Despite expansion, South Texas respite center for migrants running out of space

Border Report Tour

McAllen shelter reconfigures how it processes and tests migrants for coronavirus

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Bearing babies in arms and tired looks on their faces, dozens of migrant families are dropped off every hour at the Humanitarian Respite Center, which is now a sprawling operation that takes up several downtown storefronts in Downtown McAllen.

From the unmarked white buses and Border Patrol vans, they step onto the hot pavement and squint under the bright South Texas sun as they are first directed to wait in a line outside a building that used to be a retail clothing store that didn’t survive the pandemic. The building is now a COVID-19 testing facility operated by a non-governmental organization that is contracted to test every migrant who has been legally released by the Department of Homeland Security.

A security guard admits dozens of migrant families were brought via buses to a COVID testing facility on July 20, 2021, in downtown McAllen, Texas. The rapid tests take 15 minutes and those who do not have coronavirus may enter the Humanitarian Respite Center across the street to get help with transportation and other needs. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Despite near triple-digit heat, volunteers or security guards or contract workers constantly emerge from one of several buildings clustered near the bus station and walk either goods or migrants to or from the Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which is looking for an even bigger space as the number of migrants continues to increase

Giant white tents that the City of McAllen had put up about three blocks away, had been where migrants were tested since February when the surge of migrants crossing into South Texas began. But the tents were recently taken down as heavy rains continually struck the region and migrants and volunteers were often soaked as they tried to navigate through downtown streets that easily flood with just a few inches of rain. That’s when city officials and Catholic Charities converted what used to be the Hollywood Fashion retail store into a hard-sided coronavirus testing facility.

As of July 12, about 10% of the migrants tested positive for the coronavirus, McAllen officials reported.

Anyone who tests positive for the virus — plus their family members — is quarantined in one of several hotel rooms set aside throughout this city of 150,000 that is located just a few miles north of the Mexican border. They will remain there until they test negative, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities told Border Report.

There were about 1,100 migrants in quarantine in the area as of July 12, McAllen Assistant City Manager and Deputy Emergency Coordinator Jeff Johnston told city commissioners.

The rising COVID-19 rates among migrants crossing the Rio Grande are worrisome to other Southwest border towns, like Laredo, which last week asked DHS no longer send migrants from the Rio Grande Valley to that South Texas city.

A security guard checks COVID paperwork on July 20, 2021, before allowing migrants into the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the RGV in downtown McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

The rapid test results take about 15 minutes. So that allows for a constant stream of migrants who are COVID-free to be walked across the street and admitted into the Humanitarian Respite Center.

A security guard manning the blacked-out and locked doors checks all paperwork and coronavirus documents before letting them into what is a well-coordinated operation that anticipates and caters to their every need.

ABOVE: Migrants wait in line on June 24, 2021, for help at the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas.
BELOW: Migrant women receive baby formula and other supplies on March 17, 2021, from what used to be a nightclub bar in a converted building the City of McAllen allows Catholic Charities to operate one of the largest migrant centers on the Southwest border. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Once inside, the migrants visibly let their guards down.

Many slump in chairs or against the cool, painted walls and rest. Some fall fast asleep, while others scramble for free clothing, shoes, a hot meal and assistance from the dozens of volunteers who help them to reach family members and friends who pay for bus or airline tickets to places far away.

Children venture to meet other children and they begin to feel comfortable enough to eat, Pimentel said.

This used to be a thriving bar and nightclub that the City of McAllen converted into the Respite Center. Now the center bar area gives out baby formula and diapers, as well as prenatal vitamins, hygiene kits and lots of smiles and encouraging words.

Sister Norma Pimentel, a Catholic nun who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, speaks to reporters on June 24, 2021, outside the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Pimentel stresses the importance of restoring migrants’ dignity. She recognizes the struggles they have been through, and the divisive political climate they entered when they set foot on U.S. soil. But, she says, for the few hours that they are in her center they will be respected and cherished and everyone made to feel welcome, and most importantly, they will get help.

All new arrivals sit in rows of blue chairs on the left side of the giant room. Blue cots used for sleeping are stacked on the right side of the room where legal aid workers and volunteer immigration lawyers frequently hold legal seminars to explain to the migrants their rights.

Every migrant is released by DHS officials with a Notice to Appear or a document detailing where and when they should report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. From the moment they are released, they have just 60 days to report in their new hometown, and if they don’t, then they are subject to deportation.

Maneuvering the legal requirements for migrants in this foreign land is tricky and complex, and Pimentel and her army of volunteers push them to comprehend and understand exactly what is expected of them so they may exhaust every legal right to which they are entitled.

A volunteer directs a migrant mom and her children on July 20, 2021, to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

This is the fourth location since 2014 for the Humanitarian Respite Center, which began in the fellowship hall at Sacred Heart Catholic Church a few blocks away. And the former nightclub might not be the last location.

Pimentel told Border Report they are looking for an alternative facility to hold their growing numbers. And they are looking for another place to temporarily house migrant adults should DHS lift Title 42 border restrictions and begin to admit adults into the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection public health rule has allowed border agents to expel unauthorized migrants from the country within hours of detention, to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 to the country.

The border restrictions between the United States, Mexico and Canada are set to expire Wednesday. Canada has indicated it will next month begin accepting vaccinated foreigners, but restrictions are likely to be extended on the Southwest border where rising COVID-19 cases are raising concerns on both sides of the border.

This current facility holds 1,200 people, but Pimentel says she tries to keep the numbers below 1,000 to allow for some social distancing during what is still considered a pandemic. An area that two months ago was open for children to play kickball and soccer is now filled with chairs and families waiting for volunteers to give them packets of donated clothing and supplies.

Growing lines for the showers sometimes prevent migrants from getting washed up, and the Salvation Army continues to provide hot meals despite the daily increases.

Johnston told city commissioners that the number of migrant asylum-seekers at the center was 5,263 during the first week of July. Last week, the numbers were expected to be about 5,500 and he noted a recent uptick.

He said city officials are monitoring the rising COVID-19 rates among new arrivals, adding that they are worried about what could happen if Title 42 is lifted and adult asylum-seekers are released into South Texas.

“An end to Title 42 expulsions will likely result in much larger numbers here in the local area,” Johnston said.

New McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said he’s concerned that many more migrants could be released in McAllen if Title 42 ends.

“We want to be as positive as possible but I think it will cause problems. Hopefully, our residents realize and understand that we’re doing whatever we can to keep everybody safe but it’s not our issue. It’s a federal issue and we’re doing our best,” Villalobos said during the July 12 meeting.

A volunteer, far right, on July 20, 2021, leads a line of migrants from the Humanitarian Respite Center across the street to the bus station in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

At the Respite Center, the migrant families flow through at such a high rate that overflow centers throughout the region are enacted each night to handle the number of migrants needing a place to sleep. In the mornings, they are brought back to the Respite Center for daycare.

At another former storefront across the street, volunteers now receive and sort a high volume of donated clothes and goods for the migrants. And rather than the migrants picking out their own clothes, volunteers now package by sizes outfits that are passed out to migrants who wait in a back room at the Respite Center.

“Catholic Charities continues to do their amazing job of working with these individuals to help them get on their way to their final destination once they have been released from federal custody,” Johnston said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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