Over the past month, the surge of undocumented immigrants across the U.S.’s southwestern border—many of them unaccompanied minors and young families—has become one of the biggest and most polarizing stories in the country. President Barack Obama has dubbed it “an actual humanitarian crisis” and asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding for beefed-up border security, additional immigration judges, and more detention facilities. Governor Rick Perry has blamed the White House’s immigration policies for the surge, allocated $1.3 million a week for extra Department of Public Safety border operations, and warned that if the wave of children and families continues through the summer it will produce a “trail of tears again from Central America to Texas.”
And then there are the immigrants themselves. Since the 2014 fiscal year began last October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 family units have been detained by Border Patrol, a huge increase from last year and an astronomical leap from the beginning of the decade. In the entire 2011 fiscal year, there were just under 16,000 unaccompanied minors caught at the border. This May alone, there were 9,000. The vast majority of these children and families have come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, fleeing horrific levels of violence, trying to rejoin family members, looking for dependable work, and, in some cases, driven by rumors—some of them planted by smuggling networks—that the U.S. is offering residency “permits” to women and minors.
The majority of these Central American immigrants are crossing over at Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, surrendering themselves to Border Patrol, hoping the legal system will allow them to remain in the U.S. In order to take stock of the border situation in the Rio Grande Valley, we talked with a wide array of figures on the front lines to get various perspectives on this crisis. In this, the first of a five-article series, we profile Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
“The ladies have organized the clothing. It almost looks like Sears department store, right?” says Sister Norma Pimentel as she surveys the parish hall of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown McAllen. Shirts, pants, socks, and underwear are stacked by size on rectangular tables, and every so often a voice sounds over the PA system announcing the impending arrival of a shuttle to the local bus station. The volunteers wear nametags and immigrant mothers and their children sit in plastic classroom chairs. A young girl in an orange-and-white-striped Whataburger T-shirt scampers around us, laughing as she slaps a yellow balloon up into the air.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a gray-haired, round-cheeked, 61-year-old nun of the Missionaries of Jesus who has run the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley for the past eleven years, has become one of the immigration crisis’s indispensable leaders by helping to alleviate one of the most visible problems of the immigration surge. The Border Patrol was releasing hundreds of Central American immigrant families at McAllen Central Station, with only a bus ticket and a “Notice to Appear” at an immigration court. (Unaccompanied children are sent to Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities and are not dropped off at bus stations.) The families were hungry, tired, and distraught from an arduous journey through Mexico and then having spent days getting processed at increasingly overcrowded Border Patrol stations. Some didn’t have bus reservations until the following day. Local citizens were stepping in to aid them.
In a sense, this was nothing new. Border Patrol has long been in the practice of releasing some undocumented immigrants in McAllen. For years, those asylum-seeking immigrants had arrived in small numbers and disappeared almost as soon as they arrived, heading northward on Greyhounds. But by early June, the Border Patrol vans had turned into Border Patrol buses, and the barely noticeable drop-off of immigrants had turned into an overwhelming wave of humanity. Pimentel knew the situation demanded more than a hodgepodge Good Samaritan response. On June 10 she asked Sacred Heart, only three blocks south of the bus station, if they would allow Catholic Charities to set up a way station for the immigrant families in the church’s parish hall. “They needed a bath, they needed to eat, they needed to rest, they needed a doctor,” Pimentel says. The first evening, Sacred Heart hosted two hundred immigrants. The Valley’s Catholic churches put out the word to their parishioners that help was needed, and volunteers flocked to Sacred Heart. On June 13, Pimentel opened an additional Catholic Charities facility at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville, only a block away from that city’s main bus station.
The volunteers now run a strikingly professional operation. In McAllen, where the vast majority of the families are released, Border Patrol drops off the immigrant mothers and their children at Central Station, where Catholic Charities volunteers are waiting to meet them. Shuttle buses, on loan from the city, take the immigrant families the few blocks south to Sacred Heart, and they are greeted by a roomful of applause. (“The volunteers will clap their hands and say, ‘You’re welcome! Welcome! Come in!’ ” Pimentel says. “It really hits home that they’re now in good hands, and we’re here to take care of them.”) The families are quickly matched with a volunteer who serves as their chaperone for their stay. They get outfitted with new clothes. (“We ask them if they are okay to throw away the clothes they have on, and we put them in the trash and give them new ones,” says Pimentel.) The families take showers. Some of them see a doctor at a mobile medical unit. (A sign on the wall of Sacred Heart reads, “ Medico. Solo si es necesario.”) They get a meal from the Salvation Army or Food Bank. Save the Children watches the kids as the mothers take care of gathering necessities for the upcoming journey. Everyone in the families gets an opportunity to sleep in long air-conditioned tents on loan from the city. (“In Immigration