Democracy Dies in Darkness

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God on the border

June 29, 2018 at 4:20 PM

Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. (Karen Tumulty/The Washington Post)

MCALLEN, Tex.

When a text arrives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sister Norma Pimentel knows it is time to dispatch her volunteers to the bus station two blocks away.

Another load of desperate people has been dropped off at the depot.

A few minutes later, those families are led through Sister Norma’s doorway.

Every day for four years, migrants have come here to the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center — sometimes, only 10 or 20 of them; on other days, as many as 200. They are hungry, dirty, exhausted and bewildered.

The adults wear shoes stripped of their laces for fear of suicide in detention. They carry blue cardboard boxes holding chargers to power the electronic monitors on their ankles.

Babies and toddlers cling to their mothers, silently at first. Within an hour, most are squalling. But an hour after that, they are playing and laughing, tossing balls and watching Disney, children once again.

Sister Norma calls these people “the lucky ones.”

Before being picked up along the border, they survived a treacherous, weeks-long journey from Central America. Because they are deemed not to be dangerous and because the detention centers are too crowded to hold them, they have been released to await adjudication.

There is so much they need: a bus ticket to reach family, a bowl of warm soup, a shower, fresh clothes, ointment for an infant’s raging diaper rash, a bag of snacks for the road.

Above all, they need reassurance of their own human dignity.

This is a place for practicality, not politics. Some of Sister Norma’s greatest admirers are the law-enforcement officials who witness the loaves-and-fishes miracles she works with the donations she gets and how she inspires so many others to pitch in.

“She lives her faith,” says U.S. Customs and Border Protection chief patrol agent Manuel Padilla Jr., who appears in a video on Catholic Charities’ GoFundMe site . “Without Sister Norma, and without the community engagement, our mission of border security would be a very difficult mission to achieve.”

Sister Norma, the executive director of Catholic Charities’ regional operation, has worked with immigrants and refugees since the 1980s, but her current mission began when a surge arrived from Central America in 2014. The policy then was that unaccompanied minors and parents with children had to be released. The bus depot teemed with migrants who had no means of buying a ticket and no clue which bus to catch if they did.

A woman wearing a nun’s habit was one of the few likely to be trusted when she inquired, “May I please have your permission to help?” Sister Norma approached Sacred Heart Church, down the street from the station, to lend her its parish hall for a few days.

She didn’t leave for three years.

“Everybody joined. It was every denomination. They reached out and said, ‘How can I help?’ Evangelicals, Lutherans, United Methodists, Jewish, you name them,” she recalled. “We also had the city officials, the city government. We had county government, even the Border Patrol and ICE.”

Last September, she moved into this storefront property, which is owned by the local sheriff’s family. But space is far from adequate, and Catholic Charities has started a capital campaign to build a larger, more permanent center.

Lately, she has seen about six families a day in which parents have been separated from their children as a result of President Trump’s stepped-up border-enforcement policy.

Sister Norma is haunted by one story in particular. A woman was frantic to find the 5-year-old granddaughter she had brought across the border. She had planned to reunite the child with her mother in New York.

The nun went the following morning to look for the little girl at the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center.

“The child was no longer there,” she said . “They had already moved her to another center.” The grandmother boarded a New York-bound bus, still unsure when or how she would see the girl again.

This was not the plan that Sister Norma, who turns 65 on Sunday, originally had for her life. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up along the Texas border in Brownsville, graduated from college with a bachelor of fine arts degree and hoped to study architectural design. But her father decreed she become a teacher — which did not interest her — and that she live at home until she married.

One night, a friend invited Norma to attend a prayer meeting. She reluctantly agreed to go, mostly to get out of the house and because there was a promise of Pizza Hut afterward.

“You could say God got a hold of me, you know, because I ended up going to the prayer group because they didn’t give me a choice,” she recalled. “And that totally changed my life.”

Sometimes, God presents himself in ways you don’t expect and leads you to find grace in unexpected places. Places as unlikely as the bus station.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Finally, a family separation story with a happy ending

Paul Waldman: ‘Abolish ICE’ is a good thing. Even if some Democrats fear it and Republicans demagogue it.

The Post’s View: The right way to respond to the migrant influx

Jeh Charles Johnson: Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ border policy is immoral, un-American — and ineffective


Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.

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