At a Texas church, volunteers offer more than sanctuary for new immigrants

The Sacred Hearth Catholic Church humanitarian respite center has become a beacon in the grim passage of tens of thousands of migrants — mostly Central Americans — who have been crossing into Texas over the last year.

Residents had begun to worry about the seemingly endless flow of immigrants dropped off near the bus station here.

They came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and other locales, carrying Manila envelopes of immigration documents.

So last year, volunteers started shepherding the migrants down glass-strewn alleys to the tan brick Sacred Heart Catholic Church hall for food, showers and quick talks about the journey ahead. They attached a typed message to the immigrants’ envelopes: “Please help me, I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?”

Since then, “we have not had a day without people,” said Deb Boyce, the volunteer coordinator.

The church’s humanitarian respite center has become a beacon in the grim passage of tens of thousands of migrants — mostly Central Americans — who have been crossing into Texas over the last year.


Volunteers have donated clothes and toys, piling them on the terrazzo floor of the church hall. They have taken home families that had nowhere to stay. The volunteer pool has broadened to include liberals and conservatives, Catholics and agnostics, students and retirees.

City officials have joined in, setting up temporary showers and tents, and tapping the city trolley to ferry families to and from the bus station. Doctors have come to treat the sick.

At times, more than 200 people a day have passed through the church, which has served 20,000 immigrants at a cost of more than $700,000.

Thousands of volunteers have traveled here from across the U.S. and beyond. They list their home countries, states and schools on a wall at the front of the hall that’s nearly covered now.

On a sweltering afternoon, volunteer Mayra Garza, in a green Catholic Charities smock, sat opposite a middle-aged Salvadoran immigrant father in a purple University of Washington Huskies T-shirt. They were surrounded by donated shoes, clothing and other supplies sorted on shelves and racks as neatly as in a department store.

“Your name?” Garza asked in Spanish.

Victor Cruz smiled nervously. Nearby, his 12-year-old daughter, Wendy, searched for T-shirts, her curly brown hair swinging at her waist.

The Virgin of Guadalupe gazed down from a woven blanket tacked to the wall. Next to it was a poster of St. Toribio Romo Gonzalez, a Mexican martyr believed to protect those who cross the border illegally.

Nearby, another Salvadoran father and daughter were collecting backpacks of donated toiletries and food before walking to the bus station.

The number of immigrant families illegally crossing the border has dramatically dropped from 55,000 by this time last fiscal year to 25,000 so far this year. Here, in the Rio Grande Valley, the number of families has fallen 59% compared with the same time last year.

During the winter, when immigration normally slows here, the city put the trolley on standby. Doctors were made available on call. Organizers considered closing.

“We were always contemplating, ‘Well, maybe next week,’” said Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the site. “But the numbers never went away. We never got to a point where we would close. Now, we’re looking at making this permanent.”

The numbers have picked up this summer, as they always do, and they’re back to seeing 50 to 100 people a day, Sister Norma said. Earlier this month, they saw 140 a day.

“It is all of our responsibility to make sure they are OK,” she said.

Many of the migrants who are released on bail from immigration detention head to Houston, Chicago and the East Coast, she said, pointing to a U.S. map covered with colored dots marking their destinations, although volunteers eventually gave up — there were just too many cities.

Some immigrants called the church hall after they reached those cities, particularly to thank volunteers. “There’s a connection there that stays with them,” Sister Norma said.

Cruz, 41, who had just arrived at the church, was a taxi driver in his coastal hometown of Usulutan, El Salvador. He said he and his daughter had crossed the Rio Grande three days earlier. They planned to leave the next day for Miami, where he would rejoin his wife and 17-year-old daughter and try to find work.

“I came for her future, to prepare her well here,” he said, gesturing to his younger daughter. “In El Salvador the gangs threaten us.… We are caught between MS-13 and 18th Street,” he said, referring to the two dominant gangs, both of which have ties to Los Angeles.

In the nearby children’s play area festooned with past visitors’ drawings, Azucena Ramirez changed her 9-month-old daughter, Maylia.

Ramirez, 25, also crossed three days earlier, also fleeing violence in El Salvador after her husband left her. “I couldn’t go out to work because of the gangs,” she said. “We couldn’t get food.”

She was catching a bus to New York soon to find work and try to bring her 4-year-old daughter north. For now, the girl is being cared for by her grandmother in their hometown of Llobasco.

At dinnertime, Ramirez joined a circle of fellow immigrants and volunteers gathered around a mango cake to sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish to a new arrival.

Jose Hernandez, 29, a fieldworker from the same city as Cruz, was on his way to join his sister in Raleigh, N.C. His birthday wish: “That everything goes well.”

Near him sat Blanca Mejia, 49, who had traveled north from the coastal city of Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador, with her two sons, ages 10 and 15. She had crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and saw an alligator peering from the murky water.

“The Virgin of Guadalupe, she took care of us” — as did volunteers at the church, Mejia said.

Now, she was wearing jeans, a pink T-shirt and white flip-flops, her dark hair damp and loose around her shoulders after a shower. Over a donated dinner of vegetable soup, she said she planned to join her brother in Washington, D.C.

She knew nothing about Washington.

“Do they have churches like this there?” she asked.

Twitter: @mollyhf