South Texas charity taking in hundreds of released migrants daily, testing them for coronavirus

Border Report Tour

MPP migrants from Reynosa, Mexico, to begin crossing Monday into South Texas

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The sounds of children laughing, crying and screaming can be heard emanating from a giant new tent facility housing newly released undocumented migrants in a fenced-in section of downtown McAllen.

U.S. Border Patrol agents drop off hundreds of undocumented migrants — mostly families with young children and pregnant women — at all hours of the day and night at this tent facility by the bus station and a few blocks from the Humanitarian Respite Center that is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV) in McAllen, Texas.

A security officer guards the entrance on March 17, 2021, to a tent facility in McAllen, Texas, where migrant are dropped off by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and tested for COVID-19 before being released to the nearby bus station, airport or Humanitarian Respite Center. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Healthcare workers at the tent facility — erected as part of collaboration between the City of MCallen other nonprofits — administer COVID-19 tests and they must clear the migrants before they are allowed to board buses, airplanes or access the Humanitarian Respite Center for toiletries, supplies, a shower or a nap.

Sister Norma Pimentel is seen on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, outside the Humanitarian Respite Center her organization, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, runs in downtown McAllen. Behind her is the bus station where migrants board buses after they are tested not to be carrying coronavirus. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Sister Norma Pimentel, a well-known Catholic nun who is executive director of CCRGV, spoke with Border Report on Wednesday morning outside the Humanitarian Respite Center and explained that the current surge in migrants still does not exceed what she saw in 2019, but the main difference is that it is happening during a coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve done this for a while and we’ve seen these numbers higher than this so we’re not alarmed because we’ve seen so many more than what we’re seeing right now. Of course, what’s different now is COVID and that has added a responsibility to us,” Pimentel said. “We make sure that they don’t have COVID.

“We test them. We have a site designated that the city government makes sure we set up and because of their support and their amazing collaboration, we are able to make sure that we are safe, that our community is safe, that everybody who enters the center are safe. … So that nobody who enters the bus station or goes to the airport has COVID.”

“We make sure that they don’t have COVID. … So that nobody who enters the bus station or goes to the airport has COVID”

Sister Norma Pimentel, Catholic Charities of the RGV
A security officer checks the temperature of all migrants on March 17, 2021, as they enter the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McAllen’s aggressive approach to handling the migrant surge is born out of experience and driven by necessity during this pandemic, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has told Border Report. And it comes as other nearby cities, such as Brownsville, Texas, have struggled to safely test all migrants or to keep those who have coronavirus quarantined.

The city of McAllen began collaborating with CCRGV in 2014 when an initial surge of undocumented asylum-seekers began to cross the Rio Grande from the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas into McAllen and surrounding communities in South Texas.

Darling has repeated the story multiple times about how locals started to notice disheveled and tired people mulling around the bus station unaware of their surroundings. The tell tale sign that they were recently released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials: They lack shoe laces, which are taken from the migrants as standard practice when they are apprehended.

A woman from Honduras and her daughter, center, said they traveled 26 days to get to South Texas. They entered the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas, on March 17, 2021, after being released by CBP and tested for COVID by an NGO. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Pimentel reached out to a local priest whose parish is located blocks from the bus station, and the church’s fellowship hall suddenly became the first make-shift respite center that served for several months until they found more permanent facilities. The current site is their fourth location, having been driven out of the latest facility that was located in a well-to-do area of McAllen whose residents did not want so many migrants to be in 2019.

This facility is across the street from the downtown bus station and is a former night club that Pimentel likes to joke that what “used to be a bar serving alcohol, now serves baby formula.”

Women migrants receive bottles and beby formula for their young children on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, inside the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The center is receiving over 500 migrants daily from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

During the surge in 2019, volunteers would get up to 1,100 migrants per day inside this one-story facility that is painted black with separate sleeping quarters in the back, a shower area, and a play area for children. There also is a pantry that migrants can use to stock up on food and baby formula for their trips. Volunteers also help the migrants locate relatives and arrange travel plans, and they provide friendly tips on living in America — such as not nursing babies in public.

Ramona Rosalinda de Alvarado, 20, of Guatemala, arrived Tuesday morning at the Humanitarian Respite Center with her 1-year-old son. They spent a month traveling via “buses, taxies, walking and in a trailer stuffed with 300 people,” she told Border Report.

“It was so hot. There were so many people. We couldn’t breath. It was awful,” she said as she walked around with her son, stretching their legs and waiting to catch a bus to Florida.

When asked why they made the dangerous and arduous journey, Alvarado replied in Spanish: “We want a better future.”

Migrant families with young children sit spaced apart on March 17, 2021, on the floor and on mats inside the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, where they receive food and supplies and travel help. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Throughout the morning, groups of dozens of migrants were walked through the front door of the Humanitarian Respite Center, all wearing face masks and having their temperatures checked prior to entry. They all also carried folders with their DHS-issued Notice to Appear (NTA) documents and travel needs, as well as proof they are COVID-free.

As she walked into the center, one woman from Honduras held tight the hand of a toddler girl beside her. She said they traveled for 26 days. And she said they were so happy to be entering the center and getting such care and help.

Like most migrants interviewed, she did not want to give her name. But she carried the familiar manila folder bearing the words: “PLEASE HELP ME, I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH.”

A migrant woman holds the hand of her young son on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, as she waits for assistance inside the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. She is holding a manila envelope the nonprofit gives them that asks passersby to help them during their travels to the interior. (Border Report Photo/
Sandra Sanchez)

By 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Humanitarian Respite Center already had close to 300 migrants and Pimentel expected it would exceed recent records during this current surge.

She said due to COVID-19, she has fewer volunteers in the center and they try to socially distance the new arrivals.

“It makes it harder for us but we’re trying to do our best,” Pimentel said.

The nun with the big smile was inundated by media requests from news outlets all over the world that waited on 15th Street to snatch a few moments of her time on Wednesday.

Sister Norma Pimentel speaks with the national media on March 17, 2021, outside the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But she is no stranger to the media. Last month, she was interviewed by dozens of outlets as her organization helped to usher into Brownsville, Texas, dozen of asylum-seekers who were released after years of waiting in Matamoros, Mexico, under the Trump administration’s remain-in-Mexico Migrant Protocols Program.

They have it all under control, she Pimentel said calmly, and they know they can handle more people, because they have in the past, although it wasn’t during a pandemic.

And they are expecting even more through the center starting next week when Pimentel said CBP is slated to begin dropping off released migrants from the MPP program over the McAllen/Hidalgo International Bridge. This will be the first time migrants who have been living in Reynosa, Mexico, will be allowed into South Texas since the Biden administration did away with the MPP program.

She said all will be treated the same: They will go to the tents, get tested and then to the center for travel plans and to pick up supplies.

Those who test positive for COVID-19 are driven to a special hotel where they are housed and cared for and food is delivered and volunteers make sure they remain quarantined.

“We keep them there and take care of them and make sure they are cared for correctly and they are safe and when released from there they can go join their families,” she said with a smile and a wave as another group of migrants began making their way into her downtown center.

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