Catholic Charities just opened an immigrant relief center in the Rio Grande Valley

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling pose for a photo during the Dec. 1 groundbreaking ceremony for the diocese's new Humanitarian Respite Center. (CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Charities)

Blessing the ground for a new respite center in McAllen is a sign of the Catholic Church's commitment to be available and helpful to immigrant families, who "are enduring many, many tragic situations in their lives," said Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores.

"It's the work of the church to be a presence and to make available a space for people to feel welcome, where people can be attended to and dealt with in their humanity," the bishop said on Dec. 1. "People are not statistics, people are not just numbers, people are not problems, ultimately, people are people."

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Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley hosted the ground-blessing ceremony for its new respite center.

Bishop Flores conducted the blessing. He was joined at the ceremony by Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Brownsville Diocese, and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

All three expressed their gratitude to Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, its pastoral team and parishioners for their generosity in housing the current respite center for the last two-and-a-half years.

"God asked the church especially to be a sign of his love by continuing to open up a space where our service to one another can be manifested," the bishop said.

"The (Rio Grande) Valley is one of the poorest areas in the whole United States and yet, they share the little that they have to make sure that someone who has less will be able to have something that they need," Sister Pimentel said in her remarks.

"Because of that sacrifice, we have been able to help so many thousands and thousands of immigrant families," she continued. "And so today is a very special day because it marks the continuation of this act of kindness, compassion and love."

She thanked the city of McAllen, Catholic Charities and "the thousands of volunteers who have taken part and continue to take part to show the world that we are a community with compassion and with a heart."

Darling in his remarks noted the recent "rhetoric about sanctuary cities in the media," and pointed out that those who receive assistance at the respite center, "are here as legally as you and I."

The immigrants, who are mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, are in the legal process of seeking asylum or residency.

"I keep hearing in the press that it's an illegal immigrant situation," he said, but "it's people seeking asylum."

"We have received a lot of kind of negative publicity over the last two and half years alluding to an unsafe border, the need to protect the border, those kinds of things," Darling added, "but really what you're seeing is the spirit of McAllen and the Catholic Church helping people in need who are here; many times for reasons we can't even fathom what they have gone through."

In June 2014, Sister Pimentel heard there were immigrant families huddled at the bus station in downtown McAllen with only the clothes on their back, nothing to eat or drink and nowhere to shower or sleep. The families had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, released with a court date and dropped off at the bus station with permission to continue to their final destinations.

Sister Pimentel opened the respite center in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church, located just two blocks away from the bus station, to provide food, clean clothing, showers, medical attention, supplies for the road, phone calls, overnight lodging and more for the immigrants.

More than 57,000 immigrants have passed through the center.

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Ybarra is assistant editor at The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

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