MCALLEN, TEXAS - There were no cameras inside the Southwest Key Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville Monday morning to capture the surreal scene inside this repurposed Wal-Mart Supercenter.
More than 200 boys listened attentively, without their parents, to the Mexican-born archbishop of the U.S.’s largest diocese as he celebrated Mass with them in Spanish, encouraging them to trust in the Virgin of Guadalupe’s protection, and, of course, reminding them to root for Mexico in the World Cup.
“No, Brazil!” some of the youths from Honduras and El Salvador shot back at Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez.
Meanwhile, a long line formed as soon as word got out that Brownsville Auxiliary Bishop Mario Avilés and another priest were available for confessions in the back of the shelter during the Eucharist.
The stop came on the second and final day of a quietly organized, last-minute visit that Houston Archbishop and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said was intended to have a “prayerful, pastoral dimension.”
It finished with the bishops repeating their plea to the government to move urgently to reunite children separated from their parents under the short-lived but most controversial aspect of the Trump administration’s recent “zero-tolerance” policy.
DiNardo skipped one of the Church’s most important events of the year in Rome, the June 28 consistory of his fellow cardinals with Pope Francis, to plan and lead the delegation of six U.S. bishops to get a closer look at the reality in one of the southern border’s busiest crossings.
“What’s most important”
In a concluding press conference at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, DiNardo recapped the visit as a sometimes “painful, but very beautiful” experience that allowed the bishops to get one-on-one contact not only with newly arrived migrants, but with personnel from Health and Human Services, Customs and Border Protection, Casa Padre and the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen.
“There are no villains,” said the Houston archbishop in his opening remarks. “We have received incredible cooperation to every site that we went to … all of the people who are involved in this were incredibly helpful.”
Offering a quick summary of his experience, Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera implied that the trip had given the delegation a chance to see through much of the political noise that often creeps into their jobs.
“When you have the opportunity to sit down with a family, liberal labels and conservative labels melt away,” said Bambera.
“When you talk to somebody whose deepest desire is not to exploit a country or grab everything, but simply provide for their children and keep their children safe, the labels just melt away.”
He added, “I think we come to understand what’s most important, and frankly, why we were here.”
The other bishop to make the journey from the East Coast, Bishop Robert Brennan of Rockville Centre, New York, noticed a difference in mood in the migrants at Casa Padre and the Border Patrol’s Ursula Processing Center in McAllen compared to those at the Catholic Charities Respite Center.
“It was strangers in a strange place, this was all just very odd,” admitted Brennan. “There was a real seriousness,” among the migrants they met awaiting a sense of clarity about their futures that doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon.
The trip’s organizers relied heavily on Church officials in South Texas - especially Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores and Sister Norma Pimentel - to help keep the trip as discreet as possible.
That included a meeting with officials from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement inside Casa Padre.
Just days earlier, the lot surrounding the former Walmart had played host to a media frenzy. Reporters and camera crews from as far away as Germany and London camped out at the adjacent Murphy USA gas station to try to get a look inside the place that had come to embody the Trump administration’s harsh tactics to stop the flow of Central American migrants.
While the shelter’s tightly guarded parking lot saw dozens of Southwest Key employees and donation trucks in constant transit, the bishops were celebrating Mass and handing out rosaries to the young boys inside.
In his homily, Gomez reminded the boys that God himself was part of a family forced to leave their home for another country.
“It was striking to me, to see these children whose parents aren’t with them,” said the archbishop, who cut short a two-day visit with family in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico and drove three hours east before crossing the border into McAllen late Sunday.
“Even teenagers need their parents! And if they’re challenging, imagine how much more little kids need theirs.”
The boys are, however, occasionally allowed to leave the shelter under tight supervision by Southwest Key employees, who escort them to nearby parishes in Brownsville to worship. Flores says the last time he celebrated Mass at Casa Padre, he recognized a few faces from recent visits to those parishes.
Bonifacio Diaz said he spent only two days inside Casa Padre before being released. He spoke while awaiting a Greyhound bus to start his journey to New Jersey, where family awaited him. The migrant from Chiquimula, Guatemala said the facility offered egg and chorizo tacos, a major improvement over the dry bologna sandwiches served by Customs and Border Protection agents at the Ursula Processing Center in McAllen - food that looked like nothing he’d ever seen before.
“They treated us better,” said Diaz of the workers at Casa Padre. The shelter lets children watch World Cup games, play soccer outside and try out some of the toys. Most children spend no more than 50 days at the facility.
The Ursula facility offered no such recreation. The only activity to pass the time during the day was trying to sleep, Diaz recalled.
After Casa Padre, the bishops spent an hour at the Ursula facility, a warehouse-style compound that was opened in 2014 to help accommodate the overwhelming number refugees fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. They were not allowed to interact with any of them.
Brennan, however, said that in speaking to border agents, it was important to remember that they themselves have families of their own.
“They spoke to us as parents, they spoke from the heart,” recalled Brennan. “I think they saw themselves as there to serve and care for these young children.”
‘You don’t solve this overnight’
In June, some bishops had hailed President Donald Trump’s executive order halting family separations as a positive first step.
Yet at the press conference, DiNardo acknowledged that were “complications” in the government’s efforts to reunite those separated families, but stressed that “it must be done and it’s urgent.”
As for the broader crisis, the bishops stuck to their belief that, in the words of Flores a day earlier, the U.S. “can be a country of laws, without being a nation that lacks compassion.”
Talking to the recently-arrived migrants also reminded DiNardo of the need for economic stability as in their native Central American countries as “an important dimension” of comprehensive immigration reform policy.
“It’s a complex problem, you don’t solve this overnight,” admitted the cardinal. “There are a whole series of issues that are involved in this.”
Gomez repeated his hope that Congress look past political calculations to work with other on a compromise solution.
“It’s possible to address the needs of immigration reform,” said Archbishop Gomez. “We just need to make the decision that we can do it.”
In his weekly column published earlier Monday, Gomez stressed that “as long as we allow politicians on both sides to use immigration as a ‘winning issue’ that will ‘turn out the base’ in the next election - then things will never change.”
“A commonsense and compassionate solution on immigration is within reach,” the archbishop wrote. “What we are waiting for is politicians with the courage to do what is right. And we have been waiting for 25 years.”
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