Amid the tumult at the border, Pimentel has emerged as both a religious leader in McAllen and perhaps the city’s most prominent advocate for the hundreds of undocumented immigrants that pass through each day. When I spoke to her on Wednesday, Trump had signed his executive order on family separations just a few minutes earlier, and she was reading through the news on her phone.
Her reaction was measured.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Pimentel told me. “I think stopping the pain of children is definitely something good. I hope that he continues moving in that direction. The whole zero-tolerance policy is not helpful. It’s really a process for immigration that is more hurting than helping.”
Trump administration officials and Border Patrol agents paint a more complicated picture of how immigrants and asylum seekers arrive in the country. The new policy is designed to deter Central Americans from coming north through Mexico, where they usually have to pay or work their way up toward the border. Drug cartels closely manage crossings over the Rio Grande, they say, coaching immigrants to surrender willingly and instructing them on what to say to seek asylum in the U.S. Trump alluded to this practice—and the strains his policy was placing on federal resources—in a tweet on Thursday morning. “We shouldn’t be hiring judges by the thousands,” he wrote, “as our ridiculous immigration laws demand, we should be changing our laws, building the Wall, hire Border Agents and Ice and not let people come into our country based on the legal phrase they are told to say as their password.”
Pimental takes a more compassionate view, and the purpose of her respite center is just that—to provide respite. Immigrants typically only spend a few hours there, occasionally staying overnight, before they board buses that will take them to friends or family members elsewhere in the country. Volunteers give them a meal and a shower, and they help them prepare for the next step of their journey.
After an arduous trip north followed by days in confinement, the immigrants often arrive bewildered, Riojas said. She told me of one woman who showed her the paperwork she was carrying and asked her what she had signed. “It broke my heart when I saw she had signed her own deportation release,” Riojas said.
When they leave, the immigrants have white pieces of paper stapled to their tan folder with the following message in large black letters: “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help.”
When each new batch of immigrants arrives, the volunteers greet them with a boisterous “Bienvenido!”
“Many times this is the first place that’s actually welcomed them,” Riojas said.
Inside the center, there’s a play area for children and large mats where people lay down to rest. Over the last few days, a child psychiatrist from Los Angeles, Amy Cohen, has been treating the children for trauma they experienced either in the detention facility—which is often referred to as “Ursula,” or simply “the freezer”—or while they were separated from their families, in addition to providing basic medical care.