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 they’re kind of sitting down, scared, and they don’t have an opportunity to even sleep,” Pimentel continues. “So here they knock out. You go wake them up. They won’t listen to you. They’re just out.”) Most of the families stay for only a few hours before returning to the station for their bus departure. Some, with no ride until the following day, spend the night. All depart with enough food to last them until their destination.

In the four weeks since opening, Sacred Heart has served more than 3,000 immigrants and Immaculate Conception has taken in 861. A corps of volunteer leaders now runs the day-to-day operations, freeing Pimentel to focus on long-range planning. “I’m working more with city officials and Border Patrol now,” she says. Over the July 4 weekend, 899 volunteers worked at the two facilities, far more than the number of immigrant mothers and children who came through.

There’s no doubt that Pimentel has been tremendously effective. Kevin Pagan, McAllen’s lead city attorney and emergency management coordinator, says with unconcealed respect, “She is what in my world is called an incident commander.” But Pimentel is cognizant that her impact is limited. She sees families for only a few hours, and she can’t help any of the unaccompanied minors who get processed by Border Patrol and sent on to the network of Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities. The saddest, most awful part of the problem remains frustratingly out of reach.

“I requested to go in [to a Border Patrol station], and through the effort of someone, I was able to do so,” Pimentel tells me when I ask her about if she’s seen any of the unaccompanied minors. “Until then, I didn’t realize the seriousness of the problem. The children under the conditions they are—you can say that since then I cannot sleep. I saw cells that were crammed with many children of all ages—a small little cell with many children all stacked up in there, no sleeping quarters. There’s nowhere even to lie down. And it’s suffocating—you have a room without air conditioning and it’s hot and there are no windows or anything. I was able to go inside where the kids are, inside that little cell, and that’s where you can experience what it feels like to be in a place so cramped in and tight, day and night, with the lights on all day.”

Two days after I met Pimentel at Sacred Heart, I saw her in Brownsville standing on the lovingly manicured grounds of the city’s Event Center next to the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic leader was in town to visit a Border Patrol station and to speak about what Congress could do to alleviate the immigration situation. (With no political agreement on the issue, her comments were notably scant on details.) Just a few weeks earlier, Pimentel had been an anonymous nun doing good works in the Rio Grande Valley. Now, she was fairy dust to the leaders of the nation, the person every visiting politician wanted to be sprinkled with in order to appear on the right side of the issue. “Sister Pimentel . . . she is an angel,” Pelosi said as she began her remarks. Pimentel smiled enigmatically. She seemed like the kind of pragmatist who would prefer to be called an incident commander.

Pelosi and Pimentel made an arresting pair—the Congresswoman wore a purple-and-white-striped pantsuit, with designer sunglasses perched on her head; the nun was dressed in a navy blue frock and lived-in loafers. “What we just saw was so stunning,” Pelosi said. “If you believe, as we do, that every child, every person has a spark of divinity in them and is therefore worthy of respect, what we saw in those rooms was [a] dazzling, sparkling array of God’s children worthy of respect.”

The Congresswoman, stymied by gridlock in the House, was left to invoke the divine and speak in platitudes. The nun, negotiating daily with local politicians and Border Patrol while overseeing her two facilities, spoke of action, experience, and consequences. At one point, Pelosi’s voice grew hoarse and her press assistant went to fetch a cup of water. When he got to the edge of the crowd, Pimentel walked over to him and took the cup, as if by reflex, and delivered it to the lectern. Pelosi looked a little embarrassed. “She’s an angel,” she said again.

Pelosi had lauded Pimentel for “teach[ing] us about what the actual ramifications are of public policy,” and when I’d spoken with the nun back at Sacred Heart, she’d made clear the lessons she’s gleaned from the current situation.

“This is where I’ve been all the time; the Valley is my home,” Pimentel said, as she stood amid travel bags that had been put together for the families. “In the eighties we had a similar situation. We had a great number of immigrants from Central America because of the civil wars that they were experiencing, and it just bottlenecked here. They couldn’t handle the overflow of immigrants, and then we dealt with it as best we could. But the nice thing about then is the Red Cross stepped up and actually opened up shelters throughout the whole Valley. And the shelters were a really successful response, and Immigration was able to process the refugees at their pace and in the capacity that they could. Unfortunately, in this humanitarian crisis we don’t see Red Cross as part of the equation. I don’t understand why. I think that would have been a fantastic solution for the unaccompanied kids.”

I asked her if she had offered Catholic Charities services to help the unaccompanied minors. “They don’t let nobody [help],” she sighed. “They have the doors shut. I know they’re doing something to solve the problem, but it should never have happened. That’s what’s heartbreaking for me—understanding and seeing the kids in those conditions, it’s not acceptable. The way I look at it, it’s embarrassing for the United States that we can’t respond adequately to a child, to a human being. Of course, I know that Border Patrol and Immigration are doing their best and rushing to make sure they solve the problem soon, but their best is not good enough.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series about the border crisis. The second piece examines the crisis through the eyes of Kevin Pagan, the City of McAllen’s emergency management coordinator; the third story covers Othal E. Brand Jr., one of the few politicians who has directly taken action in securing the border; and in the fourth installment, we spend a day with the Border Patrol. In the fifth installment, our reporter talks with Edras, a sixteen-year-old who made the 1,400-mile trek from Guatemala.