Facing COVID criticism, Catholic Charities defends its ministry to migrants

Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley

Catholic Charities on Thursday defended its ministry to migrants, amid criticism that one of its member agencies is acting recklessly with regard to the pandemic. 

Local and state officials in Texas have recently warned of high rates of COVID-19 among undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border; a recent state order restricted the activities of volunteers who work with migrants, including at Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley in the border town of McAllen. 

In response, both Catholic Charities USA and the Texas Catholic bishops’ conference are defending the immigration work of Catholic Charities member agencies. 

“The staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities have the utmost concern for the health of the communities where they live and do everything they can to protect against the spread of COVID-19,” said an Aug. 12 joint statement of the Texas bishops and Catholic Charities.  

“They work with government officials to separate individuals and families who test positive to allow for isolation until a negative test is returned,” the statement continued. 

When migrants are released by federal agents after entering the United States at McAllen, they are typically sent to Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley “for transitional care,” the organization stated. 

“This care is threaded with the dignity we believe should be afforded to every person — a warm meal, a shower, clean clothing, medicine and other supplies,” the statement read. Migrants typically stay with Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley for two days, before moving to another city to await court proceedings.

In addition, Catholic Charities’ member agencies work with other groups to meet the special needs of certain migrants, such as trafficking victims. 

Some local and state officials have warned that undocumented immigrants have been helping drive the spread of COVID-19 in border areas in Texas. 

On Aug. 4, the city of McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border announced it had approved an additional emergency shelter to better handle the influx of migrants. 

The existing respite center was “overwhelmed” and had been receiving more than 1,900 migrants per day at the end of July, the city said, far exceeding the center’s intake of 750 migrants a day at the start of the month. 

“This significant [migrant] change increases the threat of COVID spread or other lawlessness within the city,” the city commission stated, noting that federal immigration officials reported releasing more than 7,000 COVID-positive immigrants into the city since mid-February.

A recent state order forbade anyone other than law enforcement from transporting undocumented migrants, instructing police to stop or impound any vehicle suspected of carrying migrants. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) cited the pandemic as a concern, warning that “busloads of migrants” were being transported around Texas with an unknown number of COVID-19 cases among them. 

Meanwhile, in nearby Mission, Texas, Our Lady of Guadalupe church was forced to close its overflow shelter for migrants after a woman tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 4. The facility is set to re-open on Aug. 16, and serves about 300 families per night. 

A document from the Department of Homeland Security stated that 18% of migrant families and 20% of unaccompanied children had tested positive for COVID-19 during the last half of July and the beginning of August. 

On July 29, Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley said that Abbott’s order would significantly restrict its ministry, and noted that it took care to isolate COVID-positive migrants, placing them in hotels at its own expense.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has also partnered with American Medical Response to provide COVID tests for migrants in McAllen, the city noted on Aug. 4. 

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“Catholic Charities’ work with migrants is rooted in the Gospel and in Catholic social teaching,” said the joint Aug. 12 statement of Catholic Charities USA and the Texas bishops.  

However, Catholic Charities admitted it is “concerned” with its ability to keep up care for “the growing number of newcomers.” 

“The immigration system in the U.S. is in dire need of being revamped,” said the statement.  “While those laws and trajectories remain outside of our control, Catholic Charities’ humanitarian work continues in full congruence with U.S. law.”

On July 28, Fox News host Brian Kilmede was also critical of Catholic Charities' work with migrants, complaining that donations were going to assist “other people from other countries who come here to America illegally.” He asked if the group was “ethically challenged.” 

The agency’s work is “humanitarian, not political,” Catholic Charities stated on Thursday.

“Agencies along the southern U.S. border, including in Texas, and around the country have provided these services in coordination with the federal government for decades across multiple presidential administrations.”

Catholic Charities explained that immigration and refugee services have been part of the organization since its founding more than a century ago, and that the organization works alongside federal agencies and other nonprofits to meet the needs of migrants. 

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Catholic Charities said it was “grateful” for the chance to work in border communities, “so that together we can serve those in need and keep our local communities safe.” 

“We praise the tireless efforts of the Catholic Charities member agencies at the border and throughout the country in their ministry to migrants,” the national organization said. 

“With constantly changing conditions, surges in border crossings, limited facilities, the media spotlight, and the pressures of regulatory efforts designed to curtail their humanitarian work, they march on caring for one human life at a time — whether it be a fearful child, a parent seeking to provide for his or her family or a potential victim of human trafficking,” said Catholic Charities.

“In caring for the stranger, they are the hands of Jesus Christ.”

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