South Texas volunteers team up to help new immigrants

  • Article by: MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 9:41 PM

A south Texas relief center offers a warm welcome to those who “have nothing.”

A woman from Quiche, who speaks only the indigenous language of her area in Guatemala, nursed her son at a church in McAllen, Texas.

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– The old-fashioned trolley bus stopped just outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and eight or so passengers — new immigrants who had just stolen across the Rio Grande from Mexico — filed off, looking dazed when a large group of volunteers suddenly stopped what they were doing and raised their hands in applause. “Bienvenidos,” said one. Welcome.

“This is the first experience a lot of people here have of meeting an American,” explained Cesar Riojas, 50, one of hundreds of south Texas residents who have transformed the squat brick church hall here into a bustling support center for the hundreds of new immigrants now crossing into the United States from Mexico each week. “I put myself in their position,” Riojas said. “How would I want to be treated?”

The surge of about 57,000 unaccompanied youths since October and large numbers of immigrating parents with children has thrown the Obama administration’s immigration policy into disarray and sparked new demands for heightened border security. But in the Rio Grande Valley, the new influx of children and parents from Central America has been most immediately a reason to get to work.

From all walks of life

The estimated 800 volunteers at the hastily organized immigrant relief center are retirees and businessmen, stay-at-home moms and students from nearby University of Texas-Pan American. Organizers from Catholic Charities have been joined by the Salvation Army, by Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians. Teachers have brought their classes. An evangelical radio host summoned followers. In a region where many residents live in shacks and trailers without electricity, the center has received so much donated food that much of it is being stored off-site.

“The more you have, the more you separate yourself from those who have nothing,” said Riojas, of nearby Harlingen, who is taking time off from his job as a consultant.

Valley residents started the relief center about a month ago with the help of a local nun after meeting immigrant families by chance at the bus station. They began organizing on Facebook and persuaded the church to let them use the hall.

Since then, the facility has served more than 3,000 immigrants, at times 200 a day. There are a few paid staffers, and volunteers work in shifts with assigned duties. Small teams lead immigrants through the process of getting bathed, clothed and bused to destinations around the United States where they will remain with friends or family until their immigration cases are heard in court.

Ofelia De Los Santos, a native of nearby Edinburg who is coordinating volunteers, said she can’t help but think of her 18-year-old grandson.

“He’s never had to run for his life, to be thirsty or hungry,” she said, her voice catching as she removed her glasses. “You go home and think: What would I do if my children were being recruited by those gangs? Would I sell my house and send my children north?”

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