Respite center building now owned by Catholic Charities

Immigrants are guilded into the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center on Sunday, Aug 11, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez |

Former City Commissioner John Ingram blamed his underdog defeat in the May election, in part, due to issues involving the city and the migrant relief center. False advertisements were aired on local radio waves calling McAllen a ‘sanctuary city’ in relation to the migrant aid operation run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, with support from the city. And nearly every city commissioner argued about the respite center building yet hardly any of them provided an alternative.

Ultimately, city commissioners decided the city would purchase the building and Catholic Charities would be the tenant.

But now, after months of dispute between city officials and clashes between some residents and Catholic Charities, the building now belongs to the church, parties involved confirmed. The sale of the building was never completed to the city, so it still belonged to the previous owner when this summer, Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, approached the city interested in buying the building.

Pimentel’s interest came after some tough moments between her and the city, which, at the time, made both sides uncomfortable after years of a symbiotic relationship between city officials and Pimentel.

In February, city commissioners narrowly voted to remove the respite center from the building it was operating out of on Hackberry Avenue, in a 16,000-square foot former nursing home near Second Street. Pimentel moved the migrant operations there after her organization’s previous building ended up being too small to be able to accommodate the overwhelming number of asylum-seeking migrants dropped off at the downtown bus station by federal authorities.

At the February city commission meeting, officials attempted to sift through the tension between some residents and the respite center.

“We have children that live in our neighborhoods that play in the streets, riding bikes,” Patricia Keating said at the meeting. She has lived a block from the former respite center building on Hackberry Avenue for 30 years. “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.”

Minutes later, Pimentel countered.

“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. “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.”

Commissioners, who each felt compelled to explain their vote at the time, an unusual move, didn’t propose much of a plan for the respite center. If there was no respite center, federal authorities would continue dropping of migrants at the downtown McAllen bus station without aid, officials said.

“Who knows where they’d end up?” Darling said.

Eventually, through what City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez thought was a creative maneuver, the city had an opportunity to receive from the federal government a majority of funding for a new respite center building that would eventually turn into the city’s transit administration building.

Rodriguez said the Federal Transit Authority had agreed to pay for about 80% of a new building near the bus station that would serve as the immigrant relief facility that Catholic Charities would run until the organization’s permanent respite center that will be built in downtown McAllen, with an expected completion date of 18 months from now.

But Pimentel, upon moving into the building, quickly realized it was a perfect fit. The purchasing process took weeks, but it was finalized this week. And now that the building dispute has settled down, so have the migrant flows. Just 12 migrants arrived on Thursday and 16 on Friday, down from hundreds per day in the winter and early summer.

A new Trump administration policy has resulted in migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexican border towns, such as Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, while they await their day in court in front of an immigration judge. Because of that, federal authorities have hardly been releasing migrants downtown.

“It’s down,” Rodriguez said. “For now.”