A Migrant Respite on the Trip North

Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series looks at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.

“You can’t come right now,” Vera said in Spanish, as she hurriedly answered my phone call. It was early afternoon, and my camera and I were headed off the ranch to visit the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

“We are expecting a group of 150 people, and it will be chaos. Come in the morning at 9:00am.”

I had visited the Respite Center before, and I knew its reception area was less than 40 square feet. How were they going to receive and feed 150 traveling migrants? I agreed to stop by in the morning, turned the pick-up around, and headed home.

The Respite Center was founded by Sister Norma Pimentel, a local nun. One resolution offered to undocumented migrants is the opportunity to connect with a family members in the United States that will house them and sponsor their efforts to become citizens. Approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for legal travel to the homes of their relatives, these migrants often have no place to rest as they continue their travel northwards. In many border towns, adults and child migrants slept in the streets, in alleyways, or sought shelter within downtown parking garages as they awaited their bus departures to join their family members. Sister Norma saw an opportunity to help, and founded the Respite Center.

Approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for legal travel to the homes of their relatives, migrants often have no place to rest as they travel north. Sister Norma saw an opportunity to help, and founded the Respite Center.

In the beginning, Sister Norma organized an overnight shelter for families in the parish hall of a local church, expecting to only stay there two-three weeks before a more adequate shelter could be acquired. Tents, sleeping bags and baby cribs were gathered, along with donated clothes, meals and temporary bathing facilities. Three years later, the Respite Center finally moved from the parish hall to its current location. Tiny and overwhelmed, the Respite Center has met the needs of 65,000 since it opened in 2014.

There is no space in the current Respite Center for sleeping, so at night, the migrants are transported to cooperating churches that provide floor mats, blankets, bathrooms and shelter. In the morning, the migrants are once again transported by vans back to the Respite Center, where they are fed, given clothing, and a place to wait until their bus departure time.

Past the downtown district of dormant nightclubs and ancient storefronts stuffed with gaudy silk flowers and vinyl backpacks was a small, poorly constructed pair of office buildings. One building housed an independent evangelical church, the other space was the Respite Center itself, marked by a hand-painted sign. When I arrived, breakfast had been cleared away; people were sitting in plastic school chairs holding both their children and manila envelope travel packets in their laps. Each travel packet had a full-sized sheet of paper stapled to the outside that read in bold letters: PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHAT BUS DO I TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP! Though people were whispering quietly to each other, every manila envelope seemed to shout at me.

I spoke to Adan, the daytime coordinator, who gave me permission to interact with and observe the migrants. However, it was awkward explaining why I was there. Was I going to cause them trouble? Why was I taking photos? The atmosphere was tense, and because of the tight quarters, the margin for personal space was uncomfortably thin. Although meager, I realized that personal space was all anyone in the room really owned. Taking pictures felt like stealing their privacy, their only possession. These migrants were truly homeless. I treaded lightly.

Tiny and overwhelmed, the Respite Center has met the needs of 65,000 since it opened in 2014.

A woman next to me, Clara, asked me how long it would take to get to Charlotte, North Carolina, where her family members lived. Clara was from Honduras, spoke no English, and was traveling with her young daughter. I looked up the distance on my phone. She had to change buses in Houston, so five hours to her first stop, and then 15 hours to Charlotte. 20 hours total. Clara was clearly terrified. She had never traveled before, but the violence and poverty in her local village forced her to flee her home country. I’m not sure if the travel information I provided caused her to worry less, or more.

Soon thereafter Adan stood up for his morning travel lecture. Like Clara, everyone had questions, and few had traveled before. They listened intently to Adan’s coaching on how to successfully arrive at their destination. Even the toddlers instinctively hushed.

Each migrant had an assigned date in an immigration court, which exist in most communities in the United States. Adan stressed that complying with this court appointed date was vital for a migrant’s citizenship status. Adan also encouraged the migrants to hire a lawyer. Free legal counsel was available, but the list of those needing free legal service was impossibly long. If all you owned was your personal space, how could you afford a lawyer, I wondered.

A hand went up. “Why do I need legal status?” a young man asked. “Because then you can vote, and receive the help you need.” Adan calmly replied. The young man seemed ambivalent.

A family waiting to be processed.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the founder of the Respite Center.

“Also, make sure that your ankle monitors are charged at all times. The battery only lasts 10 hours, and if it dies, you will be considered of illegal status again. You only have a range of 75 miles from your sponsor family’s address where you can freely travel. All other travel must be approved by the immigration court.” Ankle monitors? I looked down, and several of the able bodied young men in the room had blinking black ankle cuffs under the hems of their blue jeans. What I had assumed were cell phone chargers were ankle monitor battery chargers. I helped one of the young men carrying a toddler find a wall socket for his charger. I asked why he was wearing the ankle cuff. “Because I had tried to enter the U.S. once before illegally,” he explained as he reined back his baby son. From bus ride to sponsors home, he would be tracked by GPS. He had broken our immigration laws in the past, but he was trying the legal route this time.

Adan then announced that if anyone would like to talk to me that I would be interviewing people about their journeys. A man and a woman volunteered to talk to me, and we arranged a seating area in an adjacent dining room. Rosalba sat down with her two boys, and Jorge sat down next to her.

Rosalba was from Honduras, and she had left her village because of marital problems. I couldn’t help but notice I was twice her size; she probably weighed around 85 pounds, and was under 5 feet tall. One of her boys, Toni, was an energetic charmer, asking questions and showing me with his fingers that he was six years old. His older brother sat holding hands with Rosalba, quietly staring at the wall. “He is 13 years old, and has special needs,” said Rosalba. The family was headed to Boise, and I wondered how she had traveled 1,000 miles overland with the two boys. The trip to Idaho would be twice as long.

Jorge was from Guatemala, and listened quietly as Rosalba talked. Initially, I thought they were traveling as a couple, but it seemed they were only friendly as they were sharing such tight space in the Respite Center. Jorge had attempted to enter the U.S. in the past, but had been caught and deported. This time, he brought his 15-year-old daughter. His village was rife with mafiosos who extorted and terrorized his community. There was no money, and the little they had was regularly appropriated by local gangs. Once they left their village, the people in the smuggling community were no better than the gang members at home. In Jorge’s words, the coyotes, or human smugglers that had guided him and his daughter from Honduras through Mexico, were “animals.”

[q]Jorge had attempted to enter the U.S. in the past, but had been caught and deported. This time, he brought his 15-year-old daughter.[/q]

Jorge reminded me that undocumented immigration and human smuggling in Mexico is just as illegal as it is in the United States. The tractor trailer that smuggled him 20 hours through Mexico was loaded with 35 other people, along with his daughter. “There was a tiny hole for air, and no light,” he said in a low voice. “I’m from a farm, and I can control my body, so I only need to relieve myself when it is convenient. But the other people in the trailer were from cities, and they weren’t accustomed to not having a bathroom.” There had been a high-speed chase with Mexican federal police, and the driver of the tractor trailer had gone off road at high speed, accelerating over speed bumps and boulders. “There were mothers holding babies, and when they hit the bumps, the babies went flying.” He shook his head, and looked downwards solemnly at the floor.

“Where are you going now?” I asked. “New Orleans…my brother is there,” Jorge answered.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I’ve been there. The food is great.” And then I caught myself. My food travel experience had nothing in common with his and I felt sheepish.

“Yes,” Jorge said. “I know there are jobs there, but I am not sure anyone will hire me.” He lifted the leg of his jeans, and showed me his ankle monitor. I noticed it is the same type used by felons on parole. How would a potential employer know the difference?

Jorge’s intelligence and ability to express himself was remarkable. He was deeply concerned for the safety of his young, beautiful daughter among the “animals.” He needed a lawyer, perhaps another one for his daughter, and I wondered how he was going to pay, especially with no job prospects. I wanted to talk further, but the general air of discomfort in the Respite Center compelled me to retreat. I thanked both Jorge and Rosalba profusely, and continued to observe.

The remaining 50 or so people in the Respite Center talked among themselves as we returned to the main waiting room. I walked over to Adan, who was monitoring a spread sheet of current migrants, coordinating names with bus departure times. The surnames were unfamiliar to me: Chub Choc, Quib, Xum, or Cuc. They were indigenous tribal names from Latin America and I realized that a good portion of the room was Mayan Native American. Historical comparisons of human suffering are unfair and inaccurate, but in that moment of realization, I flashed to the bitter history of The Trail of Tears, where indigenous tribes across the United States were stripped of their territories and consolidated from East and West onto reservations. I was standing in a room of consolidated tribal members, who were traveling from South to North. Though my mind quickly flashed to tiny Rosalba, I realized everyone in the room was just as small in stature.

Soon enough it was time to go; a new group began to arrive, chairs were rearranged, and sack lunches were given to migrants catching buses onward. But instead of a take-away of hope for the American dream, I returned home preoccupied with the sadness and fear of the people I met, and the uncertainty of how the system they were allowed to enter could provide the new life they were searching for.