McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A lively immigration panel discussion by Texas Monthly on Wednesday night in McAllen provided some interesting insight into the differences between Central American migrants and migrants from Central Africa who have come to Texas.
The panel discussion, called Los Dos Lados (or Both Sides), kicked off the City of McAllen’s five-day MXLAN festival, which is being held right now to celebrate culture and issues from south of the border. (Border Report livestreamed the discussion on its homepage.)
The panel discussed the Trump Administration’s return-to-Mexico policy, the controversial third-country rule that would require migrants to claim asylum in the country immediately next to the one they are leaving, and other struggles facing migrants and migrant communities.
But perhaps some of the most startling information to come from the talk showed the differences that humanitarian centers are facing as they contend with migrants from different countries, and continents.
San Antonio Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger, who runs the Resource Center in San Antonio, said she was not expecting a massive influx of migrants from Central Africa. She said over 18,000 migrants, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, have come to their San Antonio facility for help since March.
The City of San Antonio has received 26,000 migrants during that time, mostly because the city is a hub for bus travelers. Unfortunately, Bridger said, many of the African immigrants get to San Antonio and lack funds to continue their journey.
Border Report last week featured a story on one immigrant family from Congo, that was fleeing violence and government corruption. Bridger on Wednesday provided an in-depth picture of how far, long and difficult these migrants’ journey has been.
A ‘scrappy’ group of migrants
Bridger said that the African migrants have traveled well over a year through Europe and South America to get to the United States. Those that make it are “the true survivors” and they tend to be “much more aggressive than the typically demure Central American migrants,” she said.
“The Central Africans had been traveling in some cases for over a year to get to San Antonio and so they had learned to be really scrappy,” she said. “They are first in line.”
“We were struck by the cultural differences between asylum seekers in Central America and Central Africa,” Bridger told the crowd of 250 people, which included several local elected officials including mayors, a state senator and the Hidalgo County judge.
The Congo migrants speak French, not Spanish. And Bridger said San Antonio officials have struggled to find enough French-speaking volunteers. The volunteers that are at the facility have logged more than 30,000 hours since March. However, due to recurring confrontations, she said many volunteers won’t come back to help.
The African migrants tend to be the first in line for food, clothes or other amenities. They rush to get items and that sometimes leaves other migrants without, Bridger said.
“When you are using volunteers and it literally come to blows to get that meal then it’s a difficult situation,” Bridger said. “The only way they made it to San Antonio alive was because they fought like crazy to get there.”
Like ‘déjà vu’
Sitting beside Bridger on the panel was Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Sister Norma has run the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, which has helped more than 160,000 migrants since the surge began in 2014.
Bridger said Sister Norma has advised the City of San Antonio on how to cope with this unexpected influx of migrants. Bridger said she had only been hired three weeks when the surge of migrants began coming and, at first, they thought that their facility would only need to operate “a day, or two.”
Sister Norma gave Bridger a warm smile and said she had the same thought in June 2014 while commandeered the fellowship hall of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, helping migrants who were found wandering on the streets of McAllen.
“I asked Father Tom, for maybe a week, possibly 10 days at most,” Sister Norma laughed. “We just celebrated our fifth anniversary.”
“It feels like déjà vu,” Bridger said.