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A nun, volunteer workers and a nightclub in Texas turned into a hostel for asylum-seekers

Reportage from the Texas-Mexico border: the reception centre for migrants arriving from Central America in search of a better life in the U.S., fleeing poverty, violence and persecution. Men, women and many children: they walked for days, they are afraid and in most cases they don’t speak a word of English. They are welcomed by Sister Norma Pimentel and by volunteer workers from all over the United States

(McAllen-Texas) It’s 11.00 am and the sun beats down even in the shade. Jorge, 22, of Mexican and Texan origin, receives a phone call from immigration officials. They just released 18 families from the detention centres. They’re at the bus station waiting for the volunteers to give them indications on the Humanitarian Respite Centre, opened by Caritas of the Rio Grande Valley a few steps away from the main bus stop.

Only the courage and the determination of Sister Norma Pimentel could transform a night club into a home for thousands of migrants fleeing poverty, gang wars and political instability.  

They arrive from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala: the countries of the death triangle. The entrance into the McAllen centre is underlit, typical of nightclubs and dance floors. Some neon lamps lights up the bar area that now serves as a pharmacy, where drawings made by children are stacked as a sign of welcome, adjacent to a makeshift waiting room, in the area that once served as a cloakroom. White arrows on the floor lead up to the canteen and to a rudimentary “boutique” where hundreds of mattresses stacked in neat piles, boxes and racks of clothes arranged according to size, are illuminated by natural light. The adjacent hall, near makeshift showers,  houses the canteen, where volunteer workers are preparing sandwiches and bottles of water for the newcomers. As they cross the threshold of the nightclub they look around bewildered and incredulous. They are all holding a boy or girl in their arms.

Some of the children are six-seven year olds. They have been walking for 31 days.  

In the other room adults hold on to sheets of paper, their laissez-passer into the United States, into safety. It’s all they have. No rucksacks, bags or spare clothes. All they have is the jeans and shirts they are wearing, and sneakers without laces. They were confiscated by immigration officers as soon as they entered the first reception centres. It’s an ordinary procedure in prisons to prevent convicts from committing suicide, and it’s become a standard procedure also in the McAllen migrant detention centre, even though these mothers and these fathers have committed no crime and legally presented themselves at a port of entry into the United States with an official asylum request. A timid smile appears on their faces when the volunteers welcome them with “Bienvenido” and start distributing hair bands to women, a sticker with a star for the children and a bag with the essentials for a shower and a change of clothes. They gaze at the coloured walls featuring the drawings of those who preceded them in this exodus, who stopped here for a day or a night, before resuming their journey and reuniting with a relative in another US State. Jorge, in charge of coordinating morning arrivals, starts giving information on the premises, inviting them to take a seat while waiting to be registered, while water bottles are being distributed and the children are brought to the canteen where they are given sandwiches for breakfast. It’s 11.30 and this is their fist meal since yesterday afternoon.

Peter comes from Houston, Patti from Colorado, Brittany from Pennsylvania. They have been working here as volunteers for several days or weeks and they are moved to tears as they observe this slow procession of people, exhausted and relieved at the same time.

“There were days when as many as 800 arrived all together”, Peter said. “The Supreme Court decision that asylum-seeking migrants who cross into Texas or New Mexico can be barred from receiving asylum protection if they failed to seek protection in Mexico first, has drastically reduced the number of incoming migrants. In fact only one family arrived yesterday.” The new “Remain in Mexico” policy left thousands of people on waiting lists in the border zones, where US immigration officers decide the number of migrants that will be allowed access into the Country, and for the past days entry gates remained closed many times. Since the adoption of the provision two months ago more than 20 thousand have been repatriated, often because asylum-seekers don’t speak the language of the officers addressing them and have no legal assistance.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision to recognize the legitimacy of Trump’s migration policies put the seal on the disputes between local and federal courts which had declared illegal Trump’s executive order to forbid asylum applications from migrants who had not filed asylum requests in transit countries, leaving them the only option to resort to expensive procedures in their countries of origin.

Carmen and Juan still don’t know that they are among the last ones who crossed the McAllen border and found Sister Norma waiting for them. They arrived from Honduras. They only speak Spanish and have a six-year-old who won’t release the grip from his father’s arms. While their travel companions are waiting to be registered, Carmen and Juan kneel down and hug each other. They lean their foreheads on a chipped blue chair and break out in tears, hugging their child.

From that improvised altar they voice a cry of gratefulness, even though they are kneeling down on the black floor of what once was a nightclub.

Their case will be added to over 900 thousands on waiting lists in US Courts, where it takes two years for asylum requests to be submitted to a Federal judge who will decide if they are eligible to remain or if they must be repatriated. In the meantime, today they breathe in their freedom, and they breathe without fears.

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