Game Changer: Sister Norma Pimentel

In her Stories From a Texas Border Ranch series, Melissa Guerra looked at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with her Mexican neighbors, the narrative journey of her homeland veered away from politics to paint a powerful picture of daily life in the Rio Grande Valley. Since, she’s written pieces for New Worlder in direct response to the crisis at the border and the continued media spotlight that has been cast on the Valley in the wake of Trump’s visit.

One of the most prominent figures to emerge from these stories is Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. For that reason, we’re cross-pollinating our recurring columns during the month of March, National Women’s History Month: Sister Norma is our featured Game Changer.

Returning from the UNICEF Summit in Washington D.C., Sister Norma Pimentel plunged into a state of emergency at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. With a capacity for 400 people, the new location of the Respite Center was alerted that 800 people would soon be released to their care. The overwhelming number of people would receive shelter, but the resources that Sister Norma’s team could offer to undocumented migrants would be depleted at an accelerated rate.

In addition to staggering numbers of migrants arriving at the shelter, Sister Norma had other problems. The city of McAllen had recently notified Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley that the Humanitarian Respite Center would no longer be permitted to occupy their new location, a former nursing home nestled in a residential neighborhood on a main thoroughfare. Neighbors had complained about the buses delivering hundreds of homeless migrants daily. Not only was the shelter stretched beyond their capacity, but it was facing an undetermined future.

In February of 2019, the Southwestern sector of Customs and Border Protection apprehended over 76,000 migrants, more than double the amount apprehended in February of 2018. El Paso reported apprehending 430 migrants within five minutes on March 19, 2019. Recent surges of migrants exiting El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have arrived at the southern border of the United States, seeking asylum, shelter and humanitarian aid. All agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, are beyond their capacity, and “…at the breaking point,” according to Kevin A. McKleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Most troubling is the increased number of apprehensions of unaccompanied alien children, hovering around 7,000 in February 2019. Apprehensions of family units have increased by 338% in the Southwest border region since 2018.

The McAllen detention center for Customs and Border Protection is overpopulated, housing over 2,000 men, women and children daily. To relieve the overpopulation, migrants are being released more quickly. After their release, buses deliver some of the migrants to the bus station, but the majority of migrants are released to the care of the Humanitarian Respite Center. Staffed by volunteers and managed by a small core group of employees, the Respite Center exists where other services do not.

Without the organized efforts of Sister Norma Pimentel, there is no other charitable program, nor government entity, that provides for the migrant families once they are granted the opportunity to pursue asylum or citizenship in the United States. The Rio Grande Valley is now the most active entry point for undocumented migrants. Local politicians and law enforcement, along with state and federal agencies such as Border Patrol, Immigration and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services all coordinate with Sister Norma Pimentel. Her vision links migrants with resources, and offers an alliance that would otherwise not exist.

Growing up in Brownsville Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel wasn’t sure about her future. Her father determined that she would be a teacher and live with her parents at home until she got married. She continued to work on her BFA at Southmost College (now The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley), painting in her spare time, taking in the scenes and situations along the international border between the United States and Mexico. With the eye of an artist, she noticed things that others overlooked.

While a student, a friend invited her to attend a prayer meeting, and Pimentel decided to tag along. Like many students, her interest was piqued by the promise of free pizza afterwards. But the prayer meeting turned into more than a casual activity with friends; soon Norma Pimentel felt the calling to serve. She enrolled in the seminary and her life took a different turn.

Her role models were the nuns of her congregation, Missionaries of Jesus. Late at night in their convent in Brownsville, mother superior Sister Juliana Garcia would welcome and protect migrants who had no place to go.

Later in her vocation, one of Sister Norma’s first jobs was to work at a shelter for migrants. In 1982, Casa Oscar Romero opened in San Benito, Texas as a modest shelter for Central American refugees. Named for the Salvadorian priest that was murdered while celebrating mass, the shelter initially housed only four or five Central American migrants a day. Sister Norma witnessed the growth of Casa Romero as the number of people they served soon grew to 523 migrants per day. Due to complaints from locals who felt Casa Oscar Romero encouraged undocumented immigration, the shelter was closed four years later. But even with its closure, the tide of migrants continued to swell, in spite of no available shelter.

Sister Norma continued to see migrants and their families traveling without food, resources or clothing. Recently released from immigration detention centers, these families had been granted the opportunity to legally plead their case for asylum in front of an immigration court judge. But while they were awaiting their court date, they had no place to stay, and no money. Migrants took shelter in alleyways, parking garages or in the bus station departure area. No government or humanitarian agency came to the aid of the migrants that had been given a chance to enter the U.S. legally.

Remembering the actions of Sister Juliana, Sister Norma took matters into her own hands. A local church granted her permission to use their parish hall as a temporary shelter, and from those humble beginnings the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center was founded. Today, the migrants receive meals, showers, clothing and hygiene products, along with diapers and formula for the children. Volunteers help the migrants find family members in the U.S., purchase bus tickets, and overnight accommodations while they await their departure.

Sister Norma’s tireless efforts have garnered worldwide attention. In 2018, she received the Hispanic Heritage Award, and the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, the highest and oldest award given to U.S. Catholics. Pope Francis has called Sister Norma “his favorite nun.” Central to Sister Norma’s mission is restoring the dignity to the migrants. She estimates that over 100,000 migrants have come through the door of the Humanitarian Respite Center since it first opened its doors.

But with the ever-increasing numbers of immigrants crossing over into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma has no time to rest. Even though permission was rescinded for the Humanitarian Respite Center to operate at its current location, the city of McAllen is actively working with Sister Norma Pimentel to identify a larger, more centralized location. Plans have been made to build a dedicated Respite Center, but the needs of the migrants are immediate, as approximately 1,000 undocumented migrants are apprehended daily in the Rio Grande Valley sector. Current searches for a new temporary Humanitarian Respite Center include abandoned supermarkets and former elementary schools.

As Sister Norma explained to Cabrini University’s Praxis Journal in 2018, “…charity represents a social mandate to respect others, and practice justice, inspiring us to lead a life of giving of one’s self. We come to understand that society needs to be established to help communities come together, with laws and policies that help the common good of all in society. Leaders should not tear us apart by creating division and mistrust, but rather accomplish unity and wellbeing for all people by respecting the needs of humanity as a whole. The dignity, health and well-being of all people must be taken into consideration by all leaders of our community.  Every person deserves to be treated with the same respect and the fundamental consideration given to us by God. No matter what our social group, culture, sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion. As member of one human family, we are all gifted with different talents. With this hope, we can all live together in service of each other. We must be vigilant not to fall into extreme inequalities, where we may fail to establish social justice and the dignity of the person.”

Every day, as more migrants reach out to the United States for help, Sister Norma Pimentel continues her quiet yet persistent efforts. When asked if she believes her work will create positive change with U.S. policies and procedures, she responds, “As any person of faith, I have hope.” Because of women like Sister Norma, many others do too.