By Paul Binz, Catholic News Service
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Just as the coldest weather in more than 30 years brought new misery to asylum-seekers stranded in a refugee camp in Mexico, an end to their plight may be in sight.
A small group of 25 was the first to leave the camp in Matamoros, Mexico, and enter the United States Feb. 22 in Brownsville, said Sister Norma Pimentel, a Missionary of Jesus, who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville.
Although hundreds are likely to follow, this vanguard is being kept small as a first step.
“It’s simply to start with a manageable number,” Sister Pimentel told The Valley Catholic, Brownsville’s diocesan newspaper. “Because of COVID, there’s a limited number of (U.S.) agents to process them.”
She made the comments in an interview ahead of the scheduled date for the group’s entry. All those entering the United States will first undergo screening for the coronavirus to make sure they test negative, she said. The cold wave has caused real hardship for the asylum-seekers in the camp, Sister Pimentel said.
In the tent city in Matamoros, hundreds of mostly Central Americans have been waiting for up to a year and a half to have their asylum pleas heard in the United States since the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, was put in place during the summer of 2019. Most in the camp are families with children under age 7.
To stay warm since the severe cold arrived Feb. 14, they were wrapping themselves in blankets, building fires or staying close to heat sources like donated barbecue pits.
“Right now because of these freezing temperatures, unfortunately these families are suffering tremendously,” Sister Pimentel said Feb. 16. “This cold is so severe, the temperature has dropped so much that the tents all around have icicles.
“It’s been very hard for the families, especially the children,” she said. “They’re boiling water and filling those large containers of Cokes; they fill them with hot water so that they can put them underneath their feet and hopefully this way they can keep them warm. … (It’s) beyond anything they’ve ever experienced.
“We’re taking them blankets and socks and gloves and sleeping bags. It’s not enough to cover and keep them warm.”
Mexican officials did attempt to get the 700 to 800 people in the camp out of the cold.
“They tried,” Sister Pimentel said. “They opened up a shelter and would have taken (the refugees), but they did not want to leave their camp. I guess they’re afraid to leave and lose their belongings, lose their space. They think they need to stay close to the bridge.”
The subfreezing cold hurt relief efforts on the U.S. side of the border as well. The Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in downtown McAllen, Texas, to help asylum-seekers was without power for several days.
“We have 500 immigrants at our Respite Center. We don’t have electricity,” Sister Pimentel said during the outage. “It went off the first night that we had the cold. We’re having to manage with generators in some rooms to at least have light.”
Power was later restored.
During the outage, the city of McAllen, Texas, provided the generators, and extra help of other kinds arrived for the Respite Center, she said.
“Because we’re unable to cook for the refugees at our Respite Center, people are coming from the community bringing us food in great quantities,” she said. “Different groups at different times. Thank God for their generosity and the kindheartedness of so many people. … whether it’s fruit, tacos pizzas, fried chicken. It’s amazing, the response of the community.”
Sister Pimentel suggested a few ways to help.
“It’s definitely important to pray — pray so that the changes can happen soon for these families, and that the process of asylum can be heard here in the United States and (they can) be with their loved ones sooner than later,” she said.
Sister Pimentel also said people “can reach out to any organization that is trying to help these families in the meantime.” She also pointed to the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley website, https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org.
“You can reach out to us and go to the Amazon list and find out how you can give any of those items that we can definitely make available to the families.”