Take a closer look at migrants, sister at the border urges
January 9, 2020
Migrants who appear before Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border show up scared, dirty and hungry.
Their ordeal in getting to that point is over. For many, it began with the dangers and hardships at home and continued with the perils of the journey itself, including the threat of gangs and kidnappings.
But new problems begin as they await word of their fate from the U.S. government. Most of the latest arrivals no longer wait in U.S. detention centers, but live for months in less than ideal conditions, often in tents on the Mexico side of the border, subject to the elements and lacking basic necessities.
Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus has seen thousands of these migrants in her work as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, in the Diocese of Brownsville in the southern tip of Texas.
She wants others – including the Catholics of northeast Nebraska – to see what she sees: people “in dire need of help,” who reach the U.S. border in Texas “dirty, muddy and really scared and hungry.”
She urges people to look deeply at the migrants and see Jesus, in suffering and in need.
Sister Norma has cared for immigrant refugees for decades. The Catholic Charities office she oversees has given help to more than 150,000 people since 2014 at its Humanitarian Respite Center.
Sister Norma was born and raised in the United States, in the Rio Grande Valley where she serves today. With her parents, who were originally from Mexico, she often crossed the nearby Mexican border to visit family.
Being raised in two cultures, she said, “gave me a better understanding of the whole immigrant community and being sensitive to our brothers and sisters who are looking to come to the United States.”
About 35 years ago, she joined the Missionaries of Jesus, a good fit for her, she said, because of their longtime work of helping families at the border. They housed mothers and children at their convent at a time when detention centers were only open to men. During the 1980s, the sisters helped refugees from war-torn El Salvador and Nicaragua.
“The reality of families coming from Central America to the United States was something that we were always involved with,” she said.
The work of Sister Norma and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has drawn international attention and that of world and church leaders. She’s met with Pope Francis at least three times, with Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and numerous lawmakers.
For many, she has become the face of humanitarian efforts for immigrants.
Sister Norma spoke last month to a leadership group of religious sisters in Omaha about her Catholic Charities work. The local sisters have been working to educate people about conditions at the U.S.-Mexican border and are trying to change that situation.
Sister Norma also talked with the Catholic Voice in a recent phone interview. That conversation follows.
Q: Describe your work, and that of Catholic Charities, at the U.S.-Mexican border.
We have been responding to the families that have been released by (U.S.) Border Patrol after they’ve been processed and they have been given permission to continue their process somewhere else in the United States. The Border Patrol actually brought them directly to us, to our center, because they are appreciative of the fact that we’re responding and caring for these families after their release. We’ve done it since 2014. Most recently, things have changed because of the latest policy, which is an MPP (Migrant Protection Protocol). Families, instead of being released, are sent back to wait in Mexico at the bridge, if they ask for asylum. They have to wait for their hearing at that point instead of going somewhere in the United States and waiting there.
For the most part, all the families are now right at the bridge, on the Mexican side. We continue to receive some families at our respite center, but not in the great numbers that we had before. Most of the families that we’re getting now are from countries other than Central America. We have a small group of families that arrive daily, between 20 to 80 people a day, mostly from Angola and Congo and other places like that. Haiti as well.
Because the border is very close to us, we actually take volunteers and staff almost every single day to the border to help the families that are having to wait on the Mexican side. They have been there for the past almost six months already – and really completely as homeless people – waiting for their appointments, and in very difficult conditions. We take them things. We’ve taken them food and other items that can help them deal with all the extreme suffering they’re having to endure. That’s what we’re doing now as far as trying to respond to the reality here at the border.
Q: How does your relationship with God shape your efforts?
My own personal relationship with God is very important because it directs me. It’s a compass that directs me and guides me to who I am and what I am to do for the day. I start my day with him, with God, in prayer and very early on. The very first thing at 6:30 in the morning, I go to Mass, because the Eucharist is my nourishment. It helps me to always keep God at the center of my life, and it’s why I do what I do. It’s not about me, it’s not about Norma. It’s about God and his guidance, to be his instrument, to let him guide me as to what I’m supposed to say and do.
Q: What has drawn you to that work?
Well, when you’re here and you see the families, you see the conditions they’re in, the children, the mothers. It’s something that is important to do. Everybody who has a heart, who has a sense of care for our brothers and sisters in their suffering, would do something as well. One of the things that I see here in our communities is how the majority of people are so generous. They help because we’re seeing the families. It’s sad to see the conditions they’re in and how much they’re suffering. I personally am drawn because of my own personal faith in God, and who I am as a religious. And I see it as my call to reach out and help my brothers and sisters who are in need.
Q: What are some of the challenges that migrants face in their native countries and in coming to the United States?
Well, in the stories that I hear, they say it’s difficult to be in their country because it’s not safe. Mostly they fear for the lives of their children, how their children are exposed to so much danger, and they just want to give them a space that’s safer for them, at least for now, until things get better in their country. And they realize that they have no choice but to try to find something else. They look toward the United States as their beacon of hope, where they could find a safer space for them to grow up and to be, as long as it’s not safe in their country.
When they arrive here, when they travel through the different countries – from many of the stories we hear – people who are traffickers take advantage of them. There are gangs – and they get kidnapped in many cases and put in stash houses. We just hear horrible stories of the different things they (the kidnappers) do and how they’re constantly finding ways to get money from family members in order for them (the migrants) to be released.
They get caught by different groups along the way and finally make it to the United States if they’re lucky and are able to cross safely. They make it to Border Patrol, which is somewhere they’re hopeful to get, because they know that they’re in the United States and they’re safer. But sometimes the conditions at Border Patrol are not the best because there’s so many of them in those detention facilities when they get processed. And in many cases they get separated from their kids, as a procedure to follow, to process them.
In some cases, sometimes depending on the circumstances, they’ll be separated permanently because of whatever the Border Patrol decides is the situation they’re facing. It’s very hard for the families to deal with that: the reality of separation from their kids and the children not knowing if they’re ever going to see their family again. All of that they go through in that process – and at some point before they were released and given permission to continue. Now they’re being turned back to Mexico, and they’re suffering even more. When you see them suffering even more so, that’s because our U.S. policies are having them wait in Mexico. It breaks my heart just to see them in those conditions, and not be able to provide them a safer space while they wait for their asylum process.
Q: What was your message when you were in Omaha in early December, speaking to a group of religious sisters involved in raising awareness about immigration issues?
I spoke to them about the importance of us being able to see this reality of the immigrants and suffering. When we see, we’re able to care. I also mentioned that we need to recognize that it is important for us to keep our borders safe and keep our country safe, to know who enters our country and the fact that criminals must be prosecuted. But we must not lose our humanity in doing so. It is important that we preserve who we are as human beings, and that we don’t lose that reality in the process of trying to keep our country safe and establish policies that are good for our country. We must respect human life.
The sisters are very interested in seeing how they can be a part of our humanitarian response as part of their message. They’re calling us as women religious to be present to those that need us. They were very supportive and interested in knowing the different ways they could be helpful.
Q: What are their greatest needs?
I believe one of the biggest, greatest needs is for us to care. We need to care that they’re human beings. They’re people, they’re part of the human race. We have a responsibility to them to make sure they’re safe, to make sure that we treat them with dignity and respect. They need the basic things a person needs to clean up, to stay in good health. Now that the weather’s getting cold, we take them socks, we take them hoodies, we take them blankets, things that will keep them warm. Those are the kinds of things that are definitely always needed. And of course funds are needed to be able to provide for whatever they need. For right now, to cross things over to Mexico is not that easy. We have to deal with the Mexican government and whatever it is that they want to charge us for tariffs.
Funds always come in handy. Like right now, we’re buying little tents for them to be in so they won’t be out in the open, and those kinds of things.
Q: Describe your relationship with government officials in the area.
We’re always having to work with all kinds of officials who help us do our humanitarian job and to make sure that we provide the care the families need. They cooperate, and they assist us in whatever things we need, to make sure we reach the families and provide them the care they need. Thank God. We’re very pleased and blessed to have that good relationship with all officials here locally. It has helped us a lot to accomplish our goals.
Q: What can people here do to improve the plight of immigrants in this area and at the border?
I believe that immigrants have traveled to many parts of the United States and are in our country waiting for their process for asylum. And so I think it’s important that we reach out to them, we find them, that we know who they are so that we can be a supporting community to them. In your community, I’m certain there must be immigrants, families that are there, and they are scared. They are frightened. They’re uncertain what to do, and they need guidance. They need support. They need to have a community that welcomes them. I think it’s the number one thing that must happen in all communities.
Then, of course, we must also encourage our elected officials to make sure that they vote for policies that are respectful of human life, that in the process of making sure our country’s safe and taking care of what we need as a country, we must also ensure that we don’t contribute to human suffering. I think those are some important things that people in the United States can do. Plus, I believe that a way to also become aware of what is happening is to come and see. I invite everybody who wants to come and spend the weekend, a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, to be part of this response. I think it’s a historical moment in our history, that they’d be part of, and it’s happening today, especially at the border. If anybody has the opportunity to do so, I encourage them to come and see and to be part of this response.
Q: Politics has made immigration issues increasingly divisive. What are some actions or ideas that can unite Catholics and people of good will?
Today, like you say, politics has caused great divisions. I believe that Jesus invites us to look for him in our brothers and sisters who are suffering. We are called to welcome the stranger, and so we focus on the humanitarian aspect of what is happening. We will be able to come together as a community, as a Catholic community, and be able to respond to what we see before us: the suffering immigrant who is a person and who is needing our help. I think that breaks all barriers and differences of who we are, our different views of politics. We could put that aside and just simply see the person as a human being and us as Christians who are united in the same faith. Jesus calls us to respond to our suffering brothers and sisters. I think that will bring us together. I believe that we’re called to care, and if we focus on that we will do the right thing. I invite everybody to care.
For local on coverage on immigration and asylum seekers, click here.