UPDATE: Negotiations ongoing for new McAllen immigrant respite center

The Humanitarian Respite Center on Hackberry Avenue in McAllen is seen Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Negotiations are underway for a new immigrant respite center after city commissioners last month ordered Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley to vacate its building a mile northeast of downtown.

McAllen officials, who said they’ve been working with Catholic Charities to find a new space, said the new facility they’re eyeing is near the downtown bus station. That building, however, needs some renovations, officials said.

“We’re trying to help make it work,” City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said Tuesday, with roughly eight weeks before Catholic Charities has to leave its current location. “We better find something before then.”

That respite center, near the corner of Hackberry Avenue and Second Street, has occupied a 16,000-square-foot former nursing since December, when Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the RGV, relocated operations from a small space near Bentsen Tower downtown. Federal authorities had been dropping off hundreds of immigrants every day, and the rented location near the tower was overwhelmed by the number of immigrants.

February was the busiest month at the border since 2007 for immigrant apprehensions. Authorities detained 76,103 migrants, up from 58,207 in January. Many of the asylum-seeking immigrants have continued to temporarily stay at the respite center before they often board a bus to meet family members or sponsors elsewhere in the United States. That process was a bit more seamless when Catholic Charities had operated facilities downtown since 2014.

However, in the fall of 2017, when immigration numbers dropped, Pimentel moved operations to the rented property by Bentsen Tower, and just a couple blocks from the bus station. But when numbers increased in 2018, she needed more space and moved to the more accommodating former nursing home.

But when Catholic Charities went through the permitting process for its Hackberry Avenue facility, some neighbors opposed the city issuing a permit.

“We have children that live in our neighborhoods that play in the streets, riding bikes,” Patricia Keating, who has lived a block from the respite center building for 30 years, said during a February city commission meeting. “We don’t feel like these people are safe because we’ve seen some of these people that get off the buses, walking up and down our streets. I don’t know why they’re allowed such freedom. I think that at any point, something bad could happen. And we’re trying to stop it before it does.”

Pimentel, who did not return phone calls for this story, defended the immigrants and her operation, which, like others along the U.S.-Mexico border, provide a sort of immigration safety net that the federal government does not.

“The citizens and the community is also mine. I care about people, and I believe that what we are doing in the respite center is not affecting the community in a negative way, by all means,” Pimentel said at that same February meeting. “We are working very diligently to make sure that these families get the care they need, but at the same time, doing it in a way that we respect the neighborhood and the people because the families that we receive who come into the building, stay in the building. They don’t go wandering around.

“And also — they’re not criminals. They’re people who have been released by Border Patrol because they are not a threat to the United States; they have been given permission to travel. They have papers and they really are scared, frightened. They are grateful because we here in McAllen, Texas have received them and treated them like human beings.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the state of negotiations.