“If the Church Doesn’t Help These People, Who Will?” — Christians and Volunteers in Communities Along Texas Border Set Politics Aside to Care for Immigrants Arriving in U.S.

Marta Beltran, 19, of El Salvador, holds her 18-month-old son, Lenny, as they ride a city shuttle bus from the McAllen city bus station to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church Shelter in McAllen, Texas on July 4, 2014.
Marta Beltran, 19, of El Salvador, holds her 18-month-old son, Lenny, as they ride a city shuttle bus from the McAllen city bus station to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church Shelter in McAllen, Texas on July 4, 2014.

The communities on the front lines of the border crisis knew the situation was growing into a massive humanitarian emergency long before the Feds arrived. When detention centers were still warehouses and it hadn’t occurred to politicians to issue press releases, residents were already gathering baby formula, diapers and toys.

It began in the Spring. More and more mothers with their young children were parked at the main bus terminal, often without food, supplies and clean clothes. Most had not showered in days, stranded in an unfamiliar town with no way to reach loved ones living in the U.S. Women, on their way to work or errands, began to notice and with little plan or organization began arriving with help. But they could hardly meet the demand, and the bus station parking lot began to resemble a never-ending tailgate party.

“Pretty soon it became such a bottleneck there that they were told to leave,” recalled Ofelia de los Santos, who works with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

That’s when Sister Norma got the call.

“They came to me and asked me to please help,” Sister Norma Pimentel said in an interview. Within days, Pimental tasked Catholic Charities with expanding the operation to the parish halls at Sacred Heart, a few blocks away from the central bus station. The makeshift shelter opened in only a matter of weeks.

What started out of the trunk of a car, in a church basement and over parking lot chatter has become the collective outpouring of an entire community. Pop-up shelters in McAllen, run by community groups and faith-based organizations, now fill a crucial void in services for migrant mothers and children as the government struggles to keep up with the demand.

While the Obama administration scrambles to deal with the humanitarian crisis at hand, faith-based and community organizations are also in emergency response mode. The groups fill a crucial gap in care for the thousands of migrant families who braved a treacherous journey north. And in times when the political optics are just as important, these organizations are not just providing care for those in need, but also serve a cushion to the government’s response to the crisis.

“You know, if the church doesn’t help these people, who will?” de los Santos said.

The Rio Grande Valley was hit first and hardest, with the surge of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S from Central America. Its very location makes the region a heavy traffic point for illegal border crossings, but this time was different. There were more and more children, from toddlers to teenagers, traveling on their own. And they weren’t trying to sneak into Texas – many were immediately turning themselves in.

By the time President Obama formally declared the situation a “humanitarian crisis” and funneled emergency money and resources to the border, federal immigration agents had already run out of beds for the apprehended kids. The Rio Grande Valley saw a more than 178% increase in the number of migrant children crossing into Texas. Federal facilities were unequipped and ill-prepared to fill the unique needs of children who were traveling alone.

“Our government seems to be taking its time and declaring it an emergency,” de los Santos says. “It is a crisis, we have families that have been authorized to be here temporarily that are in trouble and they need help.”

The core tenets of service set up a unique dynamic for congregations and church volunteers. Many are from churches that hold staunchly conservative social values, and live in deep-red pockets with some of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the country. Yet when called to serve, volunteers are putting compassion and humanity ahead of political beliefs.

“This is our calling, our opportunity to serve,” said Sister Leticia Benavides with the Catholic Charities. “As a Christian myself, I find that this is my obligation to be here. And I think that all of the volunteers that you see here are here because of that. They have a call, we all have a call to serve, and this is our time to serve.”

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SOURCE: Amanda Sakuma 

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