As Immigration and COVID Surge, the Catholic Church in the Rio Grande Valley Focuses on the Human Toll

Perspectives differ greatly about the best ways to serve immigrants while also protecting the health of the wider community, but many agree that failed federal immigration policies have created the present-day crisis.

Immigrants walk towards a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint after they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico on August 14, 2021 in Roma, Texas.
Immigrants walk towards a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint after they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico on August 14, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (photo: John Moore / AFP/Getty)

Conditions at the U.S. southern border have reached dire straits in recent weeks, as an influx of immigrants entering the country has coincided with a renewed outbreak of COVID-19 in southern Texas. 

This latest development has strained the local Church’s ability to serve migrants in need — while also revealing, yet again, the systematic brokenness of U.S. immigration policy.

Despite the challenging circumstances, Bishop Daniel Flores says the Catholic Church’s call to serve vulnerable people who cross the Rio Grande into his diocese remains the same — even if it needs to be adapted to current legal and public health constraints.

“Our first responsibility is to deal with the people who are right in front of us,” Bishop Flores, the shepherd of the Diocese of Brownsville, told the Register. “We can’t pretend that [these immigrants] are not here.”

 

Ground Zero for Immigrants

The Rio Grande Valley — the southern tip of Texas — is ground zero for the surge of mostly Central American immigrants, who have crossed the border in unprecedented numbers in recent months. In July alone U.S. Customs and Borders Protections encountered about 210,000 migrants along the southern border, the largest single-month figure in the past 20 years, and higher than last year’s highest by more than 70,000. 

Spurred on by dire economic and security conditions in their home countries, as well as the Biden administration’s rollback of Trump-era deterrence and enforcement policies, the surge of migrants from countries like Honduras and Guatemala is continuing to crescendo even during the hottest months of the year, an indication that the movement is unusually strong.

Poor, tired and often unsure of how to reach family members in other parts of the U.S., immigrants entering southern Texas receive shelter and support from local Catholics. The Humanitarian Respite Center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, is the Diocese of Brownville’s main apostolate to the migrant community. 

Contrary to several recent media reports, most of the people served at the center have been given government permission to stay in the country. Most immigrants detained at the border are sent back due to Title 42, a measure implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during Trump’s tenure in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, exceptions are made for families with young children — which Mexico has refused to take back — and for families seeking asylum from violence in their native land. They are allowed to stay in the U.S. until their asylum claim can be heard. Upon being processed by Border Patrol, these families are released from federal custody, and dropped off at the Catholic Charities center, located in McAllen, a Texas border city of 150,000 people. 

The center can provide overnight shelter for up to 1,200 women and children, and typically sees at least 800 on a given night. Staff and volunteers help prepare families for their travels to relatives, providing food, baby supplies, and even a ride to the local bus stop. 

Capacity at the Respite Center during the current swell of migration has been strained. When the center lacks the capacity to provide beds to any more migrants, local churches step in, like Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission, Texas, which can host 300 people. 

Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley is looking to expand their facilities to accommodate the numbers they’re now typically seeing, says executive director Sister Norma Piementel.

“My interest and my concern is the families,” Sister Norma, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, told a local news station. “They’re victims in all of this.”

 

Serving in a Pandemic

Already at the limit of whom they can serve, Catholic Charities has faced additional challenges in recent weeks as COVID-19 has spiked in southern Texas, with hospitalization rates reaching previous peak levels. 

In partnership with the city of McAllen, Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley tests all immigrants released into its custody. Rates of infection among migrants have doubled, now close to 10%, according to Sister Norma.  Relatedly, Border Patrol agents are also testing positive at alarming rates.

Infected immigrants are quarantined in local hotels, which are rented out by Catholic Charities. Volunteer doctors and nurses attend to their health, and food and other amenities are provided. Catholic Charities-rented hotels have housed roughly 1,000 infected immigrants a night at the height of the latest COVID outbreak.

However, the approach came under national scrutiny in late July when a family sick with COVID-19 left their hotel in La Joya, Texas, and went to a local Whataburger restaurant. Sister Norma said the instance was an “isolated case,” and that measures have been taken to ensure that quarantining migrants remain in their hotels, but Catholic Charities has also received some criticism from local communities over not notifying authorities that infected immigrants are being quarantined in their towns.

Pouncing on the incident and under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot issued an executive order in late July barring anyone but law enforcement from transporting immigrants. The move hampered Catholic Charities’ ability to help COVID-free, legally-present migrants reach their extended families, but it also hindered the non-profit’s capacity to get infected immigrants to secured locations to quarantine. 

“All we can do is continue to serve within the constraints of the law,” said Bishop Flores. 

On Aug. 3, Governor Abbot’s executive order was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after the U.S. Department of Justice argued that his move encroached upon national immigration policy, which is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The stay was extended another two weeks on August 13.

 

Broken Policy

There may be different perspectives in Texas about the best ways to serve immigrants while also protecting the health of the wider community, but there’s little disagreement that failed federal immigration policies have created the present-day crisis, which the Biden administration has failed to adequately address.

America’s immigration system was broken before Joe Biden became president, but many say he’s exacerbated the flaws — perhaps even before he stepped into office. Partly due to policy relaxations he promised on the campaign trail, partly due to simply not being the notoriously tough-on-immigration Trump, some say Biden fueled the perception that borders would be wide open if he took office, essentially giving the false promise that immigrants from economically depressed and violence-ridden Central American countries would be welcomed into the U.S. with open arms.

With the surge of immigration already on the way, Vice President Kamala Harris famously traveled to Guatemala in June to tell migrants “don’t come” — but hundreds of thousands of members of her intended audience were already in the process of doing so.

Critics also point to changes the Biden administration has made to the process of receiving asylum-seekers. Not only did Biden rescind Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which mandated that asylum-seekers’ cases be decided in the U.S. court before being permitted to enter the country, but the administration has had Border Patrol agents cut back on the amount of documentation required for entering a migrant seeking asylum into the immigration court system. 

A New York Times report suggested that the change has allowed up to 15,000 immigrants to miss the time frame within which they’re required to check in with federal authorities in the city they move to, with immigration enforcement officials unable to track their whereabouts.

More recently, criticism of Biden’s handling of the border crisis has come from both sides of the aisle. On July 30, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a Catholic who represents Texas’s 28th congressional district, joined Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in offering a bipartisan critique of the Biden administration’s failure to prevent unmanageable numbers of immigrants from entering the country. 

The two called upon the administration to task Jeh Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security during President Barack Obama’s second term, with implementing policy and enforcement changes. Cuellar described Johnson as someone who was both “compassionate” but also “followed the law” and “did what had to be done.”

Officials in places like McAllen have been left to declare local disaster declarations, and call upon the state and federal governments for relief aid. One Texas border city, Laredo, sued the Biden administration in an effort to stop the government from bringing busloads of immigrants to the city for processing, which Laredo’s mayor said was overwhelming local infrastructure and resources and putting residents in increased danger of contracting COVID-19.

Bishop Flores, along with his brother bishops in the U.S., have long-called for bipartisan reform of U.S. immigration laws, and have articulated the Church’s social teaching on immigration and its application to the United States in documents like pastoral statement’s like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2003 document “Strangers No Longer.

Bishop Flores says that policymakers concerned with immigration reform also need to consider how the U.S. can address some of the root causes of immigration from Latin America, such as war and economic instability, because the right to stay in one’s homeland without fear of violence or poverty is fundamental. He also added that while a nation has a right to regulate immigration, the laws it passes to do so need to address the “human realities” on the ground — something he believes U.S. immigration law often fails to do. 

“It’s not an answer to say that the law is the law and just deal with it,” Bishop Flores said of immigration law. “The law is for the sake of the human person, not the other way around.”

 

Both/And

While Bishop Flores advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, he also worries that treating immigration only through the lens of politics can distort the human reality on the ground. As one body with many parts, he believes that the Church can advocate for a more just and effective immigration system, while also attending to the needs of migrants 

Bishop Flores, perhaps the leading theologian in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas among the U.S. episcopacy and the current head of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, says a core aspect of the Church’s social teaching regarding care for migrants comes from Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The bishop explained that Christ tells the parable to illustrate that a migrant’s status as a fellow human being, created in the image and likeness of God, should take precedence over things like one’s ethnicity or country of origin.

“’Are you hungry?’ is the first question, not ‘where are you from?’” said Bishop Flores, noting his gratitude to the multitude of volunteers, parishioners and local business owners who contribute to the Diocese of Brownsville’s efforts to provide humanitarian care to the immigrant community.

Bishop Flores also said that while some asylum-seekers who Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley serves and even helps travel to other parts of the country may never report to immigration services and avoid detection, it’s ultimately the government’s responsibility to follow-up with the enforcement of its own laws. 

He also dismissed as “radically unfair” recent critiques that the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the federal government in its care for migrants was spurred on by a “profit motive,” as was claimed on a recent episode of the television show Fox and Friends. While the Church may receive financial compensation for providing humanitarian serves that the government is more often than not incapable of providing, her primary motive is fidelity to the Gospel, not profit.

“If they’re going to criticize the fact that we help people without asking them for their documents,” Bishop Flores says, “I actually take solace in that, because that’s basically what the Church understands Jesus would ask us to do.”

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

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