The Angry Tías and Abuelas, a group of aunts and grandmothers, who since June have been stepping up to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, have responded to the City of McAllen, who released a statement last week explaining why they stopped the volunteer group from giving away backpacks filled with supplies that folks need for their bus travel after being released from detention.
The backpacks are filled with toiletries and packaged food. The Tías and Abuelas had been giving them out at the McAllen bus station for six days until bus station staff, under the direction of the City of McAllen, told them to stop.
The “Statement on Volunteers Wishing to Distribute Supplies at Metro McAllen Transit Center,” as the city called it, was released to the press July 25. It praised Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and implied that the Tías and Abuelas were “disrespectful” to immigrants. The volunteers, the statement claimed, did things that “would have caused disruption of services,” and volunteers were “redirected” to go through the Immigrant Respite Center, “run so ably by Sister Norma Pimentel and the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.”
The City said it issued the order to avoid “duplication of efforts” between Catholic Charities and the Tías and Abuelas so that the immigrants would be “treated with respect.” Additionally, the press release said the volunteers’ efforts risked “disruption of bus services to not only the very immigrants that they are trying to help, but also the 8,000 passengers who daily utilize the facility.”
McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez went on to recommend to the humanitarian aid volunteers that they work with the four-year-old Respite Center instead of working independently.
“We hope that they will find this a viable alternative to provide their supplies,” the press release continued.
On Thursday, the Tías and Abuelas responded to the city, expressing “disappointment” with the city’s implication that they do not respect the immigrants seeking asylum. The group also rejected the insinuation that their work would disrupt bus service. Instead, the Tías and Abuelas said, they “have played an active role in helping asylum-seekers in and out of the bus station get to their sponsors safely.”
Last Thursday, the day the Trump Administration missed their deadline to reunite hundreds of children still separated from their parents under “Zero Tolerance,” the Tías and Abuelas met with Assistant City Manager and Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, Jeff Johnston, and City Attorney, Kevin Pagan.
The group was accompanied by La Unión del Pueblo Entero’s Director Juanita Valdez-Cox, who was leading a march outside the bus terminal that had first originated outside Bentsen Tower in McAllen at a vigil for the children who remain separated.
Elizabeth Cavazos, a volunteer with the Tías, informed the longtime labor organizer about the situation with the bus station. Valdez-Cox sprung into action, making phone calls to McAllen city officials, in search of answers. She told them she did not see anything wrong with what the volunteers were doing and demanded they be allowed to continue their work.
She then led three Tías and Abuelas into the Assistant City Manager’s office located inside the terminal. Emergency Management Coordinator Johnston soon arrived.
The Tías and Abuelas had been told a day earlier by bus station staff and a McAllen city official that they must cease distributing backpacks with aid to refugees as they departed the terminal for their bus rides to sponsors, some traveling as far as North Carolina and Florida.
At the meeting, Johnston and Pagan, who arrived later, expressed appreciation for the Tías’ and Abuelas’ work but said that the city has exclusive contracts with vendors at the bus station who sell food, like granola bars, which the Tías and Abuelas were including in the backpacks. The City did not mention this rationale in their press release.
Johnston and Pagan went on to list some of the justifications later included in the statement, such as disrupting services. Also mentioned was redirecting the volunteers to Catholic Charities, with whom the city likewise appears to share an exclusive agreement with respect to the provision of humanitarian aid for refugees seeking asylum in the US.
At no time did the city cite any ordinance that the volunteers were violating, despite being repeatedly asked to do so by the group.
The city liaised for the volunteers to drop off 70 backpacks at the Respite Center, located on the corner of Beaumont and Bicentennial. Doing so created more crowding in the small facility. There, the Tías felt the aid took up much-needed room in a small facility already short on space for all kinds of supplies, from food to clothing to toys.
The Tías and Abuelas are continuing to distribute backpacks at the area’s international bridges. There, just south of the Ports of Entry, refugees are being denied entry into the US by Customs and Border Protection agents, who continue to cite lack of “capacity” to accept the refugees.
Editor’s note: In June, the Angry Tias and Abuelas group reached out to Neta to help them launch an online fundraiser to get supplies for those seeking asylum. Since then, we have raised more than $75,000 to support their efforts.