An auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rockville Centre was part of a high-level delegation of Catholic bishops that made a two-day trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight the plight of immigrants.
Bishop Robert Brennan, who speaks Spanish, said one of the eeriest parts of the trip was visiting a converted Walmart in McAllen, Texas, where some 1,400 immigrant boys are being detained.
President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy prosecutes adults who illegally cross the border. It separated families and sends children to detention centers across the country.
The facility was clean and well-stocked, but the children seemed stunned and in a daze, said Brennan, who returned from the trip on Tuesday.
“You look around and you see the walls, and it looks like any kind of a youth facility except when you look at the kids themselves. The kids don’t look mistreated or anything like that,” Brennan said. But there was “a sense of being stunned. They’re just going through the motions, and that is odd to see.”
“From a human level, it is incredibly sad,” he said.
It was not clear which of the boys had been separated from their parents and which had crossed the border alone — known as “unaccompanied minors,” Brennan said.
At another point, Brennan and other bishops celebrated Mass on what had been a loading dock at the Walmart — now converted into a makeshift auditorium.
Some 2,300 children were separated, and most remain apart from their parents even though Trump rescinded the “zero tolerance” policy amid an outcry.
Ten of the children are under the care of MercyFirst, a Catholic organization based in Syosset that takes in troubled boys and girls.
The six-person delegation included some of the highest-ranking bishops in the United States: Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the main umbrella group for bishops in the country.
DiNardo had canceled a trip to Rome for a June 28 meeting of cardinals from around the world during which Pope Francis installed 14 new cardinals, Brennan said.
The delegation also included Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles and vice president of the USCCB.
Brennan said he believes he was asked to go in part because the conference leadership wanted someone to represent the Northeast, including Long Island, which has one of the largest concentrations of Central American immigrants in the country.
Besides the detention center in the converted Walmart, now known as “Casa Padre,” the delegation also visited a federal processing center for newly detained immigrants who are here illegally. They also stopped at a respite center run by a Catholic nun who provides clothing, food and a place to bathe after immigrants are released from the processing center and headed to reunite with relatives in the United States.
Brennan said he opposes the separation policy. “I stand with all the bishops. We think that that is wrong,” he said. “We’re glad it’s been reversed.”
“However, we still consider it urgent to connect the children with their parents who have not yet been” reunited, he said. “That’s still a large number.”
The trip was not mainly political, though. Rather, it was intended to be pastoral and to accompany immigrants in crisis, “to offer a word of encouragement, a word of hope, a word of welcome,” Brennan said.
“It was important because many of our own people [on Long Island] have made this trek themselves,” he said. “Seeing it firsthand gave me a greater appreciation of their experience and struggles along the way.”
DiNardo, at a bilingual Mass the group celebrated at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, said, “The plan of the Lord is to always be attentive to what’s right in front of Him. That’s Jesus’ way.”
At the respite center in McAllen, run by Sister Norma Pimentel, Brennan found a greater sense of hope than at the other locations. These immigrants were on their way to relatives throughout the country, though they had ankle bracelets for tracking and future court dates.
Few wanted to talk about their journey, “but when you spoke about what is in front of you, when you spoke about the hopes and the dreams … people would sort of light up,” he said.
One 12-year-old girl, sitting near her father, asked Brennan about snow because she had never seen it. When she said she was going to Philadelphia, Brennan told her in Spanish, “Vas a ver nieve” — “You are going to see snow.”
Brennan said he also found some complexity on the trip. Border Patrol agents were not the coldhearted enforcers some envision, he said.
“They’re all largely parents, and they have those parental instincts,” he said. “Their hearts go out.”