As Migrant Families Reunite, Texas Border Cities Scramble to Help

As Migrant Families Reunite, Texas Border Cities Scramble to Help


Originally published by The NY Times

The delivery trucks keep pulling up to one of the largest churches on the South Texas border. They have unloaded thousands of diapers in recent days — tall stacks of diaper boxes sit on pallets outside an auditorium, wrapped tightly in plastic. On Tuesday, Dairy Queen even showed up, delivering donated ice-cream bars.

Four hundred of them.

All of it — the ice cream, diapers, disposable plates, shampoo, bottles of water, electrolyte children’s drinks — has arrived at the church in the border town of San Juan to help the Rio Grande Valley’s newest and neediest temporary residents: the migrant families who were separated by immigration authorities after crossing the border and then reunited and released.

For days now, San Juan, McAllen and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley have been a way station for the reunified families. Volunteers, city officials, local businesses and members of Catholic organizations have scrambled to feed, assist and provide transportation and overnight housing for hundreds of the reunited families.

The process has been a relatively smooth one, because of a loose network of volunteers and officials who have been helping and housing undocumented immigrants in the Valley for years. But as hundreds of reunited families have been released in just a matter of days, that network has struggled to respond to an unanticipated logistical emergency.

Federal officials faced with a federal court deadline to reunite migrant children with their parents have in many cases left the families, their lawyers and the volunteers to sort out what happens after their release — where they would sleep, eat and stay cool in the South Texas heat while they wait for hours or even a day to board their bus or plane.

Some of the newly released families are sleeping and resting on the floor at the San Juan church campus, lying on thick blue mats, until their onward travel plans can be arranged.

Officials with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security said that they were “working tirelessly” to manage the logistics of the reunifications, which under the court’s order must be completed by July 26.

“The safety and well-being of children remains our top priority as we work to comply with the court’s order as expeditiously as possible,” the officials said in a statement. One of the agencies involved, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had tapped additional resources “to facilitate more efficient reunification of family units going forward.”

With less than a week left before the deadline, just 364 of the 2,551 separated children, or less than 15 percent, have been reunited with their families, according to a status report filed on Thursday.

For parents who have in many cases spent weeks in detention, struggling to learn the whereabouts of their children, their ordeal does not end once they are reunited. Lives remain in upheaval: They are led to other shelters, obtain donated clothes, line up for food and rely on others to arrange their bus and air travel as they head for the cities around the country where their relatives live.

Top officials in the Valley have pitched in. The ice-cream delivery was coordinated in part by the mayor of McAllen, Jim Darling. A local Dairy Queen owner read about separated families, called Mr. Darling and offered to donate Dilly Bars.

The mayor contacted Sister Norma Pimentel, the Catholic nun known for her work helping undocumented adults and children. Sister Pimentel — the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley — asked for 400 bars, and Dairy Queen made the delivery Tuesday at the church, a tourist attraction called the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.

“It’s unfortunate that we have had to deal with it for so long, but we’re proud to do it,” Mr. Darling said of the city’s yearslong assistance in helping the immigrants who are periodically released by federal authorities in McAllen.

San Juan and McAllen have become hubs for the newly reunified families largely because of its location near the Port Isabel detention center, an ICE facility where many of the families in South Texas have been reunited. After children and parents are brought back together, the families are driven to the Basilica in San Juan. From there, volunteers and others take some of them to the airport in McAllen.

Laura Torres, 47, a Desert Storm Army veteran who lives in McAllen, served as a volunteer airport driver for the families. Her neighbor asked her to help, and so on Tuesday, she picked up four mothers and their four children at the Basilica, drove them to the airport and helped make sure they got on their flights to various cities where they will join their relatives.

Ms. Torres said most of the mothers she drove had not previously seen their children in more than a month. One mother was from Guatemala and was headed to Chicago to join her husband. Others were from El Salvador and Honduras, and they were catching flights to Miami, Maryland and Minnesota.

“It was important to me because they are human beings and because I felt bad when I first saw the pictures of the children in the cages,” Ms. Torres said.

On Thursday morning, the scene at the Basilica illustrated the needs, and the numbers. The church provides a spacious, tree-shaded resting spot off Expressway 83. The immigrants lingered on the grounds, sitting on the grass near winding sidewalks as their children ran around. Next to a gift shop, beyond a gazebo wrapped with flowers, people mingled outdoors in an area covered by canopies. Volunteers carried boxes between the buildings. Hundreds of people — as many as 300 or 400, those involved said — this week were calling it a temporary home.

Not all of the families were those who had been separated as part of the Trump administration’s ”zero-tolerance” policy on border enforcement. Some had been apprehended together at the border, detained and released with ankle monitors. One of those was a widow and mother of four from Honduras. She was lying on the grass, her baby on top of her, as her son climbed a tree. The woman, who asked that her name not be used because of her immigration status, managed a smile.

“We’re so happy,” she said. Then she paused. “It’s not that we’re happy. It’s that we’re content.”

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