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Kevin ClarkeMay 11, 2023
Migrants wade across a river during as they trek across the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama, in hopes of reaching the U.S., Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Pandemic-related U.S. asylum restrictions, known as Title 42, are to expire Thursday, May 11. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)Migrants wade across a river during as they trek across the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama, in hopes of reaching the U.S., Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Pandemic-related U.S. asylum restrictions, known as Title 42, are to expire Thursday, May 11. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

Brownsville, Tex., is a border town that has seen its share of human suffering over the years. It is for many the place where a long, perilous journey north ends and a new, hoped-for life in America begins.

For eight people on Sunday morning, May 7, it was the place where their lives were stolen from them in an incomprehensible flash. An out-of-control driver had barrelled into a small group of migrant people waiting at a municipal bus stop. Many of the deceased had just escaped the disorder and oppression in Venezuela. Ten others were seriously injured.

Authorities say the driver, George Alvarez, 34, of Brownsville, lost control of his Range Rover after running a red light. They have not ruled out the possibility that Mr. Alvarez intentionally plowed into the group, gathered in front of the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, a shelter and support hub for local homeless and migrant people.

Sister Donna Markham: “The gospel calls us to provide shelter for those who are homeless, feed the hungry, and ‘welcome the stranger. The work of Catholic Charities is humanitarian, not political.”

Norma Pimentel, M.J., the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was among the local civic and spiritual leaders who responded to the horrific incident this week.

“I have been there accompanying the staff and the families and the people that witnessed it,” she said. “It’s so tragic; it’s horrible what happened.

“Those kids were so hopeful; they already had permission [to stay in the United States], they had their tickets; they were going to be with their families.”

She had to console one woman seeking her missing son. “She was devastated,” Sister Norma said. “She couldn’t believe it: ‘Where’s my son, please. He’s the nicest young man, a beautiful person, and where is he?’

“It’s terrible,” she added. “All life is so precious and valuable that we shouldn’t destroy it; it is something that we must protect all the time.”

After Title 42 ends, chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border?

Sister Norma has devoted years to protecting life at the border as migrant flows rise and fall and as resentment and angry rhetoric about conditions at the border spike and subside. Growing anxiety over the lifting of Title 42 controls at the border has been a recent distraction from her life-sustaining ministry.

Sister Norma has devoted years to protecting life at the border as migrant flows rise and fall and as resentment and angry rhetoric about conditions at the border spike and subside.

Title 42, a health ordinance intended to respond to emergency epidemic conditions, was invoked during the Covid-19 pandemic during both the Trump and Biden administrations to swiftly remove migrants from the United States. At midnight on May 12, Title 42 will be rescinded as the official emergency response to the pandemic ends.

Republican politicians and commentators on conservative and right-wing media have been predicting a catastrophe at the border when the program ends. In recent days, the Biden administration has taken dramatic steps to shore up border security, including dispatching 1,500 troops to assist Border Patrol and local law enforcement. President Joseph Biden has acknowledged that, at least over the short term, he expects “chaos at the border” and is planning accordingly.

Sister Norma said she cannot predict what will happen this weekend but agrees that many more migrants are already at the border or making their way to it because of expectations about border enforcement raised by the end of Title 42. That is partly because of misinformation that people pondering the risks of the journey north have heard from human traffickers who are seeking to drum up business, but it is also because of the political rhetoric around Title 42 and media attention to it. She believes the endless talk of open borders has created the expectation among many in Latin America that the end of Title 42 indeed represents an opportunity to cross into the United States.

“A lot of people are going to come to try to enter the United States with the hopes that they may have a chance to live here,” Sister Norma said. “Unfortunately, the message has been sent out that the border is open, and everybody can come in, and that misinformation is going to cause a great number of people that we’ve never, ever before seen come.”

Many of them come, she said, “because they really, truly are fleeing from persecution, and they want to be protected from that. Many others are coming with the illusion that this is their chance to come to the United States.”

Sister Norma said the people most experienced at the border, including her team, the Border Patrol and even mayors and community leaders in Mexican border cities like Reynosa and Matamoros are attempting to coordinate a response—“all of us coming together to make sure we all do our part.” And everyone doing their part, she said, will make a difference.

The endless talk of open borders has created the expectation among many in Latin America that the end of Title 42 indeed represents an opportunity to cross into the United States.

Despite frequent rhetoric about disorder at the border, Sister Norma said, “Honestly, we never see a crisis here. We’re always working under control. And this process at the border has been controlled by [the] Border Patrol and law enforcement.”

From her perspective, the constant talk of open borders has been seriously disconnected from reality. “There is no open border policy,” Sister Norma said. “There hasn’t been an open border. We live here at the border, and we know that the border is closed. It continues to be closed since the previous administration, and that’s what Title 42 is.”

There have been record numbers of migrant encounters with the Border Patrol, she acknowledges. But “that means people attempting to enter, and [border enforcement agents] encounter them and send them back to Mexico.”

When Title 42 ends, border enforcement authorities will fall back on previous control mechanisms and a new Biden administration standard that seeks to reduce asylum claims that was swiftly deplored by church leaders. The Biden administration has managed to draw critics from all sides as it seeks to contend with hemispheric migration.

It is simultaneously accused of opening the border and being too aggressive in efforts to stop border crossings, even as it opens new immigration channels through more generous humanitarian parole programs and other initiatives. Administration officials say they hope to persuade potential migrants that it is easier and safer to pursue asylum claims through new digital portals and other mechanisms without making the dangerous journey to the border.

Norma Pimentel: “There is no open border policy. There hasn’t been an open border. We live here at the border, and we know that the border is closed.”

Sister Norma’s Catholic Charities office in San Juan, Tex., and the national Catholic Charities USA organization have become regular targets of critics who allege that the services Catholic faith groups provide to migrants constitute participation in human trafficking or that the church has turned migration into a vast moneymaker. There are, of course, multiple problems with those allegations. Foremost among them: Though individual Catholic Charities agencies do receive government contracts and grants to assist migrants, most of the money disbursed through such programs is passed through to care for migrants and to cover their substantial resettlement costs.

G.O.P. legislation targets Catholic Charities, other N.G.O.s

Those realities have not dissuaded Republican lawmakers from introducing new legislation that is aimed squarely at Catholic Charities and migrating people. The Secure the Border Act of 2023 (H.R. 2), among other provisions meant to beef up enforcement capacity and resume construction of a border wall, prohibits funding to faith-based organizations and other N.G.O.s like Catholic Charities for direct services it provides to migrants. The bill narrowly passed in the G.O.P.-controlled House of Representatives on May 11 along a party line vote. It stands little chance in the Senate.

Donna Markham, O.P., the president and C.E.O. of Catholic Charities USA, deplored H.R. 2 in a letter on May 8 to Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, and Hakeem Jeffries, minority leader. “If adopted,” she wrote, “this legislation would severely restrict vulnerable people’s access to asylum, detain more families including children, undermine U.S. efforts to effectively manage immigration, and dismantle the public-private infrastructure currently in place to manage the humanitarian crisis at the southern border and its impact throughout the country.

“The gospel calls us to provide shelter for those who are homeless, feed the hungry, and ‘welcome the stranger,’” she added. “The work of Catholic Charities is humanitarian, not political.” Provisions within H.R. 2, she said, “would severely hinder the government and nongovernmental organizations from aiding migrants who need services, care and assistance.”

The legislation to defund federal migrant assistance has been part of an increasing willingness among G.O.P. lawmakers to directly challenge the migrant outreach Catholic Charities has administered for decades. They have been joined by strident voices on the right eager to depict the humanitarian work as a near-criminal enterprise.

Sister Norma is aware of those rising voices and the new legislative proposals. She said none of it will deter her from her work.

The legislation to defund migrant assistance has been part of an increasing willingness among G.O.P. lawmakers to challenge the outreach Catholic Charities has administered for decades.

“I cannot focus on those things because it just takes away the energy that I must give to what is important to me, which is the people and making sure that I can find ways to take care of families that need right now to be taken care of,” she said. Whatever laws eventually get passed in Congress, she added, “my hope is that they are conscious of how [they] are going to affect human life.”

As tensions at the border seem set to rise, Sister Norma has no plans to change how she works. “The force behind everything is God,” she said. “God leads us to take care of one another, to make sure we do what we need to do: Feed the hungry, care for those who are sick and who need our help. And that’s it. It doesn’t change anything.”

Does she harbor any concerns about her personal safety as rhetoric about migrants grows more reckless? “I guess I’m so busy, I don’t have time to think about that,” she said.

In the end, Sister Norma remains remarkably optimistic that the current crisis will pass and equilibrium at the border will be restored as long as all involved constituencies do what they can to respond in good faith. “Everybody should do their part and work towards the solution and not just criticize and not just point fingers,” she said.

Her part is helping people who are in distress. “They need to eat; they need food; they need water; they need clothing; they’re dirty. I find that that’s my role. I want to make sure that [people are] treated with dignity and respect.”

The role of law enforcement and the Border Patrol, she added, “is to make sure there’s order and no chaos and that everybody knows what needs to happen, so that we don’t have circumstances that are out of control.”

“If we can each build on our own areas, we will manage this correctly,” she said.

And, according to Sister Norma, U.S. politicians also have a role to play in fashioning comprehensive immigration reform “that addresses our immigration reality, that creates legal pathways to respond to what we’re facing today.”

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