Seeking to hear the stories of migrants and how they have been affected by U.S. detention policy, a delegation of Catholic bishops is visiting the U.S.-Mexico border this week.
“The bishops are visiting here so they can stop, look, talk to people and understand the suffering of many who are amongst us,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. “It’s part of the purpose of Christian life to talk to people and hear their suffering.”
The bishops’ delegation had a purpose, said Flores. “To talk, to see, because that’s what the Lord shows us… And then respond,” he said, according to the Los Angeles archdiocesan news site Angelus News.
Flores was part of a bishops’ delegation that visited the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. On Sunday, July 1, the bishops met with Central American migrants hosted at the center.
One man, Pedro Marquez from Intibucá Department in Honduras, spoke of threatening street gangs in his hometown called “maras.”
“The maras make it impossible to live,” he told the bishop. “They tax us to live in our own house, tax us to have a business, and if we don’t pay, we get killed,” he said. Government crackdowns on the gangs seem only to strengthen them.
Marquez took his 11-year-old daughter Yamilet with him during the three-week journey from Honduras. They aimed to take a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia, where they have family members.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said as many as 250 people per day pass through the center, which provides short-term hospitality for families that have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security. The center provides immediate medical assistance, food, clothing and information about how to comply with immigration proceedings. The volunteer-staffed center is located in a rented storefront.
“We’re in constant triage — that’s the word that comes to mind,” said Brenda Riojas, Brownsville’s diocesan relations director.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, headed the delegation. Other delegation members were Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice-president of the bishops’ conference; Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brennan of Rockville Centre; and Auxiliary Bishop Mario Alberto Avilés of Brownsville.
Their visit aims to understand the human side of the border crossing situation, said Bishop Flores. The visit comes amid continued controversy over the Trump administration’s immigration policy. One aspect of the policy, separating migrant family detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, was recently changed after strong outcry.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark had suggested the visit at the U.S. bishops’ annual spring meeting last month.
Bishop Flores told the Washington Post that the bishops specifically want to address the Trump administration’s policy of detention of immigrants in family detention centers, including centers at military bases.
“We really have to keep our eye on the developing situation—to see how families are going to be housed,” Flores said. “Part of the delegation, I hope, is the chance to really ask some questions about how this is going to unfold, so that we’re prepared for it.”
At the Humanitarian Respite Center, Cardinal DiNardo and the other bishops served chicken soup and tortillas to children who had just arrived with their parents from a detention center run by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Center. Many of the children refused to leave the arms of their parents.
The adults at the center wear GPS ankle bracelets to track them to ensure they attend their immigration court date closest to their U.S. destination.
Sister Pimentel said the community gathered together “to make sure that we take care of these families, and that we welcome them.”
“We must offer compassionate and humane processes that care for these families who are victims of structures that are corrupt and abusive in their home countries,” she told the Washington Post.
Earlier that Sunday, the bishops celebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, a national shrine in San Juan, Texas regarded as pilgrimage site for migrants. The basilica exceeded its capacity of 1,800 people for the Mass.
During the Mass, Bishop Flores said in his bilingual homily “The plan of the Lord is to always be attentive to what’s right in front of Him… That’s Jesus’ way.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston celebrated a high-profile border Mass in 2014, while Pope Francis prayed on the Mexican side of the border during his 2016 visit.
On Monday, the bishops were scheduled to meet with U.S. government officials and members of the Catholic community, with their visits intended to focus on family unity. Stops on their schedule included the U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, Texas and the Southwest Key Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville. The latter center, hosted in a former Walmart building, has become a place for unaccompanied minors.
The Austin-based Southwest Key programs, a federal non-profit contractor, operates 26 shelters in Texas, Arizona and California, CNN reports. It has cared for 19,000 children in the most recent fiscal year, but has been the focus of news coverage due to hundreds of citations by Texas state regulators inspecting its shelters in the last three years.
After U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” border policy, the average population of its shelters increased by 300 people in under one month’s time.
The U.S. bishops’ delegation is set to hold a press conference at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle at 6 p.m. Central Time, to be live-streamed on YouTube.