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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

339 ‘Their tents are covered with ice’ The extreme cold and snow are brutal: Sister Norma Pimentel

Day 339: Thursday, February 18, 2021

‘Their tents are covered with ice.’ Texas Catholic Charities confront extreme cold and snow on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border

Right now because of the freezing temperatures all families, especially the poor and immigrant families are suffering tremendously,” Sister Pimentel said. “The cold is so severe...their tents are covered with ice. It’s been very hard for families, especially the children.” Just hearing the parents stories has been heartbreaking, she said, noting that one mother had sent her “a video of a little boy crying because his little feet just hurt too much.”

(Juarez Mexico)

“It’s a crazy, bitterly cold time for us in Texas,” Betsy Ballard, the director of communications for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said by email as her community attempted to emerge from a weekend cold snap that has besieged the southwest. She said most Texans were “ill-prepared to deal with substantial icing and power loss.... It’s heartbreaking for the thousands of people who lack sufficient resources to remain warm and fed.”

(Tent city for asylum seekers)

Rolling blackouts and more bad weather on the way have most Texans hunkering down under blankets and trying to stay as warm as they can. Those lucky enough to have natural gas fireplaces were using them for warmth as others endured hours with no help from electric heating systems or space heaters due to downed power lines and rolling blackouts.

(Sister Norma Pimentel)

Conditions on both sides of the border were challenging, said Norma Pimentel, M.J., the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She said as many as 500 newly arriving asylum seekers were forced to seek shelter at a Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston respite center in Brownsville to escape the cold this weekend.

Many had just been allowed across the border to continue their asylum claims under a recent Biden administration executive order when they were stranded in the border city as bus and air transport was halted by the cold weather. Sister Pimentel said conditions at camps for migrant families waiting to have asylum claims reviewed across the border in Matamoros were brutal.

Most of the people in the camps, she said, come from Central America’s Northern Triangle states of El Salvaor, Honduras and Guatemala. They have little experience dealing with cold weather conditions and have no gear to fend off the cold.

“This is beyond anything they have ever experienced,” she said. “They’ve had so many hardships and things that they have had to deal with over two years now, so this is just devastating for them.”

She has been making runs across the border with “blankets, socks and gloves and everything else,” but she said the need among the families for cold weather gear remains acute. Most are trying to stay warm around wood fires although a few outdoor propane heating units have been donated to fight off the cold. “Even people on this side are struggling because we are not used to this cold weather,” Sister Pimentel added.

Sister Pimentel said Mexican authorities have been doing what they can, offering to open a shelter up to the people in the camps. But she said many were unwilling to leave their belongings behind in the tent encampments and have remained within them exposed to the cold and snow.

Middle-class Texans may be dealing with anxiety and inconvenience as power outages deprive them temporarily of heat, but he said the storm has been hardest on the most vulnerable in Dallas, especially its homeless residents outdoors without cold-weather gear. Texas prisons are also freezing and prisoners have little food or water.

More than 100 homeless people sheltered from the cold at the St. Jude Center Park Central, opened in December by Catholic Charities Dallas and the Catholic Housing Initiative

Before the cold arrived, Ms. Ballard said, her Galveston-Houston office had “acquired kits with a blanket, mittens, socks and food for people who are homeless” and began distributing them this week.

“We hope to resume food distribution by Thursday and anticipate even longer lines of people in need when we’re able to re-open. We will have to continue serving via drive-through food distribution in order to maintain safety during the pandemic, but we know that volunteers will bundle up and brave colder-than-normal temperatures in order to help people in need.”

The archdiocese has launched a special fundraising appeal for its cold weather response.

Find out how you can help:

Catholic Charities USA

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

Catholic Charities Dallas

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

Diocese of Dallas

Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

Excerpts from Kevin Clarke for America Magazine

February 16, 2021

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