Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., serves as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, Tex. A religious sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, she has directed this charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville since 2008. She helped organize local response to the 2014 surge of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States, helping to establish the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Tex.
On May 20, Notre Dame University gave Sister Pimentel the Laetare Medal, the highest and oldest award given to U.S. Catholics, honoring her work with migrants and refugees. In 2015, Pope Francis also honored and thanked Sister Pimentel for her work with immigrants in a virtual town hall meeting that aired on ABC’s “20/20.” Also that year, Our Sunday Visitor named her one of its 2015 Catholics of the Year.
On Sept. 5, I interviewed Sister Pimentel about her work by telephone. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
What are the most pressing migration issues right now on the Texas-Mexico border?
Right now it’s being able to respond to the number of families arriving in great numbers, making sure they follow through with due process, helping them make sure they are heard to receive the care and attention they need when arriving in our country.
As director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, how do you navigate the politics of migration in your work?
I see my work as part of a Catholic response to address the needs of our community in a human caring way. So politics is not necessarily a focus for my concern; it’s more about the people, responding to them in the needs they have and caring for them in their needs.
I would tell the rest of the country that they need to come to the border, to see and be part of what we are experiencing here.
On the Mexican side of the border in the Rio Grande Valley, Reynosa often operates as a center for the illegal drug trade, sparking incidents of violence. How do you balance the safety concerns of Texans living on the border with our moral obligation to care for migrants and refugees who enter the United States illegally?
I see the circumstances and reality of living on the border right next to a country that’s so involved with trafficking of drugs, the cartels and everything, as part of who we are. It’s right across from us, we see it happening every day. We’re concerned for families and people who are exposed to the dangers of that, to not knowing what’s going to happen, and many of the people we know have families on both sides of the border.
That is a great concern for us because they are victims of all these crimes. Even the people coming from other countries, migrating to the United States, are getting caught up in this organized crime that victimizes so many families and individuals. We try to make sure we can save as many people as we can by our humanitarian response and immediate response to help them in whatever way we can.
What can American Catholics do to help out with the situation on the Mexican border?
American Catholics can be part of our circumstances on the border by being in solidarity—in spirit, in prayer, in their involvement—through sharing this reality with others who do not understand what is happening and may be misled to see it as something hurting our country. Rather it’s an opportunity to be present to suffering human life. We have a responsibility to respond to that, to see it as an opportunity rather than as a fear that we have to protect ourselves. As people of God, we have the capacity to take care of ourselves and also to reach out to those who need us. As Catholics, I think we must push others to see the responsibility we have to others.
On May 20, Notre Dame University president John Jenkins awarded you the Laetare Medal at commencement in honor of your work in migration. How did you feel about receiving this honor?
It brought attention to the thousands of families we’re reaching out to here, to the thousands of individuals who are suffering. It’s because of them that I am recognized for what we’re doing to help them. I can’t help but remember the tears and the faces of the many children and moms that I’ve seen. At the same time, I am overjoyed to remember the thousands of volunteers who have joined me in this response. So it’s something wonderful to experience this recognition, but at the same time it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of human suffering.
Pope Francis also recognized you for your work in a virtual town hall meeting aired on ABC in 2015. How do you feel about the response of Pope Francis to the global crisis of migrants and refugees?
I see our Holy Father as an encouragement to all of us to recognize our responsibility to not turn our back on thousands of individuals who are migrating, who are forced out of their homelands by the violence and hardships they’ve had to endure. We have a responsibility to be courageous, to stand up for their rights and voices, to help others recognize them too, to be present to them and to be part of their journey, to let them know that they are part of who we are as well. I feel very encouraged by our Holy Father speaking out on behalf of immigrants and refugees, saying we must not turn our back on them, that we must be present in their lives by responding.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis today, what would it be?
I would like to see him, and give him a big hug and tell him “thank you” for being who he is for us in our world today.
What would you say to people in the rest of the country about your situation on the border?
I would tell the rest of the country that they need to come to the border, to see and be part of what we are experiencing here, not to be misguided by what they hear others say about what’s happening here. They can get involved. They can come and get their own understanding of what the border is like, to see that it’s a safe place where we can experience God’s presence as we see the families seeking safety and protection. So I say “come and see,” and be part of who we are here at the border.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
“Be still and know” I am here with you (Psalm 46:10). I know I need to be still and know God is here with me.
What are your hopes for the future?
I have great hope in humanity, that we can all come to find a better place where we can be a community of brothers and sisters who find solutions that help us live in harmony, peace and justice for all.