EAGLE PASS - For illegal immigrants weary from a long desert journey, Father Jim Loiacono is there with food, shelter and sometimes a trip to Western Union.
He asks only to see U.S. Border Patrol papers that indicate the immigrant has promised to appear before a judge.
Loiacono and other priests along the border reflect the Catholic Church's historic social teaching that no man-made law should keep the poor and oppressed from bettering their lives through immigration. But whether such compassion should trump laws protecting a country's borders is at the center of a growing national debate.
"It's a hard trek between Central America and the United States," said Loiacono, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, a 500-member congregation four blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. "They come here ragged and worn out. They really just need TLC at that point."
An estimated 9 million to 13 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In recent years, Eagle Pass, a town of about 22,000, has seen a rise in illegal immigrants who take advantage of its central location between San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico. As many as 150 a day have passed through Eagle Pass this year.
Protecting them from serious illness and death is one thing, said Chris Simcox, co-founder of an anti-illegal immigration group, the Minuteman Project. But it is entirely different to break federal law, he said.
"We have a long history of churches being sanctuaries because they perceive these people as being just children of God," he said. "But how do they know they're not aiding and abetting terrorists? "
Our Lady of Refuge Church does provide limited help to illegal immigrants who haven't yet declared themselves to the Border Patrol, Loiacono said. But he said he encourages them to do so and, without proof of it, they are not allowed to use the church's phones or given rides to the bus station or financial institutions.
Proof comes in the form of a "notice to appear" document, which means Border Patrol has checked them out and the person promises to appear before an immigration judge.
"There can't be any other way," Loiacono said. "No one would forgive us for blind acts of kindness if it turned out to be a terrorist. But food, shelter and clothing? No problem."
Those carrying a notice are generally not Mexicans - whose discovery causes a quick deportation just over the Rio Grande - but Central and South Americans who've made costly and often treacherous trips from their homelands.
The document, in practicality, permits them to pass security checkpoints temporarily and travel to another region of the United States to live and work. Ignoring the document risks deportation, if the Border Patrol finds the immigrant.
Hilario Leal, spokesman for the Del Rio Sector of Border Patrol, which includes Eagle Pass, said agents were aware of the church's aid to immigrants, but the agency's focus is on border crossers and smugglers.
Eagle Pass police Chief Tony Castaneda said he doesn't believe the church is breaking any laws or abusing its status in the community.
Instead, the church is keeping illegal immigrants from the type of desperation that makes criminal activity a tempting alternative, he said.
"They're not turning to petty crime and becoming a nuisance to our city," Castaneda said. "Once they leave Border Patrol, very little assistance is given to them. Word has spread quickly to come to that church."
Adding to the congregation's standing is its mysterious statue of the crucifix found floating in the Rio Grande by U.S. Border Patrol agents more than a year ago and later placed in the church's chapel.
Loiacono named the fiberglass, life-size piece "The Undocumented Christ" because he said it serves as a symbol of divine empathy for the plight of immigrants.
"People have an inalienable right to migrate and to better one's self and their potential," Loiacono said.
Founded in 1884 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the church leaves its doors open overnight for immigrants to rest until the office opens in the morning.
Had it not been for an Eagle Pass woman's familiarity with the church, Meidy Garcia said she and her 3-year-old daughter, Susan, could have died. During their two-week journey from Honduras, they slept in a rat-infested house, endured double-crossing guides and ached from hunger and thirst.
They crossed chest-high water in the Rio Grande and walked in chilly temperatures for a half-hour before Border Patrol agents arrested them. Their clothes were wet and their emotions drained as they spent four hours being questioned at the Border Patrol station.
Afterward, they didn't know where to go, Garcia said, until the woman, whose name they never learned, stopped to give them a ride to the church.
They slept on cots inside the church hall with warm blankets and frequent visits by the nuns and Loiacono.
The next morning, Garcia telephoned her husband, a baker in Atlanta who nearly two years ago illegally crossed into the United States. He would wire her money for a bus ride there. She already had depleted her $8,000 budget on guides who demanded more money than was agreed on initially and bribes for police officers in Mexico threatening to arrest them, she said.
Loiacono drove the mother and child to a store with a Western Union kiosk. He filled out paperwork as they waited inside his heated truck. Loiacono emerged with $300 in cash, which he handed to Garcia.
"It's rare to see this kind of help from a church," Garcia said. "All I could do was cry and thank God for what they've done."
While in the bus station, she tried to give Loiacono a few $20 bills, but he refused. He stood in line at the ticket counter to make sure she got the 10 percent discount his church negotiated with the bus company for immigrant travel.
The bus driver signaled it was time to leave. Loiacono handed Garcia a bag of breakfast from McDonald's, placed his hand on her forehead and prayed for their protection.