Borderlands, Part Two
On Day Two of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley and the border towns of McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico, NJFON staff and board members visited a shelter for migrants on the U.S. side of the border.
She’s the heroine of countless news stories and articles. She’s been labeled an angel, a saint and compared to Mother Teresa. She’s even been personally thanked by the Pope for her work ministering to migrants on the Texas border.
But if Sister Norma Pimentel is a saint, she’s no John the Baptist, with a voice crying in the wilderness. Instead, she seems to take St. Paul as her model: competent, capable, a born organizer who nudges people until they do the right thing. Gracious and soft-spoken, within her there is an unwavering core of steel that just doesn’t accept the words “we can’t.”
By early summer 2014, the border crisis at McAllen was fast reaching its zenith. Each day, the Border Patrol was dropping off hundreds of Central American families—mostly mothers and children—at the local bus station with nothing more than a bus ticket to someplace in America where they had relatives and a “notice to appear” at an immigration court. The scene at the bus station was chaotic.
These families had been traveling for days, weeks, sometimes months. They needed rest, food, showers, and fresh clothes. They needed comfort. They needed to feel welcomed.
Sister Norma asked Sacred Heart Catholic Church of McAllen to give up their parish hall to host the families for a few days. The city provided tents and shuttles to the bus station. Word quickly spread and donations began streaming in. So did the volunteers. That was nearly two years ago, and church parishioners are still happily going without their parish hall.
“People of all faiths, all over the United States,” says Sister Norma. “Everybody wants to help.”
At one time, Sacred Heart was receiving 100 people each day; now they receive about 40, though the numbers vary unpredictably. Today a family from Ethiopia is resting. A Brazilian mother intently watches her toddler play blocks in the walled-off play area alongside a few children.
Isabella, a young mother from El Salvador, watches her infant daughter sleep while she combs her own freshly washed hair. “I feel so much better now,” she says, grinning. “Are you writing this?” she adds earnestly. “Please tell them how grateful we are.” She and her daughter had been traveling for 14 days. They are on their way to North Carolina to reunite with her husband.
Marvin is also from El Salvador. He was a farmer back home, growing corn, beans and potatoes. Even in the rural areas, he says, the gangs are everywhere. He looks worriedly at his daughter. She’s 9, but tall for her age. The gang members were already starting to notice her when they left.
“Ooooph,” he grimaces and shakes his head when asked about his own country. “El Salvador is cursed.”
Marvin is on his way to Baltimore: his wife is already there. He’s nervous, excited, and eager to start over. He even tries out a few words of English.
Soon both Martin and Isabella will be boarding their buses. The volunteers will give them satchels of food for the journey, maps, directions about the bus changes, and a paper with instructions for the bus driver.
And then Sister Norma and her volunteers will prepare to welcome the next group.