MCALLEN, Texas — When the truck lurched, Danny Sims knew it wasn’t good.
In the rearview mirror he could see pieces from one his trailer’s tires flying into the air. The car behind him swerved to avoid the trailer’s fender, taken out by the blown tire. The spiraling piece of tin mashed itself against an eighteen-wheeler’s grill farther back.
It was the first of two tires he would lose that night.
Sims pulled over. The trailer’s side, painted with the Global Samaritan Resources logo, was now also marked with black streaks.
Sims is the executive director for Global Samaritan Resources. The trailer he was towing carried a full load of cots, used clothing and baby supplies, all of it bound for the Harvey Drive Church of Christ in McAllen. Their final use would be determined by faith-based groups responding to the recent surge of Central Americans crossing the U.S.-Mexican border illegally.
Despite the delay, there were still people at Harvey Drive waiting to greet Sims’ group hours later. More than 20 people began stacking the cargo inside a backroom of the church’s activity center. Later, Sims’ group set up cots in another room, reserved for a Boy Scout troop, and bedded down for the night.
Over breakfast the next morning, Abel Alvarez, the church’s minister, described the effect of the increase of immigrants crossing the border.
“I think three years ago, the (annual) numbers were 17,000 to 20,000,” he told the Abilene Reporter-News. “Right now they’ve processed over 50,000, and we’re expecting maybe another 90,000 by the end of the year.”
All that just since Oct. 1, 2013.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Alvarez said.
Most are women traveling with their children, but other children of varying ages are traveling solo. All of them come from the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“It’s mostly Honduras. We haven’t had anybody from Mexico,” said Leticia Benavides, who oversees the project operations for Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s immigration assistance center. She said the church became involved in early June.
“We estimated about 200 people every day for that first week,” said Benavides.
Twice-daily buses filled with families released by the U.S. Border Patrol are dropped off at the church. But where the unaccompanied immigrant children are taken, no one seemed to know.
Alvarez said not having access to those children is becoming an issue with the faith community.
“They need pastoral care and we’re asking to be let in,” he said, adding they’ve so far had no luck.
At Sacred Heart, workers gather immigrants’ information in case family members call looking for them. Then, the workers see to the immigrants’ needs.
“They’re fed, we provide them clean clothes, offer them a shower and have volunteer doctors who see them for minor things,” said Benavides.
The church is two blocks from the bus station. Immigrants used to collect there, their tickets paid by family members, until overcrowding forced them out. That’s when volunteers started taking them into their homes, and then Sacred Heart.
“We had a lady here from the center, we called her El Angel, because at one time she had nine families at her house,” said Benavides.
Immigrants may only stay a few hours until they catch a bus to wherever they planned to travel. Those arriving later in the day spend the night, sleeping on cots in air-conditioned tents behind the church.
While Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is running the operation, all faiths are welcome to work in it. Alvarez has someone from his church there and several others are being trained.
“It’s amazing, one of the highlights of this whole operation is the way we collaborate,” Benavides said.
To pay for passage to the U.S., families raise money any way they can, including borrowing money from relatives or going into debt by arranging payment plans with guides who take immigrants part of the way to the border.
Climbing atop the infamous freight train known as La Bestia — The Beast — has been the most notorious way for immigrants crossing Mexico to the American border.
It’s also known as The Death Train because so many have been maimed or killed boarding it. The train normally doesn’t stop for the immigrants; those people must jump on a moving train.
On July 10, La Bestia derailed in the state of Oaxaca, stranding 1,300 immigrants. Heavy rain and overloading was blamed; it was the third immigrant train derailment in southern Mexico in a month.
Mexican authorities a few days later ruled, in the interest of safety, they were going to prohibit people from riding the trains. It may explain the lower immigrant numbers last week, Benavides said.
Immigration is a sore subject in America. Some label immigrants entering the country without documents as criminals, while others point to Emily Lazarus’ 1883 poem inscribed under the Statue of Liberty welcoming “the homeless, tempest-tost (sic).”
But like any political problem, this one has many layers. The most visible, people crossing the border, is only the most obvious.
“The drug cartels have been able to collapse any kind of rule of law,” Alvarez said. He pointed to the valley’s bordering state of Tamaulipas and the Mexican government’s ineffectiveness there.
“They don’t run that state, the cartel does,” he said. “So how can I fault some little country in Central America, who doesn’t have 10 cents to rub together?”
Earlier this month, the commander for U.S. Southern Command, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, wrote in a column for Military Times that Northern Triangle drug cartels “have left near-broken societies in their wake.” Money fueling the violence, he says, comes directly from the U.S. illicit drug trade.
Kelly cited U.N. statistics labeling Honduras as the world’s most violent nation, with a rate of 90 murders for every 100,000 people. By contrast, recognized war zones, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012, rated 28 murders per 100,000.
“I know that the stories that we hear over and over again is, ‘We’re fleeing the violence,’” Benavides said. “We hear, ‘Our neighbor’s child was kidnapped, he was just 7 and was killed.’”
Alvarez echoed the same stories.
“Families are saying, ‘Let’s send whoever we can and get out of here,’” he said. He called it a humanitarian crisis with parents wanting their children to have a better life.
“Not a better life,” he amended. “Just life.”
But calling them refugees has not been welcomed. Alvarez has heard it from all quarters.
“Hey, we have laws for a reason, these people ought to go back,” goes the argument.
“That resonates with me,” he said. “But if I lived in a situation where I thought my kids were going to get murdered on the street, I’d do whatever I could to get them out of there.”
He cited the chapter of Leviticus in the Bible as a guiding light.
“The last section is about being a good neighbor to the people around you.” he said.
From his organization’s perspective, Sims of Global Samaritan Resources said they operate outside politics.
“I still have so many questions, it’s hard for me to be fully onboard with what’s going on at the border,” he said. “So I’m working to set those aside, to remain focused on the basic needs of those moms and their children, because that’s in our reach.”
Sims said his primary reason for coming to McAllen was to assess the situation and see where GSR could help. Bringing supplies was a bonus.
“Now I’ve got real contacts, I can say I’ve been there, and I know what to expect,” he said. “I would feel really good about organizing a team to go and help, which they clearly need.”
But how can Abilenians look past the politics of the situation? Alvarez had to confront that, too. He counts both Republicans and Democrats in his small church.
“And the Republicans, man, they’re just ticked off at Obama,” he said.
So Alvarez offered them an analogy.
“I wear a lot of hats — father, husband, board member,” he said. “But that Christian hat? That sucker stays on the whole time.”