Last week, President Donald Trump visited McAllen with the stated aim of seeing the front lines of border security firsthand. Critics saw it as a political stunt aimed at pressuring congressional Democrats to fund Trump’s border wall and bring an end to the federal government’s partial shutdown, now the longest in our nation’s history. But locals, including Sister Norma Pimentel, head of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, saw it as an opportunity to show the president the true nature of life on the border with Mexico. Sister Norma has drawn international acclaim for ministering to mostly Central Americans who have applied for asylum in our country and who are legally allowed to stay until their applications are adjudicated in immigration court. When she received an invitation to join a roundtable discussion with Trump, she said she grew hopeful. Texas Monthly spoke with Sister Norma about what happened next.
Texas Monthly: Sister, how did you first become aware that President Trump was going to visit the Rio Grande Valley?
Norma Pimentel: I started to get calls from the media, asking if I knew he was coming. I said no. I really didn’t know he was coming.
TM: What were your first thoughts when you heard that he was coming?
NP: I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for him to come visit the respite center. I thought that would have been a very nice thing for him to do, so that he could get a clear vision as to what is happening here at the border for so many families. I hear a lot about how they’re all criminals, and I thought he needed to meet the families and the children.
TM: Did you think that there would be a chance that he might visit your facility there?
NP: You know, you never know these things, but you always hope. I’m always hopeful, and I say why not invite him and maybe put that thought in his mind? If he’s like most leaders, he’ll decide for himself what’s best.
TM: When you shared the news about the president’s visit with the migrants in your facility, how did they react?
NP: I asked some of the people that were at the center at the time what they wanted, and what they would say to the president if he were to come and see them. They showed their amazement that he would be there, and they hoped he would really see them, see that they are good people, and that they don’t come here to harm anybody.
TM: You were invited to attend a roundtable discussion with the president. What were your initial thoughts on that?
NP: Well, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be invited—nobody let me know in advance. When I was asked, I thought that was exciting, and I was happy to be a part of the roundtable. I thought I had an opportunity to talk to him personally and invite him to the respite center.
TM: How did you get the invitation?
NP: I was in a car, and a Border Patrol officer of the sector that was planning the event said, “Sister, just to inform you, you are invited to be a part of this roundtable tomorrow.”
TM: Did you prepare any remarks, either formally or in your mind, for the roundtable?
NP: I did. I never know how much time they give you, usually not very much, to go around the table and introduce yourself and say a couple words. I mentioned to a couple of people at the respite center that I was going to speak to the president, and the staff brought several ideas to me, like taking a letter from one of the immigrants and giving it to him. My thoughts were that I knew I wasn’t going to have very much time, so I thought about the message that I wanted him to hear: letting him know who I was, and also that the respite center here is a place that serves many immigrants, and that the people that we serve are very poor and are victims of criminal violence in their country, so when they arrive here, we have a responsibility to help them. I wanted him to hear that, and also how generous our communities are in helping the many immigrants who come.
TM: So on the day of his arrival, you went to a Border Patrol facility to wait for him. How many other people were waiting with you?
NP: I arrived at the same time as County Judge Richard Cortez, very early. By 11 a.m., there was a line with lots of law enforcement folks, Border Patrol and Customs, mayors as well. The whole room started to get filled up, but mostly not at the table—those of us in the roundtable were directed to sit in chairs [not at the actual] table.
TM: Was there an air of anticipation?
NP: There was. I was sitting next to the person overseeing the port of entry in Hidalgo, who has become a very good friend of mine, and she was notified when the plane had landed in McAllen.
TM: So after more than two hours of waiting, the president arrived at the Border Patrol facility. Describe the scene when he first walked in.
NP: When he first walked in, he greeted everybody as he was walking in, and sat down and started talking to us. We just listened to him talk.
TM: So he didn’t go around greeting people per se, he just went straight to his seat?
NP: He addressed everybody in general and started to introduce himself to people that were at the table.
TM: Were you seated at the table?
NP: I was not. I was right behind the person sitting at the table.
TM: Beyond Border Patrol officials, were there any other local representatives seated at the table?
NP: Not at all, no. Only one officer was at the table, and he was the Border Patrol leader. There were politicians on the state level, but nobody locally, no leaders from the community were sitting at that table.
TM: When you noted that, what went through your mind?
NP: [Trump asked] every single person at the table to say something, and I realized that when they were speaking, they were just reaffirming what it was he had talked about and congratulating him. I realized that the roundtable was about listening [to] and reaffirming his plan. He didn’t really give local people an opportunity to say anything.
TM: So the president began by introducing a couple of people in the room whose relatives had actually been murdered by immigrants. Tell me about that moment and how it affected you.
NP: You know, the stories were sad and tragic. It’s a terrible thing that happened to their families, but I don’t know that this was the place to listen to their families speak about this. I was surprised to see them there. I was sad for them and their stories—I know what it’s like to lose a family member—but I was really taken aback that they were sitting at the table. It’s a sad, tragic reality, but I didn’t realize why they were at the table until I realized that he wanted the nation to see the reasons why he wants the wall and to see that people died. He wanted to show why the wall was necessary.
TM: At that moment, did it provoke any memories of people that you’ve served in your facility?
NP: Yes, definitely. When I hear about their lives and how tragic it is—the people who have been killed, the families and people that are tragically killed in their journey to come here—it’s sad that their lives are not [seen as] important, what they go through is not [seen as] important. A part of humanity, a part of life, is being overlooked and isn’t seen as important.
TM: After the relatives spoke, several Border Patrol officials spoke. What was the overall tone of what they said to the president?
NP: One person after another just reaffirmed the president’s choice to have a wall and congratulated him for being the outstanding person that he was, for being so strong. One of the worst was saying that he has such a strong backbone, like no one else has. That was the message: we’ll support you 100 percent and we’re so happy this is what you want.
TM: Did anyone challenge the president?
NP: Not at all. Nobody was asked to. I think it was carefully planned out so that nobody challenged him. Nobody asked him anything different from what he thought.
TM: Did anyone suggest an alternative to the wall?
NP: No, not at all.
TM: There was a lot of show-and-tell there: seized weapons, seized cash, photos of tunnels. How did all of that strike you?
NP: I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had been to other roundtable discussions before with other leaders who had come to the border, and I had never seen officials make a show of the border.
TM: One of those who held a discussion was former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. How did his roundtable differ from that of the president?
NP: His roundtable was very large, and all the people at the table were local officials—mayors and from colleges from across the Rio Grande Valley. Everybody had an opportunity. He was very respectful and attentive to all of us, asking us questions about what we did. That was what I thought was going to happen this time.
TM: With Speaker Ryan, there was no show-and-tell, correct?
NP: No, it didn’t look like a show-and-tell at all.
TM: One of the last people to speak at the president’s roundtable was a minister from Waco named Ramiro Peña. He spoke about the humanitarian component of this debate. How did you react to what he said?
NP: I felt that he was definitely right about some things. He started out talking about how the president mentioned the [humanitarian] crisis, but then he said that you must protect human life. I thought he was referring to everybody, even immigrants, even though at the end he went ahead and reaffirmed the president’s choice to have a wall to defend us at the border. I was thinking he was going to be saying something good about humanity and how people are hurting because they’re victims of all the crime, but at the end, he didn’t push forward with that as much.
TM: Then the president began with final remarks. What was going through your mind as you realized this was about to end and no locals had had any kind of say?
NP: I felt tempted to stand up and introduce myself to the president, but I didn’t get the courage to do that. I wanted him to know that here in this room are a lot of leaders from our community that had so much to tell him, and that it would be good if he heard what they had to say.
TM: In the hours after all that happened, you had some regret that you didn’t stand up and speak. Do you still have that regret?
NP: Not at all. There’s so much prayer involved in what I do. I felt at that moment that maybe I should have gotten up, but after a while, I realized that what happened was what needed to happen. I think that my place was not to say anything, because I don’t know that it would have mattered very much. I’m glad that what happened was what I think the spirit guided me to do.
TM: It’s been almost a week since the visit. What will you remember most about the president’s visit to South Texas?
NP: You know, that’s all behind me. There are so many things that are more important for me to look at: the people that I work with, the support from people across the United States to help out the many families that arrive daily, and to hear their stories and make a difference in their lives. All of that is what matters—we’re a community that works together. That’s where my energies are.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.