MCALLEN, TEXAS – Wednesday morning, a pregnant mother and her young daughter stood in line for fresh clothes from the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center. As her daughter clenched her right hand, the mother held a large yellow envelope with their travel plans to New Orleans in her left.
Those yellow envelopes could be seen throughout the facility, as families got clothes, showered, ate a warm meal and rested while they waited for their bus to be called over the loudspeakers to continue their journey in the United States.
“For the most part, they’re extremely hopeful. They’ve made it,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of CCRGV told Crux of the migrants at the center. “They’re inside. They’re safe. They’re going to see their family. So, all of those things you see on their faces.”
Those expressions of hope come after what, for many, was a perilous journey to get here.
The aforementioned mother and daughter had just arrived from Honduras after leaving the country in mid-March. In a conversation with Crux with the help of an interpreter, the mother, who wasn’t identified because of immigration status, said she didn’t have a choice.
“There’s no work. I’m pregnant. I had to do something to feed my daughter,” the mother said.
Their journey included hunger, little resources and sometimes not even a shelter to stay in. One circumstance in particular, the mother said, left them “traumatized,” and “still afraid to get into a car.”
“We were being chased by police in Mexico, and the driver of the vehicle just took off and we were being chased and we crashed into a post at a bridge,” the mother recalled, with tears in her eyes. “I was in the back. The car didn’t have any seats. When we hit, all of us went to the front and several people were injured. I hurt my shoulder and ribs.”
Another mother with two young children, who also wasn’t identified, and who left Honduras on April 1, told Crux with the help of an interpreter that in addition to no work, rising crime and violence was another reason they decided to leave.
The mother described their journey as “difficult” and “sad” because they had to sleep on floors and sometimes outside, which was a hard situation in which to see her children. But the greatest danger, she said, were the people that helped them cross the border that “don’t act like humans, or were using drugs.”
“These were the people that were helping us get here. Sometimes we found nice people, but a lot of them were really dangerous,” she said. “I don’t care about me, but more for the kids.”
These are the types of stories at the Humanitarian Respite Center, which, Pimentel said, generally sees 200-300 families a day. They either have children under the age of six, or were asylum seekers on the other side of the border under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP) – which made migrants wait in Mexico until their case is decided – whom the Biden administration has started to let into the country.
Unaccompanied minors are also admitted, but those cases are turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Besides those groups, everyone else is expelled.
When a family is admitted into the country, U.S. Customs and Border Protection brings them to a COVID-19 testing site about a block away from the respite center. If they test negative, they go to the center. If they test positive, they’re brought to one of six hotels designated for positive cases where they stay until a test comes back negative.
Families are generally only at the respite center for a few hours. Once they arrive, they check in with someone at the front desk and call their family to make or to verify travel arrangements.
Then they wait for the second call, which is generally from family or an announcement that their bus has arrived. In between calls, families get their immediate needs taken care of – food, clothes, hygiene and rest.
Before CCRGV created the respite center, the building was a nightclub, so a long, curved bar sits in the back of the main room. Now it’s a health bar where families can see volunteers who pass out toiletries, medicine, and other essentials.
Another thing the respite center provides is legal advice, so families understand their next steps.
“They’re not aware as to what’s next, so we work with them, as far as getting attorneys to help them know their rights legally so they can follow-up with that,” Pimentel said. “[We] try and make sure they do the right thing once they leave.”
Both families that spoke with Crux knew what was next. The first is headed to New Orleans to see the daughter’s aunt. The second is on their way to Seattle to reunite with their husband/father, who found work there after he fled Honduras five months ago.
Both said the difficult journey was worth making it to the U.S.
“It was really worth it. It was worth coming over here, because we’re going to be better over here,” the second mother said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg