Saturday, September 7, 2019

Visiting the Valley

Mike Pence and I spent my birthday a few weeks ago in McAllen visiting migrant centers.

He went to the Border Patrol Detention Center with its overcrowded cages. I went to the Humanitarian Respite Center a few blocks away where there were no cages, no overcrowding. He went with an entourage; I went alone.

The Respite Center is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Its executive director is Sister Norma Pimentel who has been the recipient of praise and awards from many sources, including from Pope Francis.

Sister Norma is an impressive person, about my height with smooth silver hair and a serene face. She moves in a clear bubble of calm that reminds me of the poem “Desiderata:” “Go placidly among the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

She does, however, have plenty to say.

The Humanitarian Respite Center that she opened in June, 2014 has moved to a former nightclub building on South Main St. in McAllen, cattycorner from the bus station.

After being processed by ICE, migrants arrive at the spacious center where they receive whatever help they need to get to their destinations. Food, a free phone, clothing, shoes, toiletries, assistance with tickets and contacting relatives. Before anything, Sister Norma emphasizes, they receive smiles of welcome.

“They are so scared when they arrive,” she says. “They have come from so far away, on foot, carrying children. When they see the smiles of the volunteers, you can see the change. They are transformed.”

The problem, Sister Norma says, is “humanitarian, first of all. We must not forget that.”

To continue the work, the Center needs donations “of everything,” she says. “And we encourage volunteers from all over. It has been a difficult time for children and we are moved by sadness. But we can make a difference by welcoming them wherever they go. The act of welcome can be very important in beginning the healing process.”

The Center is, also, working with agencies in Mexico who are providing services to families who are held back.

Other people I spoke with in the McAllen area have plenty to say, too.

The past year has been hard. The influx of migrants, the threat of the wall, the flood of negative media attention. Tourism is vital to the area, home to some of the world’s best birdwatching. Lovers of wildlife across the U.S. worry about the effect of President Trump’s wall on the parks set aside as way stations and refueling oases for migrating flocks of birds and butterflies, including the threatened Monarch.

All that attention has curtailed travel to the border. When I mentioned to friends that LH and I were going to make our visit, they warned me to be careful, although in 2018 McAllen had the lowest crime rate in 34 years. And no homicides.

Still, I wondered what I might encounter. Armed officers patrolling the streets? Roadblocks? Hungry people crowding the sidewalks?

Nope. None of that.

But the life of local residents has been disrupted. “For as long as I can remember,” one woman told me, “we moved freely across the border. It was almost as though the border wasn’t there, except for the fact of the river itself. Now we rarely cross.”

I saw one physical reason why.

We’d driven out toward Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, avoiding the freeway. The route gave us a clear view of traffic on the nearby international bridge. It had come to a dead stop in 100 degree heat and was backed up into Mexico for as far as we could see. Few people would endure that discomfort for any reason that wasn’t urgent.

I spoke to a staff member at the Butterfly Center that is part of the World Birding installation nearby. He said that the wall’s intrusion has been put on hold for the moment. Access remains normal and visitors may come without concern.

That was the word I got the other wildlife sites, as well. Summer isn’t the best time for birds, but the fall season approaches. We plan to return then to enjoy the richness of the wildlife.

And also to support with our presence these small, vital pockets of respite for wild birds and butterflies whose value to the human soul is not quantifiable by the next quarter’s balance sheet.

The entwined fates of migrating birds and migrating people seems no more at first glance than an interesting coincidence. But they both relate to the oddity of national borders, drawn in dirt and on paper by human beings and quite invisible, as we learned, from space. We spend so much energy on their location and enforcement, but they are at heart a problem that we human beings create.


For monetary donations: Humanitarian Respite Center of the RGV, 111 S. Main McAllen, Tx 78501. For donations of clothing, shoes and other goods: 700 N. Virgen de San Juan Blvd., San Juan, TX 78589. To volunteer, please contact the

This appeared in August as a column in the Fayette County Record.

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