South Texas nun tries to restore humanity for ‘desperate’ newcomers amid anti-immigrant rhetoric

Border Report Tour

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Individuals running north near border wall and port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas; others apprehended by Border Patrol

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As former President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott prepare to visit the Rio Grande Valley next Wednesday to tout plans for Texas to build a border wall and keep undocumented immigrants out, Sister Norma Pimentel continues to aid incoming migrants daily, regardless of the political rhetoric.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, assists incoming migrants on June 24, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, across from the downtown bus station. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Before noon on Thursday, she had a full staff of volunteers busily assisting hundreds of migrant families who were released by U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security officials at the Humanitarian Respite Center, which is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley of which Pimentel is executive director.

The numbers already had topped 600. These days, upwards of 800 to 1,000 migrants arrive for help finding bus and air tickets, a hot meal, new clothing, baby formula and being connected with friends and family in the United States. If they get more, then she sends them to other nonprofits, like a local Catholic church in the nearby town of Mission

This converted nightclub across from the Downtown McAllen bus station has a capacity of 1,200, but since the coronavirus pandemic began, Pimentel has kept the numbers much lower and works with Border Patrol and local leaders to test everyone for COVID-19 prior to admittance.

On Thursday, several busloads of migrants pulled up to the center, while some came in taxi cabs and others in smaller vans or Border Patrol vehicles. All had questions, and Pimentel and her entourage of volunteers from across the country met their concerns with a calm demeanor and showed them the “dignity” that she says they all deserve.

A migrant family from the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, prepare to board a taxi on June 24, 2021, taking them to the airport. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We, as a country, have a responsibility to properly process and care for individuals, especially families and children,” she told Border Report on Thursday. “We work closely with Border Patrol, ICE, city government leaders because we want to make sure things are done correctly. That we don’t lose our humanity in the process of trying to respond to what is happening at the border.”

Her comments on Thursday came as Abbott is openly engaging in verbal warfare against border communities, which he says are being threatened by a “tidal wave” of migrants crossing illegally into Texas from Mexico. Abbott has asked the county judges for 34 counties on or near the border to issue disaster declarations so that increased penalties can be brought against those who come illegally into Texas.

A line of migrants wait for assistance on June 24, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The nonprofit is run by Catholic Charities of the RGV. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Change is needed to fix the border crisis,” Abbott said during his Border Security Summit on June 10 in Del Rio, Texas. “President Biden’s open-border policies have led to a humanitarian crisis at our southern border as record levels of illegal immigrants, drugs, and contraband pour into Texas.”

It doesn’t help for our elected leaders to create a narrative that is false and that is political.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, Catholic Charities of the RGV

“We are safe here in this area. It’s not true that people are crazy, out of control. I think that is incorrect,” Pimentel said. “It doesn’t help for our elected leaders to create a narrative that is false and that is political.”

A volunteer assists migrants on June 24, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities of the RGV. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Her comments Thursday were stridently outspoken for this demure Catholic nun who usually shies away from political commentary. When asked whether Abbott’s rhetoric is hurting her hometown of the Rio Grande Valley she pursed her lips together and said, “Bless his soul, you know.”

Several South Texas leaders said they were shocked that Abbott is coming with Trump to this part of the border.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera is among four county judges in South Texas who have yet to sign the disaster declaration that Abbott is asking them to do. At his office in Rio Grande City, Vera told Border Report he has no intention of doing so anytime soon unless crime numbers change.

“I have a lot of unanswered questions,” Vera said. “He wants for us to arrest those people coming across for trespassing and putting them in our jails. And I have an issue with that.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera has led his South Texas county of 70,000 for the past 23 years. He is seen on June 22, 2021, in his Rio Grande City offices. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I’m not saying we don’t have a problem. We do have a large number of undocumented people coming across the river. But I venture to say anywhere you go along the border, it’s the same thing,” Vera said. “A lot of the people who are apprehended are being sent back.”

Due to Title 42 restrictions still in place — enacted in March 2020 during the Trump administration to prevent the spread of coronavirus — only essential workers may cross the Rio Grande. This is also preventing migrants from claiming asylum.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, told Border Report that 314,067 migrants have been apprehended in fiscal year 2021 to date in the Rio Grande Valley Sector — more than any other sector in the nation.

Just as the sun was breaking on Thursday, Border Report watched as a group of six individuals ran from the border wall down a grassy hill just a quarter-mile from a the port of entry in the South Texas town of Hidalgo. This is the same spot where Border Report on Wednesday came across a pile of homemade ladders, which Border Patrol agents say are used by human smugglers to get migrants over the 18-foot metal border wall.

It took the group of adult men and women only a minute to run down an embankment and behind a fence and past a parking lot where they reached a shopping center. Two jumped into a garbage bin and others hid behind columns in front of the shopping center.

Forty-five minutes later, Border Patrol agents had apprehended six migrants just two blocks away near a flea market, known as “la pulga,” where they had been hiding, an agent said.

Two women were taken away in a separate unit from the four men. One man, Aldo, said he was from Honduras. He wants to immigrate because “it’s a better country,” and there are “gangs” in his homeland, he said.

“I am hungry,” he yelled as Border Patrol agents handcuffed him and took him away.

Six migrants were arrested by Border Patrol agents near the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge early Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez and Ashley Miznazi)

A Border Patrol spokesman confirmed to Border Report that six migrants were arrested at the flea market. But it is unclear whether these are the same people who fled down that hill at 7 a.m.

That’s a golden hour because it is a shift change for Border Patrol agents, who say the cartels run the trafficking operations and are well aware of when agents might be distracted and when to try to run migrants.

‘It’s mind boggling’

Catholic priest, John Hanic, of Charlotte, N.C., was volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 24, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

At the Humanitarian Respite Center on Thursday morning, visiting Catholic priest, John Hanic, of Charlotte, N.C., said he arrived in South Texas on Wednesday to volunteer for two weeks “to see what was happening in McAllen and along the border.”

He teared up as he talked about how many people were in need of help. “I find this overwhelming in the help that’s being given to the people who are so in need and desperate for assistance. More needs to be done. It’s mind boggling.”

Said Pimentel: “They’ve been through so much. They’ve left their country, uprooted themselves from everything — their culture, their food, their families. They’ve lost everything. For a family to come to a point to make that decision. It’s because they’re desperate.”

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