McALLEN — Inside a crowded cell at the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, Sister Norma Pimentel recited the Lord’s Prayer to a group of children. The kids, who were no more than 6 years old, repeated the prayer as they pleaded for help through tears, Pimentel recalled.
“ Ayudanos ” — help us.
“ Por favor sacame de aqui ” — get me out of here.
“ No puedo respirar ” — I can’t breathe.
That was five years ago this month in what became the beginning of the migration of a greater number of unaccompanied minors, and eventually families, from Central American countries. A migration that came as gang violence against the innocent escalated, and economic hardship intensified.
For Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the memory of praying with young Central American children held inside the processing center as they cried to be free, will always remain with her as the moment her purpose became a mission.
“ I can’t forget that; that stayed with me,” Pimentel said.
A few weeks before she found herself inside that cell, then-U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had visited the processing center and witnessed the kids packed into cells, and held in large chain-link enclosures.
Citing an increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America in the previous weeks, DHS declared the situation a crisis as resources and capacity became an issue.
“ Everybody was hearing that there was something happening, and that we needed to step up and do something to help,” Pimentel said. “What we saw around those days — especially in June, right at the end of May, the beginning of June — was the fact that the families, the children that came with mom and dad … were being dropped off at the bus station.”
In the following days, weeks and months, Pimentel would help mobilize city of McAllen and Border Patrol officials, and other faith-based organizations, to help with the large number of unaccompanied minor children and immigrant families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, who Border Patrol would release at the bus station in downtown.
“ We’re talking about a lot of families and a lot of children; with their parents, they were right there at our bus station right there in downtown McAllen and in very poor condition,” Pimentel said. “They hadn’t had a chance to take a shower or eat properly; most of them were dehydrated. The conditions that we saw there before us were devastating. Many local families would see this and would reach out and try to help, but it became very chaotic at the bus station.”
RESPITE CENTER OPENS
Pimentel, a Valley native, said the partnership with McAllen city officials and the Border Patrol chief and his agents, who began coordinating drop-offs at the bus station, was immediate and helped establish the first iteration of what would become Sacred Heart’s respite center.
The city assisted by providing Catholic Charities with resources such as portable showers, toilets, tents and a mobile medical unit.
Thinking that she would just need the room for a couple days, Pimentel asked on June 9, 2014, for permission to use the parish hall at Sacred Heart after visiting the bus station and seeing the number of people who had just been released from Border Patrol custody.
“ I had no clue that this was going to go on, and continue even now five years later,” Pimentel said after recalling the parish hall being within walking distance of the bus station. “And we’re still addressing the same needs we’re seeing here at the border.”
Located in the back of the church, with the help of volunteers, the makeshift center provided immigrants, desperate to feel human again after days at the central processing center, with the opportunity to shower, get a change of clothes and food before they could make arrangements for transportation to their next destination.
As the months passed, Pimentel — the face of the humanitarian efforts for the Central American children and families, even in the early days of the center’s opening — would be exposed to a larger national audience as media outlets from outside the area and state focused on her efforts and those of Catholic Charities during the crisis.
The attention brought more donations to the center and volunteers from across the nation, who came to help organize what is now a large operation today. Now, more than 150,000 people have come through its doors in the five-year span since its inception.
The respite center has not been without its detractors, this despite being largely accepted by local residents as a positive element within the community — specifically for providing shelter for vulnerable immigrants recently released by federal authorities, thereby eliminating a situation in which hundreds of immigrants would otherwise be milling about in the city’s downtown area.
Most recently, residents living near the respite center’s current location, in the 200 block of Hackberry, voiced concerns about the center; concerns which led to the city voting in February to force Catholic Charities to find a different location near the original site downtown.
That location, which is across the street from Sacred Heart, is set to open later this week and will house recently released immigrants until a newer, more accommodating center opens in approximately 18 months.
Pimentel said she was disappointed to hear residents, who had been mostly supportive of their organization and its efforts, express their disapproval of the center being located in their neighborhood.
“ That saddened me when I discovered that, because I’ve always seen great support, overwhelming support of realizing these are immigrants … people that are hurting,” Pimentel said. “In general, the community in the Rio Grande Valley, we have had a generous heart, a caring heart.”
She said in the five years the center has temporarily housed people, they never called law enforcement for any issues regarding the more than 100,000 who have come through its doors.
“ For me to discover this resistance, and this rejection when we moved to Hackberry, it saddened me truly because I didn’t see the families being in any way harmful to the community at all, and yet they were objecting in such a negative way that sometimes it limits some churches to be able to open their site as a possible location for us to drop off and have them help with some families,” Pimentel added. “That resistance is something new that arose since we moved to Hackberry.”
Still, Pimentel remains excited about the move back to the downtown area because of its proximity to the bus station; although, she also admitted she’s not happy that immigrants will not get to experience fresh air and sunlight during their stay at this location.
She attributes the misconception that the center and its staff harbor criminals there to anti-immigrant rhetoric and a lack of understanding of the processes established by Border Patrol.
“ The people we’re helping are people who have entered our country because they are victims of crime,” Pimentel said. “They have been abused and mistreated, and taken advantage of by criminals and people who don’t respect life.”
In addition, Pimentel credits the work Border Patrol agents provide, underscoring the crucial role they play in processing immigrants prior to releasing them to the respite center.
“ We are helping families who literally have permission to be in the United States because they’ve already gone through immigration with Border Patrol. We know who they are, and we know where they’re going,” Pimentel said. “We’re basically helping them in that transition to get them to their final destination.
“ Many people think that we’re harboring, or we’re helping people into the country. We’re not. We’re only responding to a reality we’re facing here in our own community and giving these families the care any person deserves, the rightful care that a human being should be receiving.”
NUMBERS INCREASING; SAME CHALLENGE
While the numbers of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border continue to increase, Pimentel said the mission for her staff and volunteers hasn’t changed.
Border Patrol numbers show that through May in fiscal year 2018, agents apprehended 59,106 families. Compared with the year-to-date number of 332,981, it’s an increase of more than 450%, according to the agency’s website.
Agents apprehended a total of 56,278 unaccompanied minors through May of this year, an increase of more than 70% from the same period last year, which totaled 32,292, the agency’s website shows.
Since December 2018, the number of families and children arriving has increased, Pimentel said, adding to the workload they have on any given day. Most times, it turns a 12-hour day into a 14- or 16-hour day for those at the center.
“ We find ourselves with so much more work; in needing to have enough volunteers, enough donations and resources to be able to provide that for every single family that arrives,” she said.
In light of the increased workload for all involved, Pimentel explained that they’ve managed because of the continued help and coordination of several local faith-based groups.
Their help, she stressed, has been essential and a constant since the beginning of the crisis more than five years ago.
“ Ever since day one, everybody came forward, stepped up and said, ‘How can I help?’ The response is not just Catholics, it’s United Methodist, Lutherans, Baptists, it’s the Jewish community, the Salvation Army — all of us. Every single faith community has come together and been a part of this response,” she said.
Although Pimentel said she could not have foreseen that all these years later they’d be experiencing even more people arriving, nothing’s changed regarding the center’s purpose: to provide a place where immigrants can feel cared for and have their dignity restored.
“ I believe that we, as a people of God, the people of this world, must not turn our backs to the many families who feel forced to leave those realities that they are afraid of,” she urged. “Obviously, we must find solutions that work, that help us resolve the devastating situations in those countries so that people do not have to migrate and can be able to stay home, and live safely at home.”
She said she’s proud that the last five years created a legacy portraying the region as a welcoming place that embraces those in need, that even to this day continues to provide support to immigrants fleeing violence and pain in their respective homelands.
“ I think if anything, these five years have brought together the good work of so many people — kind people with generous hearts that have demonstrated that there is a better part of us that comes forward, that can come together, work together and respond together to defend life,” Pimentel said. “These five years really stand out to me as the unity of how we can work together to do something good.”