Respite center receives truckload of donations; protestors march against family separations

Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com Sister Norma Pimentel along with Central American immigrants help unload a Penske truck filled with donations from the San Francisco-based Bay Area Border Relief. The group donated 26,000 pounds of food to the Humanitarian Respite Center on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in McAllen.

McALLEN — “Show me what democracy looks like!”

“This is what democracy looks like!”

A crowd of protestors shouted chants Sunday afternoon as passersby honked. Gathered at Bentsen Tower on the corner of Business 83 and 17th Street in downtown McAllen, the group marched to Archer Park against the zero tolerance policy.

Under the policy, which was announced in April 2018 under President Trump’s administration, parents are referred for prosecution while children are placed in the custody of a sponsor. A federal judge in California ordered an injunction barring the separation of migrant families and demanding family reunifications, but civil rights groups say separations are still ongoing.

“We’re here to remind the country that families are still being separated,” said Robert Lopez, 25, a community outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project, or TCRP. He said TCRP “has counted over 700 families in McAllen alone” that have been separated since the injunction.

Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com
With the federal building in the background, organizers from LUPE and the Texas Civil Rights Project march to protest the zero tolerance policy and family separations on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in McAllen.

A few blocks away, another group was quietly working for a similar cause at the Humanitarian Respite Center. The Bay Area Border Relief, or BABR, a volunteer organization based in San Francisco, brought a Penske truck filled with donations to the center, which is run by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

The donated items included clothes, blankets and diapers, as well as toys and other sanitary products and supplies for the immigrants at the center. There were so many donations, according to the group, that about 50 pounds had to be left behind at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona.

Lilli Ray, a lead organizer of the group, said this donation truck was their biggest haul yet.

“This is our fourth trip within a year,” Ray said. “There’s a lot of needs and we’re ready to… provide our help and support.”

Ray said the group first came in June 2018 because McAllen was “ground zero” for family separations. She said they’ve kept returning because they felt connected to the people here.

“We started here and we feel very invested,” Ray said.

Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com
Central American immigrants help unload a Penske truck filled with donations from the San Francisco-based Bay Area Border Relief, which donated 26,000 pounds of food to the Humanitarian Respite Center on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in McAllen.

One member of BABR, Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, stepped outside the respite center Sunday afternoon to find a crowd of protestors marching to end the zero tolerance policy, and joined in.

“It meant so much to see,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “I’m proud of McAllen for putting [that] together.”

The event was co-sponsored by multiple organizations, including TCRP, La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas as well as the Equal Voice Network.

One LUPE member, Tanya Chavez, 34, said the protest was also held Sunday to mark the near-one-year anniversary since the injunction.

“This is a way we continue to elevate [awareness],” Chavez said. “We are responding to a humanitarian issue in a humanitarian way.”

Austin citizen Leo Munda, 28, traveled to McAllen for Sunday’s march. He expressed concern over what he sees as people’s complacency.

“It’s kind of sad that so many of us are becoming numb to these issues,” Munda said.

Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com
Members of LUPE and the Texas Civil Rights Project march in protest of the zero tolerance policy and family separations in front of the Bentsen Tower on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in McAllen.

Hernandez-Arriaga agreed that the ongoing family separations is a humanitarian crisis. She said immigrants continue to face obstacles even after leaving centers, such as the one managed by Sister Norma Pimentel.

“They become invisible,” she said. “Their need is so great.”

Hernandez-Arriaga said she’s happy to volunteer at the respite center, even though she finds it emotional. Her team member, Cipritano Galindo, said in Spanish that helping those at the center helps him.

“It fills my spirit,” Galindo said. “When we give them [our donations], I see that they receive it well.”

Galindo, 52, drove the Penske truck from San Francisco to McAllen, a journey measuring approximately 2,000 miles.

As a part-time freight driver, this was his second trip on behalf of BABR.

“[Driving] doesn’t make me tired because I know it’s for people,” Galindo said.

Ray said each of her group members learns a valuable lesson from their volunteering experience. Hers?

“Helping another human being is never wrong, and I live by that,” Ray said. “We know it’s not  monsters coming across. They’re human beings and they deserve a chance.”