By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON — The driver of an SUV, which slammed into a crowd of migrants on May 7 at a bus stop in Brownsville, Texas, killing 8 people and injuring several others has been charged with manslaughter.
Before the upgrade in charges, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville said: “We mourn and are shocked by the horrific loss.
“The safety, protection, and assistance of the immigrant men, women, and children who have been given permission to stay in the United States remains a priority for the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville and for our generous staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley,” he added in a May 7 statement.
Victims, most of whom were Venezuelan men, had been standing or sitting on the curb at the unmarked city bus stop across the street from a homeless shelter around 8:30 a.m. when an SUV drove up onto the curb and continued moving.
Witnesses detained the driver as he tried to run away and held him until police arrived, Martin Sandoval, an investigator with the Brownsville Police, told reporters on May 7. He said the police had not determined if the collision was intentional but said the driver had been arrested and initially charged with reckless driving, however Monday morning police authorities upgraded the charges to eight counts of manslaughter.
Seven victims died at the scene, and another 10 victims were taken to area hospitals; the eighth victim died that evening.
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez similarly said in a May 7 statement that his office had yet to receive evidence that what happened was intentional.
Victor Maldonado, director of the Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, the homeless shelter by the crash location, said the center had not received any threats before the crash but that it did after it happened.
“I’ve had a couple of people come by the gate and tell the security guard that the reason this happened was because of us,” he told The Associated Press.
In recent weeks, Brownsville has seen a large increase in the number of Venezuelan migrants, prompting city leaders on May 4 to indefinitely extend a declaration of emergency. The area has been of particular interest with the upcoming end to border restrictions known as Title 42.
The Ozanam shelter, the only overnight shelter in Brownsville, manages the release of thousands of migrants from federal custody.
The crash victims had been waiting for a bus to downtown Brownsville after spending the night at the shelter, Sister Norma Pimentel, a Missionary of Jesus and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told a reporter.
“As we await a fuller report from law enforcement authorities, let us stop for a moment to mourn these losses of life and to pray,” said Bishop Flores. “Pray for the victims, pray for their families and loved ones, and pray for our community. And after we pray, let us continue our common efforts to serve those most in need.”
Bishop Flores also implored people to “resist the corrosive tendency to devalue the lives of immigrants, the poor, and the vulnerable. Let us take extra steps as a local community to care for and protect one another, especially the most vulnerable.”
He described the center as a place that has served the homeless and immigrants for decades, noting that during the past several months, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has worked closely with the Ozanam Center “to help provide humanitarian aid to the immigrant population as they seek shelter while making arrangements to meet with their families further north. This is done as an assistance to, and with the cooperation of government authorities,” he said.
The Ozanam Center was originally established by the Diocese of Brownsville to house Central American political refugees. In 1995, it became an independent nonprofit agency providing emergency shelter, assistance with clothing, food pantry services, and rental housing assistance for the homeless. The shelter has room for 250 people and, in recent months, has been getting up to 380 people a day — some who leave the same day.
On the evening of May 7, Bishop Flores celebrated Mass outside the center, joined by Auxiliary Bishop Mario Avilés and Oblate Father Kevin Collins, pastor of St. Eugene de Mazenod Catholic Church in Brownsville.
In a tweet after the Mass, Bishop Flores said he and other church leaders were there “to offer consolation to the immigrants and staff.
“Pray for those who saw it happen; they are devastated,” he said, of the day’s crash, adding: “Many first responders attended the Mass; pray for them also, for the burden they carry is great.”
Sister Norma similarly took to social media to comment on this tragedy, saying: “We can all join [to] accompany those hurting in this time of sorrow.”
She also urged those who want to help to contact the Ozaman Center at: www.ozanambrownsvillecenter.org/contact.html.