Charities help immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border
McAllen, Texas -- At a makeshift shelter in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church an army of volunteers helps weary Central Americans just released by the Border Patrol.
"In some miraculous way everybody has reached out and helped," said Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Catholic Charities is leading the humanitarian effort with aid from others as communities and charities try to respond to the mass migration from Central America.
"It wasn't just our Catholic church, evangelical churches, Baptist churches, Methodist churches giving us monetary donations, giving us some of their students doing community service hours," said Ofelia de los Santos, volunteer coordinator. "It's been an incredible response," said de los Santos.
The parents and kids who arrived at the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs were detained and released because the Border Patrol has nowhere to house families.
Immigration authorities released families on their own recognizance while their cases are being decided so many converged on the local bus station trying to reunite with relatives who live elsewhere in the U.S.
With bus tickets sold out daily, immigrants had nowhere to turn so Catholic Charities set up the "rest stations" in McAllen and Brownsville on June 10.
Since then volunteers have helped about 4000 people of all ages, from a new born baby girl to a 97-year-old grandmother.
"It's an oasis in the desert, " said "Maria, a mother from El Salvador who set off for the Texas-Mexico border 20 days ago with her 15-year-old daughter.
Catholic Charities asked that full names of families who agreed to share their stories not be used.
"Girls my daughter's age are forced to join gangs," said the mother tearfully. "If not, they don't, they're raped, killed or disappear."
She said the church shelter was the first and only place she had been treated with any kindness since leaving home.
"It's as if God said 'I'm here on the other side waiting for you. Everything you suffered, here I will relieve your burden.'" said Maria.
She and her teenage daughter were in line to board a trolley to the McAllen bus station. The city is helping pay to shuttle migrants from the shelter to the bus station.
She is on her way to Florida where her husband s working and hopes her daughter can attend school. "She wants to be a lawyer."
For now their legal status and that of all the other families is in question. All have been told to report to the nearest immigration court within 15 days after their release.
The shelter is only a temporary refuge before migrants depart and try to reunite with relatives living and working elsewhere in the U.S.
As the trolley pulled up, a little girl in Dora the Explorer T-shirt pulled a stuffed Hello Kitty doll from her bag.
Volunteers organized donations including toys, shoes and clothes by gender and age group. One pile says "girls 3-6."
There is a place to shower, food, and baby formula.
In one area volunteers prepare snack bags including animal cookies for the group of departing parents and kids.
"Bye," Dios te Bendiga," God bless you, said de los Santos to the migrants as they continue their journey.
While politicians point fingers and argue over immigration policies, volunteers like de los Santos and others at church shelter tend to the immediate needs of the people at the center of that debate.
"Who are we to criticize them for seeking life instead of death?"