Sisters again make Christmas Eve meal for migrants living on streets of Mexican border town

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Grateful for volunteers, nun says families 'are hurting and suffering'

MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — Last Christmas Eve, siblings Kathy Harrington and Barbara Roettger crossed into Mexico to volunteer and feed a couple hundred asylum-seeking migrants who were living at the base of the Gateway International Bridge.

This year, the sisters will repeat their charitable Christmas Eve meal. But in the span of a year, the numbers have exploded, with an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 migrants now living in this Mexican border city of Matamoros.

During the past year, much has changed for the duo who grew up in frigid Minnesota and retired in sunny and warm South Texas a few years ago. Now they cross the international bridge in Brownsville, Texas, to feed the migrants every Tuesday, sometimes more often if their volunteer group, Team Brownsville, needs the help.

They can recall the exact week in mid-July when they crossed on a Tuesday and fed 200 people. By that Friday, they said there were 600 hungry mouths to feed.

That was the week of July 17, the day the Trump administration implemented in South Texas the Migrant Protection Protocols program, also called Remain in Mexico, because it forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during their immigration proceedings.

“It was after MPP came into practice,” said Harrington, who used to own a medical equipment business.

Catholic nun Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, far left, greets Barbara Roettger on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, as she and her sister Kathy Harrington, far right, came to serve a meal to migrants at the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Sunday, the lively sisters were decked out with Christmas-light earrings and jingle bells, ribbon and mini gifts on their heads. They crossed again to help serve migrants a special meal that was first blessed by Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores. Also helping to serve the meal were U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, and Jill Biden, wife of former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Read a Border Report story on Jill Biden’s tour of the Matamoros refugee camp.

“We were asking to help and we just jump at the chance,” said Roettger, a former bookkeeper.

A lot of the food the sisters have cooked were with ingredients they paid for themselves, but as the numbers continue to increase, they are receiving more and more food donations from Team Brownsville, which raises funds online and solicits volunteers to come down from across the country to help feed and serve the migrants.

After Sunday’s noontime meal of tamales, beans and rice, the sisters said they were headed back to Roettger’s house in Brownsville to begin cooking Tuesday night’s Christmas Eve meal.

This Christmas Eve they are planning to serve thousands of migrants.

Two boys play at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“The people of Brownsville are working with people of Matamoros to find better circumstances and to help them,” Flores said of the volunteers as he laid blessings on the children.

“We must remember these families,” said Catholic nun Norma Pimentel, who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and who oversees the volunteers said as she greeted Roettger, Harrington and others who came to help on Sunday. “These are not the conditions we must say are OK we must be better than this.”

Clothes hang to dry on a fence ringing tents at the refugee camp for U.S. asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, on Dec. 22, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Since 2014, Pimentel has overseen the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. The shelter has helped over 150,000 migrants in five years, but this summer suddenly found itself without migrants to help after MPP was implemented in South Texas.

“These families would have been in the Respite Center if they were not kept with MPP and so we owe it to them to help,” Pimentel said Sunday as she escorted Flores to the camp for the first time. “The best option would be to replace MPP with something more humane. In the meantime, these families are hurting and suffering so a great number of people in groups are coming together to make sure that proper care is given as much as we can.”

Pimentel credited people like Harrington and Roettger and volunteer groups like Team Brownsville, Angry Tias and Abuelas, and Global Response Management for keeping these people alive in very difficult and extreme outdoor conditions. This past week, temperatures in the camp went from a high of 97 degrees to a low of 34 degrees and there were two days of rain.

“Many others are also joining making sure that we collaborate together to make this a successful effort to help these families,” Pimentel said. “It’s just terrible conditions.”

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