice of one piece of ecclesiastical attire: the lamb wool pallium belonging to the Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Galveston-Houston, which includes Brownsville.
“I’m not in charge of him [Flores], but he has to be careful with me,” the cardinal joked at the start of the Mass.
Known as a gifted theologian and an active Twitter user among his fellow bishops, Flores tried to set the tone of the visit as a pastoral one, not political theatrics.
“The bishops are visiting here so they can stop, look, talk to people and understand the suffering of many who are amongst us,” Flores said. “It’s part of the purpose of Christian life to talk to people and hear their suffering.”
On Monday, the bishops were scheduled to visit the U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, as well as the infamous Southwest Key Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville.
The visit, according to Flores, was part of the bishops’ desire to better grasp the human side of what’s going on near Texas’s busiest border crossing.
“To talk, to see, because that’s what the Lord shows us,” said Flores. “And then respond.”
Pablo Kay is associate editor of Angelus News, the multimedia news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.