McALLEN — Immigrant rights groups began a three-day vigil here on Thursday to support the thousands of unaccompanied and undocumented Central American children currently in detention centers throughout Texas.
The “Don’t Deport to Death” campaign is spearheaded by United We Dream, a coalition that advocates for immigrants and lobbies in support of federal legislation known as the DREAM Act. On Thursday, the group was joined by the University of Texas-Pan American group Minority Affairs Council, an affiliate of United We Dream. Speakers at the vigil included Jose Antonio Vargas, who made headlines in 2011 after he revealed to The New York Times that he was an undocumented immigrant. The revelation came after Vargas was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Washington Post. He is now the founder and cochairman of Define American, a multimedia organization focused on immigration and cultural identity issues.
But the activism in downtown McAllen has officials at a nearby shelter concerned that the political firestorm over the immigration crisis could open the door for counter protesters and place some of the migrants in harm’s way. For about a month, volunteers at Sacred Heart Catholic Church have cared for hundreds of migrants taken there after being processed by U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The shelter is operated by Catholic Charities, whose officials told The Texas Tribune last month that the organization wants to avoid the political fray and merely serve the families before they travel north. At the shelter, they are offered fresh clothes, a meal, minor medical care and a place to sleep.
“My first immediate concern is the volunteers and the people [at the shelter], that they are not used or hurt in the process,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
Mario Carrillo, the communications manager for United We Dream, said the group would “absolutely” abandon its plans if counter-protesters arrived and he felt the migrants were in danger.
“One of the things that we consider most is protecting the families and protecting the children, and protecting their space,” he said. “I don’t want this to be something that riles up the opposition.”
In recent days, protesters in California have blocked busses transporting migrants to detention centers. On Tuesday, officials in Galveston County and League City adopted resolutions prohibiting federal housing of any undocumented immigrants who are a part of the recent influx.
During a press conference, the vigil speakers focused on one point: that children have little control over their situations.
“When you’re 9 or 10 or 11, you worry about summer camp and PlayStation,” Vargas said. “Right now, when you’re 9 or 10 or 11, you don’t know what it means to be called ‘illegal.’ And you don’t understand how your life is being played with by the political crossfire that is happening.”
Vargas said that when he was 12, his mother put him on a plane to the U.S. with a smuggler in the Philippines. He hasn’t seen her in nearly 21 years. He said he was told more than two decades ago to say he was going to Disneyland if anyone inquired about his travels.
The children in the church behind him, he said, pose no threat to national security, as some have said.
“The only threat that these children pose to us is the threat of testing our own conscience,” he said.
Some of the most powerful testimony came from Jose Luis Zelaya from Honduras, a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University.
"I was stabbed in my head by gang members because gang violence is so rampant,” he nearly screamed, fighting back sobs as he described his journey atop La Bestia, or the Beast, the freight train used by thousands of migrants who travel from Central America and Mexico to the U.S. “When I was 11 years old in 1998, Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5, destroyed Honduras, making one-sixth of the population homeless from one night to the other, and we had to start sleeping in the streets. What these children are talking about is true, it’s not fake, and it’s not drama.”