Sister Norma Pimentel doesn’t have time to talk to reporters because she is busy doing the Lord’s work.
She stands in the entrance of a cavernous converted nightclub in downtown McAllen, Texas, greeting a new batch of immigrants who have just arrived to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center from a processing facility nearby.
“Bienvenidos,” she says over a microphone.
That’s the first thing Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley, says to every group of immigrants who come inside her doors after long, arduous journeys and detention in US Customs and Border Protection facilities. It’s a gesture, she said, to make them feel welcome.
“I thought it was so important that we do the same thing in the United States as they walk through those doors,” she told a Democratic Congressional delegation visiting the center Saturday after they toured two facilities. When they are welcomed, she said, “It’s almost as if they realize they’re no longer in immigration hell, their journey has changed.”
Sister Norma isn’t a political figure, but her role has put her at the forefront of the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border ahead of controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids targeting undocumented immigrants in major cities this weekend.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the system is overwhelmed. Extreme overcrowding highlights conditions at government processing centers some of the Democrats described as “inhumane.”
“It is a humanitarian issue and we must not forget that … We must treat them with dignity and respect, to uphold them as human beings. We must find solutions that are respectful to life and to people,” Sister Norma says to the members of Congress, telling them it is important to put human faces on this crisis.
“I think it helps to see them, to see the faces, see the children. They’ve been through so much, but when they walk through here, they see the volunteers. The compassion, the care, it transforms them. You see the change. Even though they’ve been through so much, the children laugh and play,” she said.
Donations of baby bottles, other supplies offer help for migrants
A majority of the immigrant families CNN saw at the Donna Processing Facility during a tour with Vice President Mike Pence on Friday will end up in the care of Catholic Charities when they are released from CPB custody. Here, it’s up to the nonprofit to get them, and the many other immigrants sent to their care from other facilities, on their feet in the United States.
When each round of families arrive, staggered throughout the day and coordinated with Border Patrol, they line up at the bar, where they receive care packages of donated personal hygiene products and other supplies.
“It used to be a nightclub. This is the bar,” Sister Norma says to the Congressional delegation, gesturing to her left, where a group of volunteer schoolteachers here on holiday from Spain are organizing the items – all donations – that come from around the country.
“Instead of giving alcohol, they’re giving baby bottles and milk and all these hygiene items,” she said.
The Humanitarian Respite Center, which has had a facility in the Rio Grande Valley for five years, moved into this new space from a smaller facility a month ago, and it now has room for more than 1,000 people. It’s motto: “Restoring Human Dignity.”
When immigrant families arrive, they receive the care packages, then have the opportunity to shower and change into clean clothes. Volunteers help them plan for their next moves, contacting family members that may already be in the United States and helping to arrange transportation from the bus station across the street or a nearby airport. The families can stay for up to 24 hours, and are sent on the next leg of their journey with ham sandwiches, snacks and bottled water, as well as a card with information on where they are going written in English.
“That first night, believe me, we had 1,000 people in this space. Thank God we moved,” Sister Norma told the Democrats. There are currently more than 800 people in the facility, which costs approximately $100,000 per month to operate, she said. More than 150,000 people have come through her doors.
She continued, “When I saw (images in the media of) children in cages, I said, that is not the only part of who they are – there’s a light of light and life that they’re hopeful for.”