SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — Sister Norma Pimentel, the soft-spoken Catholic nun from South Texas who champions immigrant rights on the border, has an even bigger world stage after Time magazine recently named her among the Top 100 Most Influential People in 2020.
On Tuesday afternoon, she entertained a throng of local media on the compound of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle National Shrine, where she is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She made clear her intention of using the honor as a platform to bring attention to the suffering of asylum seekers living in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from her hometown of Brownsville, Texas.
“This honor is truly an honor for me to be recognized among so many other people who are doing extraordinary work in the world. To be recognized from being in our Rio Grande Valley brings me great joy because it brings that attention and presence to the Valley,” said Pimentel, simply known as Sister Norma by people on both sides of the border here. “I invite everybody to join me to make sure that this is our moment.”
“I just hope that this brings attention to the fact that the whole immigration reality is not over. The humanitarian crisis is still very present and worse, especially on the other side of the border. All along the border we have families suffering, hurting, criminalized because we are forcing them to remain there instead of going through a legal process to identify their political asylum. So they find themselves struggling tremendously — in circumstances that it is not human for any human being to endure as long as they have,” she said.
The humanitarian crisis is still very present and worse, especially on the other side of the border. All along the border we have families suffering, hurting, criminalized because we are forcing them to remain there.”Sister Norma Pimentel
Pimentel refers to the estimated 700 migrants who are part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, forced since July 2019 to await their U.S. immigration proceedings at the camp on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros. But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, officials implemented border restrictions on March 20, postponed all immigration court hearings indefinitely, and blocked new migrants from crossing into the United States to claim asylum.
Since last year, Pimentel has led an army of volunteers who have fed, clothed, tended to the medical needs of the migrants, and she has been a politically neutral point-person that officials from both the United States and Mexico have turned to for information and direction on what she calls a “humanitarian crisis” on the Southwest border. She has weekly conversations with Mexican immigration officials, the National Institute of Immigration (INM) and she has the personal ear of the pope, himself.
Julian Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who ran an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year, wrote the Time magazine tribute to Pimentel, calling her “the Pope’s favorite nun.”
Castro visited the Matamoros tent encampment in October 2019 while seeking the presidential nomination, and said she “has been on the front lines of mercy for three decades, supporting migrants who are seeking refuge in the U.S. along Texas’ border with Mexico. … Sister Pimentel will keep changing the world, one act of kindness at a time.”
Sister Pimentel will keep changing the world, one act of kindness at a time.”Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro
She has testified before the United Nations and Congress, and been to the White House several times to advise our national leaders. She has met with the pope at the Vatican a few times. And she has won numerous awards from colleges and universities to national organizations.
Time magazine called her an “icon” among 100 global influencers who include astronauts, professional athletes, Chief Justice John Roberts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. Read the Top 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list.
Pimentel invited Trump to tour the Rio Grande Valley and the tent encampment when he recently visited Texas, but he has not done so. On Tuesday, she reiterated her invitation saying “I invite everybody to come. All todos.”
“If you have any confusion in your mind about what is happening then come and see and tell me that you don’t have a heart and you don’t feel and you don’t understand why you should help these families?” she said.
Border Report visited the camp numerous times prior to the pandemic and interviewed Pimentel dozens of times over the past year. She has also given personal tours of the Catholic Charities-run Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas, which has helped over 150,000 migrant families since an influx of unaccompanied children and migrants mostly from Central America began flooding the region in 2014.
The center recently began housing the homeless overnight, recognizing another group in need of compassion and the type of care that Pimentel and her staff are able to give.
She vowed to use this notoriety to continue to fight for those who she says have no voice. And she says her strength comes from her faith in God.
“Whatever is next is whatever God wants me to do for the people who need help,” she said. “I hope that my presence and my voice can make a difference.” She added in Spanish: “It’s not right. We must help them.”