As migrant families reunite, Texas border cities scramble to help
SAN JUAN, Texas — The delivery trucks keep pulling up to one of the largest churches on the South Texas border.
They have unloaded thousands of diapers in recent days — tall stacks of diaper boxes sit on pallets outside an auditorium, wrapped tightly in plastic. On Tuesday, Dairy Queen even showed up, delivering 400 donated ice-cream bars.
All of it — the ice cream, diapers, disposable plates, shampoo, bottles of water, electrolyte children’s drinks — has arrived at the church in the border town of San Juan to help the Rio Grande Valley’s newest and neediest temporary residents: the migrant families who were separated by immigration authorities after crossing the border and then reunited and released.
For days now, San Juan, McAllen, and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley have been a way station for the reunified families.
City officials, businesses, volunteers, and members of Catholic organizations have scrambled to feed, assist and provide transportation and overnight housing for hundreds of the reunited families.
The process has been a relatively smooth one, because of a loose network of volunteers and officials who have been helping and housing unauthorized immigrants in the Valley for years. But as hundreds of reunited families have been released in just a matter of days, that network has struggled to respond to an unanticipated logistical emergency.
Federal officials faced with a federal court deadline to reunite migrant children with their parents have in many cases left the families, their lawyers and the volunteers to sort out what happens after their release — where they would sleep, eat, and stay cool in the South Texas heat while they wait for hours or even a day to board their bus or plane.
Some of the newly released families are sleeping and resting on the floor at the San Juan church campus, lying on thick blue mats, until their onward travel plans can be arranged.
Officials with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security said that they were “working tirelessly” to manage the logistics of the reunifications, which under the court’s order must be completed by July 26.
“The safety and well-being of children remains our top priority as we work to comply with the court’s order as expeditiously as possible,” the officials said in a statement. One of the agencies involved, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had tapped additional resources “to facilitate more efficient reunification of family units going forward.”
With less than a week left before the deadline, just 364 of the 2,551 separated children, or less than 15 percent, have been reunited with their families, according to a status report filed Thursday.
Lives remain in upheaval: They are led to other shelters, obtain donated clothes, line up for food and rely on others to arrange their bus and air travel as they head for the cities around the country where their relatives live.
Top officials in the Valley have pitched in. The ice-cream delivery was coordinated in part by the mayor of McAllen, Jim Darling.
The mayor contacted Sister Norma Pimentel, the Catholic nun known for her work helping unauthorized adults and children. Pimentel — the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley — asked for 400 bars, and Dairy Queen made the delivery Tuesday at the church, a tourist attraction called the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.
“It’s unfortunate that we have had to deal with it for so long, but we’re proud to do it,” Darling said of the city’s yearslong assistance in helping the immigrants who are periodically released by federal authorities in McAllen.
San Juan and McAllen have become hubs for the newly reunified families largely because of its location near the Port Isabel detention center, an ICE facility where many of the families in South Texas have been reunited. After children and parents are brought back together, the families are driven to the Basilica in San Juan. From there, volunteers and others take some of them to the airport in McAllen.
On Thursday morning, the scene at the Basilica illustrated the needs, and the numbers. The church provides a spacious, tree-shaded resting spot off US Route 83.
The immigrants lingered on the grounds, sitting on the grass near winding sidewalks as their children ran around. Next to a gift shop, beyond a gazebo wrapped with flowers, people mingled outdoors in an area covered by canopies. Volunteers carried boxes between the buildings. Hundreds of people — as many as 300 or 400, those involved said — this week were calling it a temporary home.