In the late afternoon on a steamy August Friday around a dozen volunteers burst into applause as the glass doors of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas spring open.
“Bienvenidos!” they yell, welcoming the guests. A stream of weary migrants moves in and fills up row after row of the plastic blue chairs that line the room. Even the most apprehensive among them begins to smile at the cheerful faces scattered throughout the room. A few grab the hands of volunteer and local community organizer Ramona Casas, who is standing nearest the door, thanking her as they make their way in.
Because the shoes on their feet had no laces, many shuffled across the beige tiled floor as they filled up the room, clutching plastic bags marked “Department of Homeland Security” that held chargers for the GPS monitors that were strapped to their ankles. The migrants walking through the doors on that Friday afternoon had just been released from federal custody.
Since the Trump Administration is generally no longer separating families at the border, those seeking asylum in the U.S. can be released from detention if they have sponsors or family in the U.S. In McAllen, there is a high probability that before getting on a bus to their sponsors’ homes, migrants will be ushered into the one-story beige building on Beaumont Avenue.
Inside, volunteers and staff offer food, a change of clothing, a place to bathe, guidance as they prepare to travel across the country, and, as was on display that Friday afternoon, a much-appreciated warm welcome.
The Trump Administration has maintained an aggressive posture toward immigrants over the past year and a half. From cracking down on the undocumented to limiting refugee admissions to making it harder for some immigrants to gain citizenship, the White House has signaled a harsher attitude on immigration.
But while the Trump Administration has gotten tougher, organizations that provide assistance to migrants and refugees have doubled down on their efforts to provide compassionate care, especially in South Texas cities on the frontlines of border crises. Groups like the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, have raised millions to help separated families reunite. Activists have rushed to protest and pushback on harsh policies. And facilities like the Respite Center have stepped in to provide a helping hand.
“There is a big misunderstanding of who the immigrant family is,” says Sister Norma Piementel, who runs the center and serves as executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. “For the most part these families are human beings who are entering our country in search of safety and protection.”
Piementel first opened the respite center in 2014 when a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the southern border. She says her goal has been to provide care for those in vulnerable situations. “Ultimately, my goal is to make sure they are protected as much as we can,” says Piementel. “They are very highly vulnerable and exposed to abuse and human trafficking and violence. Trying to reduce that risk is one of my major concerns.”
While the center meets the travelers’ basic humanitarian needs, its clients generally do not sleep there or stay longer than a few hours. The facility primarily helps asylum-seeking families that have been released from immigration detention on parole. Members of this class of immigrants are often released from detention on their own recognizance, sometimes with ankle monitors, as they await the immigration court hearings where judges will decide whether or not they can remain in the U.S.
Because the center has built a relationship with detention officials, they receive text-message updates throughout the day so they know how many families to expect. In the wake of zero tolerance, Piementel says, the center has consistently welcomed between 100 and 150 people — about 50 families — per day. This Friday was no different. Two more streams of families filed into center before sundown.
As the parents spoke to volunteers and placed phone calls, children laughed and played in the small corner toward the back where volunteers watched over them as they read books, played with Play-Doh, colored, played cards, and got engulfed in winding games of Jenga.
Parents would wander over to make sure their kids were alright. “Mi corazon,” my heart, one mother said glancing over at her daughter “en la camisa blanca” no older than five, who glanced back at her mom with a wide smile. Another man, Rogan, who did not give his last name, waved at his daughter from across the room. He was tired, he told TIME, but was doing well. The two were scheduled to take a bus to Richmond, Virginia the following morning. Like many in the room, they were resting up before the long trip ahead.
Migrants were handed cups of soup and warm tortillas as volunteers walk group-by-group of mothers, and later fathers, through the paperwork they were handed by immigration officials. After meeting with Center volunteers, each adult walked away clutching a beige envelope with a white paper stapled to its front. “Please help me. I do not speak English,” the paper read. “What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help.”