BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — A humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the southern border of the United States, and the Catholic Church is finding itself on the front line trying to bring aid to tens of thousands of women and children fleeing unemployment, extreme poverty and drug and gang violence in Central America for a better life in the United States.

More than 39,000 women and children, and 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have turned themselves over to the U.S. Border Patrol since October. Many have endured a dangerous journey and its traumas, such as fear, violence or rape, while in the hands of the coyotes, criminals who smuggle people across the border and charge several thousand dollars for the uncertain promise of a new life in the land of opportunity.

The Church, is stepping up efforts to address this crisis and is calling on volunteers, charities, and the community to meet two distinct needs: women and children crossing the border, and the unaccompanied minors.

“They don’t have much money, or clothes … the basic necessities,” said Bishop Gerald Kicanas, whose Tucson Diocese has been coordinating a major effort with city and county officials, other charities, faith-based groups and members of the community to provide relief to the women and children who come through the Arizona border.

Families with children, Bishop Kicanas explained, are first processed through the Border Patrol, and then are allowed to place a call to a relative or other verifiable sponsor in the United States. They are then released once they have a bus ticket to their “sponsor” family and a scheduled court date with an immigration judge to determine their future.

In the meantime, the coordinated efforts with the community and church are focusing on three priorities: extending hospitality to help migrants understand the currency and culture; humanitarian aid in the form of clothes, food and other necessities; and transitional housing for families delayed in boarding the bus.

“The response of the community has been tremendous,” said Bishop Kicanas. “About two weeks ago, there were about 80 women and children in need of transitional housing. Now it’s gone down to about 6-10, so it is much more manageable. But whether that will increase or decrease no one seems to know.”


Rio Grande Swamped

However, the greatest influx of migrants are coming through the Rio Grande Valley, where the Diocese of Brownsville, located in the southwestern part of Texas, and its local Catholic Charities are straining to find the volunteers and resources needed to provide migrants with much needed aid, comfort and love.

“They need care, and we need to see them as people in need of care. That is all our responsibility as people of God,” said Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande.

In McAllen and Brownsville, Sister Norma’s Catholic Charities volunteers greet hundreds of migrants and their families daily at the bus stations and direct them to Catholic Charities assistance centers, where they can get some rest, a shower, a change of clothes and other supplies before they continue on their journey. The centers also handle calls and take down information from relatives asking if the volunteers have seen their families come through.

Volunteers work in three shifts taking care of everything from cooking and cleaning to counseling. Some volunteers are assigned to a family to take them through the process, and provide them with new shoes, undergarments and travel kits for one-to-three-day journeys that include items for baby care.

“My desire is to reach out and touch these people and hug them and give them a sense of care,” said Sister Norma, adding that she wants the migrants to know that people in the United States look at them as people in need of their love and care while they are here.

The other dioceses and Catholic Charities in Texas are coordinating how to best assist Sister Norma’s efforts. Just the other day, the Diocese of Corpus Christi sent in a shipment of supplies and donations. Doctors and nurses have also volunteered their services as well.


Ministering to Minor Migrants

However, the federal government has not yet allowed the Catholic Church and its charities to serve the needs of the unaccompanied minors being kept by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA’s 13 facilities are already overwhelmed, although more are expected to be built.

“It is just heartbreaking to be among them, with their gentle faces crying and asking for help,” said Sister Norma. She was allowed recently to visit the children, toddlers to teenagers, crowded together in bare cells at a FEMA holding facility.

The visit may have made a difference: Most of the children are Catholic, and Sister Norma said the FEMA officers noticed how the children brightened up from the few minutes of her presence in the facility, because they recognized her as a sister.

“They saw the transformation of hope,” she said.

“The officer in charge said he was okay with it,” she said. “He said, ‘seeing how the children responded to you, this needs to happen.’”

In Tucson, Bishop Kicanas said FEMA allowed two of his priests access to the Nogales center, which has been housing unaccompanied minors. He said they did not report poor conditions, but they did report a great need for spiritual and emotional support as the children are mainly Catholic and have experienced a traumatic journey from their home countries through Mexico.

“They have Border Patrol chaplains, but they are not priests, and of course a lot of these young children are Catholic,” he said.

Bishop Kicanas said the diocese is negotiating with FEMA to get proper clearances for priests to come and say Mass, and even get ministers and counselors in to “allow more spiritual and emotional care for the children.”

“FEMA is very, very concerned that these children be protected, so they’ve been very reluctant to allow community groups to come in, and they are trying to manage it on their own.”

The bishop said he would like to see the Church allowed to develop some organized programs, even if they are only 5-10 days long, that can provide some support to the children held by FEMA.


Call for Collaboration

Back in Texas, Sister Norma said she is working on getting the proper clearances and procedures to get the children spiritual support, counseling and a more humane environment.

But she expressed concern that the federal government did not seem as willing to collaborate with churches and charities as they did in the late 1980s during the last border crisis of migrants fleeing Central America.

Said Sister Norma, “I don’t have the solution, but if it worked then, why can’t it today?”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.