McALLEN — For years, actress Alyssa Milano has advocated publicly for human rights, gun safety and progressive climate change initiatives, all of which have inspired support from many Democrats and mocking from some Republicans across the country.
On Wednesday, she received an intimate look at an issue she has spoken about often: immigration. In town filming a movie, Milano was invited by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen to tour the Catholic Charities migrant respite center in downtown McAllen.
“Because we were shooting in this border town, I thought it was important to get to know the district and understand the different things that go on here,” Milano said after touring the facility near the downtown bus station. “To see what Catholic Charities has been able to accomplish, to be able to go in there and play with the children and families looking for a better life — it’s been a really special morning.”
The number of asylum seeking immigrants that federal authorities drop off downtown has dwindled in recent months due mostly to the Trump administration’s policy of making migrants wait in Mexican border towns for their asylum court hearings, most of which have been conducted via video conference where the immigration judges appear on a television screen. Some days in recent weeks, the respite center has received less than 10 migrants, a far cry from the hundreds of migrants arriving daily early this year and in previous years.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley who has overseen the migrant relief efforts in McAllen since 2014, has become a recognizable face and voice of the immigration issues playing out in South Texas, and Pimentel has hosted various volunteers, dignitaries and athletes at the respite center.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and NFL cornerback Josh Norman of the Washington Redskins both toured the facility this year. Norman donated $18,000 for commercial washers and dryers. Pelosi, accompanied by a large Congressional delegation, said she wanted to send a message to the migrants.
“Every one of these immigrants who comes with the hope and determination and optimism to make the future better for their families, well, those are American traits and these immigrants make America more American with their values,” Pelosi said during a news conference following the August tour, and before the delegation concluded their several-day trip to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and McAllen, before returning to Washington, D.C.
Milano on Wednesday noted these countries, displaying knowledge of the immigration issues that touch the southern border.
“When people say we have a crisis on the border, I’ve always said from the beginning: ‘We don’t have a crisis on the border, we have a crisis in three Central American countries,” Gonzalez said on Wednesday, ticking off the countries. He paused before saying the final country, and Milano jumped in to assist: “El Salvador,” she said, mentioning the last of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Millions of people have migrated north from those three countries in recent years following decreasing economic opportunity, violence and political persecution, among other issues.
Gonzalez has hosted countless colleagues and others in recent years, and Milano may have been one of the best known. While Gonzalez and Milano agree on many issues, both said they differ slightly on immigration policy solutions. Milano is more the progressive, though she said she does not support open borders. Gonzalez has rooted his immigration views on what he said is the source of the issue: problems in Central America.
When Milano and other guests have visited, Gonzalez said his opinion has not wavered much. Gonzalez said he understands the issues that need to be addressed and has worked to try to help solve them.
“I’m pretty much set in the way I believe and the things that I think need to get done,” Gonzalez said.
Milano, though, appeared interested in learning from Catholic Charities and from Gonzalez, who the residents of his Congressional district are “lucky to have,” Milano said.
Milano, taking a break from filming “Gift of an Angel,” a film that is said to be about an immigrant family separated at the border, said Wednesday’s tour was part of her exploration of South Texas while she’s in town for work.
Has the region met her expectations?
“In McAllen in particular, the thing that’s been most surprising in shooting here is how amazing the food is,” Milano said. “It’s amazing. I don’t understand how — it’s like a gourmet, foodie city.”
That analysis will likely please top officials in McAllen, who have increased marketing efforts in hopes of the city being known for matters aside from immigration.
“We went to SALT last night,” Milano said of the central McAllen restaurant. “And that was spectacular. Really spectacular.”