McALLEN, TEXAS (Border Report) — Crickets were literally heard chirping Wednesday inside the empty Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley to help migrants.
In a giant room where just two months ago upwards of 1,000 migrants could be seen on any given day — children coloring with crayons on the floor, mothers resting on mats, and families recouping and receiving hygiene items like Pampers, food, clothing and much love — there were only volunteers cleaning unused mats and two police guards at the front entrance on Wednesday.
Sister Norma Pimentel, who has run this center since it opened in 2014, looked around the empty room and said stoically “this is the eye of the storm. It’s the calm in between the craziness.”
“A month and a half ago we had this place filled with people and families, almost close to 1,000 every single day and so it was amazing. And then those numbers almost completely dropped to single digits, and the most we get is 20 families sometimes but very rarely,” she said.
Sister Norma, as she is familiarly known to all in South Texas, on Wednesday took Border Report on another tour inside this respite shelter, which used to be a nightclub. She laughed that they now serve Pampers where a bar in the middle of the room once stood.
But this time, there was nobody for whom to give Pampers.
On Monday, a woman came to the center with her 3-day-old baby, as did a family of six, Pimentel said. But other than extreme cases like this involving pregnant women, or sick or very young children, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol are not releasing the migrants to her center like they used to.
The reason is that on July 17, the Trump administration implemented Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also called “Remain in Mexico,” in South Texas. Since mid-July, almost all of the migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes the counties of Hidalgo, Starr, Willacy and Cameron, have been driven by Border Patrol or CBP officials to the base of the Gateway International Bridge, which crosses from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico. Migrants are then told to walk over the bridge and wait in Matamoros until their asylum hearing dates.
Currently, there are an estimated 1,000 migrants living in an open-air tent encampment located at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros. The majority are sick and hungry and most have court dates that won’t arrive for many weeks, if not months, immigration advocates say.
Apprehension rates drop, Trump reports
On Tuesday, the Trump Administration released new figures showing a dramatic drop in apprehension numbers across the Southwest border. This drop is a direct reflection of MPP, and metering (allowing only a few migrants to legally cross the ports of entry on any given day), immigration advocates say.
The White House stated that in September, only 52,546 migrants were apprehended on the Southwest border — the lowest number in fiscal 2019 — and a decrease of more than 60 percent from May apprehension rates.
And nearly 1 million migrants — 977,000 — were apprehended or turned back at a port of entry during Fiscal 2019, which ended on Sept. 30. That’s an 88 percent increase from Fiscal 2018, according to CBP.
“These numbers are numbers that no immigration system in the world is designed to handle, including ours,” CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters Tuesday.
The number of family units (those with children) who were apprehended in Fiscal 2019 more than tripled any previous fiscal year on record. The 473,682 family units apprehended in Fiscal 2019 represent a 342 percent increase from the previous record set in Fiscal 2018, Morgan said. There was also an increase in unaccompanied minors, up 52 percent to 76,000, the news release said.
“The Administration has rigorously enforced the laws as written and enacted. Unfortunately, activist judges continue to impede our ability to follow the law as written,” the news release said.
According to a White House news release, the following strategies have been enacted to deter the flow of migrants through the Southwest border:
- Beefed up security by Mexican forces on their southern border
- Agreements reached “in principle” with Guatemala to have migrants apply for asylum there.
- “Negotiated agreements with El Salvador and Honduras on asylum”
- And the construction of a border wall.
A White House news release quoted President Trump as saying “We have taken very unprecedented action to stop the flow of illegal immigration.”
For Sister Norma, the change in immigration policy has meant going from being shoulder to shoulder with migrants in a loud and noisy facility where children tugged at the hem of her dress and migrants hugged and cried with her as they told her their travails, to being in an empty facility where the echo of crickets permeates the room.
Here is a video and story by Border Report on July 16, that shows the respite center’s stark difference:
Sister Norma to testify before Congress
Now, instead of migrants coming to her facility, Sister Norma and her volunteers are frequently going over the bridge to Matamoros to visit them there. They take water, food, clothes, hygiene items and toys for the children. They also have opened up their warehouse and are allowing nonprofits to come and take supplies to the migrants in Matamoros.
On Friday, she is testifying before a subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to explain the conditions, as arranged by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, she told Border Report.
Sister Norm, who has had an audience with the Pope several times and has spoken before the United Nations, on Wednesday offered an invitation to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to visit the tent encampment, which he has said is “not a humanitarian crisis.”
These families and the children are in big danger.”Sister Norma Pimentel
“He should come and see that these families are hurting,” Sister Norma said. “There’s a lot of violence and a lot of gangs and a lot of cartel. Their lives are in danger. It’s not only the hardships that they go through, it’s the fact that they’re exposed to so many dangers and they could be kidnapped and human trafficking is such a big aspect of the whole corruption that is happening. And these families and the children are in big danger.”
Whether the center will stay open for long with such reduced numbers, She said: “Whatever the need is, the community has this center is a shelter, it’s a place for care and that’s why it exists and so I think that as long as families are in dire need of help like this we’ll have this place available for them.”
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