McALLEN — Taking a moment from an at-times overwhelming schedule Friday, Sister Norma Pimentel, the respite center’s most recognized public figure, cradled an infant in her arms.
Pimentel looked lovingly at the five-day old baby girl as she explained that the child’s mother, who also has a toddler to care for, gave birth less than a week ago and would rest a few more days before moving on to her next destination.
As the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, operators of the three respite facilities in McAllen, Pimentel spends a lot of time here, and on this morning she’s directing staff and volunteers to handle the various needs of their guests.
Sitting inside a room immediately to the right of the respite center’s entrance, located on Hackberry Street, were four adults each waiting to meet with staff as they prepared to make plans to secure bus tickets to their next destination.
In the hallway, children play with their toys, as people move between their assigned rooms, and the common spaces within the center.
The majority of those that temporarily stay at the respite center are kids, Pimentel said. In many ways, the desire to help children is how the respite center originally came to be.
Going into its fifth year, the respite center was born of the unaccompanied minors “crisis” in 2014, when droves of kids from Central American countries were arriving without their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
During that period, beginning in the fall of 2013, through the summer of 2014, U.S. Border Patrol officials said they had apprehended nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children along the U.S. southwest, a majority of them from Central American countries. There were an expected 90,000 more apprehensions expected by that year’s end.
In early June 2014, Pimentel, identifying a need to temporarily house these immigrant children, and immigrant family units, used Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s facilities, located in downtown McAllen, as a makeshift temporary shelter.
Before they opened the facility, Border Patrol officials, lacking the space in their detention centers, were dropping off the recently processed migrants at the bus station in McAllen, located just blocks from the church.
Immediately, Pimentel said, she reached out to McAllen city representatives, and Border Patrol officials, to figure out a way to work in concert to help with what then-President Obama had declared a humanitarian crisis on the border.
“We sat at the table and said there’s a situation we’re having to address here in our community, and we need your cooperation,” Pimentel said. “They were very accessible, and helpful and cooperative. So right from day one, when we approached them, we worked it out — how it would be best to address this (crisis).”
A line of communication between Border Patrol and the respite center had opened from that point on, according to Pimentel.
She said specifically, it was helpful to know from the agency how many people they would be dropping off; this helped determine how many volunteers they needed, how much food and supplies were required to accommodate the families coming through the center.
The level of cooperation between the entities is the driving force behind the effectiveness of the respite center, which began as modestly as a temporary shelter run out of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, to what is now three different facilities in the city.
The collaboration between the different entities here stands in stark contrast to what took place in El Paso last week, when more than 600 immigrants were dropped off at a downtown bus terminal over the course of several days, beginning Dec. 23.
This caused a chaotic scramble among El Paso charities, city officials and volunteers, to find resources and shelters for the hundreds of migrants, who, without the help of the aforementioned entities, were left stranded in downtown El Paso.
On Monday, the El Paso Times reported that city officials were told by Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials, that they had made a mistake when they dropped off hundreds of immigrants at the bus depot.
Like in the Rio Grande Valley and other southern border states, ICE and Border Patrol typically coordinate with non-profits and other organizations in El Paso to avoid the issues officials experienced last week.
Pimentel said, that on Dec. 26, Border Patrol officials dropped off 550 people at their facilities, a slightly higher than normal average of people for one day.
On average, the number of people being dropped off by Border Patrol fluctuates throughout the year, with as low as 200 a day, to as high as 500, and everywhere in between, Pimentel said.
On Friday morning, the White House sent a presentation to members of Congress, the same presentation seen at the Wednesday briefing on border security between President Trump and leadership.
The presentation, titled “A Border Security and Humanitarian Crisis,” among other factoids, stated there was a 50-percent increase in family unit apprehensions in fiscal year 2018, and a 25-percent increase in apprehension of unaccompanied children during the same time.
But the increase in these types of apprehensions isn’t a surprise to Pimentel, who anticipates more family units, and more children will continue to come to the borders locally, and subsequently to the respite center.
For the local respite centers, she credited the community taking ownership of these families as an aid to Catholic Charities’ efforts in effectively caring for them.
“It’s amazing that it was because the community here in the Valley saw the need, and offered, came forward, and said, ‘I want to help,’ ‘I want to be part of this,’ ‘I want to be able to help.’ They saw the families, they saw the children, the mothers, the babies, and they saw the desperate need they had for help, to help them in a humane way,” Pimentel said.
“It’s beautiful to see our community in the Rio Grande Valley so ready to help a human who is suffering and hurting and needs help. It’s helped me realize who we are here in the Valley. The people in the Valley are amazing people that are ready to reach out to those that need it.”