When I first meet Sister Norma Pimentel over Zoom, not five minutes have gone by before she needs to pause and take an important call. “I’m sorry,” she says in a quiet voice, “But I need to take this.”
Pimentel puts me on mute, and I spend the next minute or so looking around her office. In the background hangs a large print of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe is also known as “Mother Without Borders,” an image particularly striking in this office where Pimentel works tirelessly for asylum seekers.
When Pimentel hangs up the phone, she tells me she was speaking to the border patrol chief and that he needs her help reuniting a girl with her grandmother. I’m admittedly surprised by the cooperation between the two parties, but equally as intrigued. Pimentel shares with me that the border chief is “very helpful” and that they have a cooperative relationship. “He really helps out, and we address any needs they have. He knows that I will respond immediately, and day or night, they can count on us,” she says.
Pimentel is the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a role she has occupied since 2004. She has been doing this work for a very long time and as a result has access to a highly coordinated network of other advocacy groups.
Together these organizations spend their days and, often, their nights welcoming immigrants and addressing their immediate physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Because of her tireless efforts, Pimentel is well-known as a trustworthy advocate for asylum seekers, other volunteers, and, yes, even the border patrol know that she is not only always willing to help but also capable of helping.
Born to two Mexican citizens seeking residency in Brownsville, Texas, Pimentel often describes herself as an “American by chance.” She spent a good deal of her childhood in a similar manner to her ministry: traveling between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, where many of her relatives live. After obtaining two masters degrees, one in theology and one in clinical psychology, Pimentel joined the Missionaries of Jesus, a small order of religious sisters founded in Madrid that came to Brownsville, Texas, and has been ministering at the border since the 1980s.
“Back then, the border patrol didn’t have detention facilities for women and children,” Pimentel says, “So they would call our superior, and we would house a family.”
According to Pimentel, hosting families was always a part of her community’s work. The sisters would walk each family through the legal processes required to stay in the United States while housing them and providing them with meals. Because of their dedication, the bishop asked them to assume responsibility of an entire shelter for immigrants from Central America. “The shelter was open for 10 years, and we saw tens of thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras,” she says.
In 2014 Pimentel experienced the first surge of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border and responded to the call to help them without hesitation. Then, while the Office of Refugee Resettlement kept the unaccompanied minors in detention and worked on a plan for their care, which included Pimentel, family units were released. She says, “I received a call from someone that had seen families being dropped off at the bus station by border patrol. They were dirty, hungry, and had no sense of what to do. It became very chaotic for the city.”
City officials called Pimentel and begged for her help. In response, she borrowed a parish hall a block away from the bus station, and that is how her community started the humanitarian response to the surge of immigrants arriving in McCallen, which is located at the southern tip of Texas. “We had no clue what we were saying yes to,” Pimentel says, chuckling a little, “but instantly, the respite center happened because the entire community came together to help these people find protection and safety.”
The needs of those arriving at the border are basic, according to Pimentel. “They need a place to eat and get cleaned up and assistance in moving on to their final destination,” she says. “We are an important part of that moment of transition, where these people are cared for, treated with dignity, and welcomed with a smile. Sometimes we applaud as a sign of welcome.”
To Pimentel, being present at the border is vital, as is the presence of the church. “We are bringing hope to the immigrants arriving here and recognizing them as children of God,” she says. “We share in the presence of God in each specific encounter, and it’s very important the church show up for the plight of immigrants.”
Restoring the dignity of those arriving at the border has been Pimentel’s mission from the first day she arrived here. “There are thousands of people fleeing for their lives,” she says, “and they need to be welcomed. They need to be brought in and cared for, treated with dignity and respect.”
Pimentel’s faith inspires her work. “Immigrants are an important part of the human family, and together with them, we are one with God,” she says.
This year, Pimentel published a book of prayerful meditations titled Radicalizing Tenderness: Reflections for Advent and Christmas 2023 (Pax Christi USA). The book contains short reflections for the Sundays and holy days from Advent through Epiphany. Each entry encourages the reader to connect with their faith and explore how it shapes their human connections. Invoking the words of Pope Francis, himself a big fan of Pimentel’s work, she writes, “Daily I meet people who are on the margins of our society, people on the peripheries. Pope Francis calls us to go out to these peripheries to include those who are left out, easily discarded and unseen. They are people who are homeless, people who have immigrated, people who are poor.”
Recalling the plight of the holy family, Pimentel connects their struggles with the current challenges faced by immigrants arriving at the U.S. border. “We’re all moved in our faith by the holy family and identify it as something beautiful, especially as we celebrate Christmas,” she says. “The holy family had to flee very difficult situations to protect baby Jesus.”
Pimentel says that people seeking asylum at the border had no choice but to make the journey, much like the holy family. “I think if they had a choice, they would stay,” she says. “But because they were warned that if they stay, their child could be killed, they must leave.”
Elaborating on the dangers of staying, Pimentel shares that many of the families she assists tell her about threats to their children: Sometimes their lives have been threatened or they will be recruited into dangerous organizations and forced to commit crimes. “These families decide, let’s travel to that land where they say everything is good, the United States, and we will be safe,” she says. “They come from very far, just like the holy family.”
And much like the holy family, who did not find a place where they were welcomed, Pimentel says that these asylum seekers are often treated with suspicion. “They hear, ‘You’re criminals, we don’t need you.’ They get turned away and end up in circumstances like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, trying to find a stable and sleep among the animals,” she says. “Look at the reality of the people in Matamoros right now. These conditions are so terrible! And why did baby Jesus have to be born in those similar conditions? Because there was no room in our hearts to welcome him.”
Matamoros, Mexico, is home to an encampment of asylum seekers who are attempting to follow legal channels for entry into the United States. First established during the previous presidential administration as a part of the now-expired “Remain in Mexico” program, conditions in Matamoros are at best inadequate and at worst dangerous and even deadly. The camp at Matamoros is essentially a tent city, and all those arriving are at the mercy of extreme weather conditions. This past summer Pimentel and her fellow advocates, including Bishop Daniel Flores, attempted to open a hospital for migrants to receive respite care when temperatures there reached over 100 degrees. Other efforts included bringing better temporary shelters for the immigrants, but all of these efforts were dwarfed by the reality of the situation, which is the lack of resources and security.
This past April, many of the migrants waiting in Matamoros lost all of their belongings when someone doused many of the tents with gasoline and lit them on fire. While no one died in the blaze, this was another example of the existing danger. Even when coordinating with other organizations, sometimes it is an impossible struggle to do something as simple as providing sufficient water for those living in Matamoros.
Which is why Pimentel says that in spite of the increasing risks, some families are choosing to cross illegally between ports of entry. They do not feel they can risk the time spent in Matamoros. “Conditions in Mexico are difficult and risky, and children are not safe there, so many families decide to cross the river, and many die there,” she says. “The resistance placed by the governor of Texas makes it even harder.”
The resistance to which Pimentel refers includes large buoys and razor wire placed in the waters of the Rio Grande. “The conditions of Matamoros drive these families to take these risks,” she says. “One witness told me of a father who used his coat to lift up the razor wire so his family could pass through. After the mother and child were safely through, he attempted to cross, but someone working for the United States pressed the wire down, and the man arrived with his back cut up very badly.”
While Governor Greg Abbott, who is responsible for implementing border control policies in Texas, is himself a practicing Catholic, Pimentel decries these actions. “If you were at the border and saw the razor blade wire, saw these families dying before you, you would not believe the horrible consequences. Babies cut up and people dying in the river: Those actions are evil. We cannot be a part of an evil response to humanity!” she says. “I can only imagine a mother or father risking their lives to enter through the river because they have no other option. If they stay on the Mexican side of the border, they run a risk of getting hurt, killed, kidnapped, or raped. The conditions are so difficult, how much can one human person endure?”
Pimentel’s faith sustains her, and she recognizes the humanity in every person, including in the border patrol. While some people may be surprised at her ability to coordinate with law enforcement, Pimentel speaks of them with kindness and compassion. “Border patrol protects us from criminals, but a lot of what they are doing is the opposite of what they are trained to do,” she says. “They are trained to be tough, but they encounter families, women, children, and babies who are journeying because they are afraid for their lives. That is the part that brings out the humanitarian part of our law enforcement.”
Pimentel sympathizes with Americans who are concerned about the influx of immigrants but sternly warns against political stunts intended to maintain disagreement. “I can understand the people are worried about many things that can be happening at the border. Some are good and some are bad. Are there drugs? Bad people? We have a responsibility to know who is entering, and border patrol does that job,” she says. “When people see buses going to their city because our governor wants to make a statement claiming they are criminals, we must remind people that they are not.”
Pimentel continues on to say, “There has to be a safety net that holds persons with dignity and respect while also responding to criminals like any other criminal in the United States. We also need to keep families and children safe from those same criminals as well as the elements.”
But her words are not merely reserved for the previous administration nor for the Republican governor of Texas. Pimentel has been doing this work for several presidential administrations, and her frustration is decidedly nonpartisan. “Every administration has put in a serious effort to deter, discourage, and ultimately to close the border,” she says. “To deport people or push them back to Mexico. And while some have been harsher in their methods, ultimately they all seem to want to sustain that front of politics.”
Because of this political football, Pimentel feels strongly that no political party is interested in an actual solution for the immigration reality, as it provides a good platform for their agendas. She has strong words for those who utilize asylum seekers for their own gain. “The false narrative exists where the situation is out of hand, and these people are painted as criminals and invaders so that we can suppress our consciences,” she says. “But being misled does not excuse or justify our actions.”
Pimentel’s intense warnings ring clearly as we prepare to welcome the Christ child this Christmas season, but her joy reverberates a thousandfold as she serves the marginalized at the border. On any given day within the walls of the shelter, she can be seen singing along with the children, who clamor to hug her close. While world leaders call on her for input and she serves willingly, it is clear that Pimentel is happiest surrounded by the people to whom she ministers through a bottle of clean water or by holding their baby so they can safely sleep.
“We must share the blessings we have as a nation with those in need of protection and care,” Pimentel says. “There is no reason to be afraid of these families. They contribute the opportunity for us to live out our faith: to cherish, protect, and love one another, and we must embrace that.”
This article also appears in the December 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 12, pages 32-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Sister Norma Pimentel