“Dear Mr. President, We welcome you to our community here in South Texas along the Rio Grande, which connects the United States to Mexico. I wish you could visit us.” It’s the opening phrase of the letter that Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley, executive director of the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, wrote a letter to President Trump on the day of his visit to McAllen, one of the border zones where the wall of discord is planned to be built. Norma, known as “the Pope’s favourite nun” (during a video-broadcast papal audience Francis singled her out in the crowd to thank her for her commitment), has welcomed over 100 thousand migrant people into her centre in the past four years, with as many as 300 in one day.
The doors of this hospitality facility were opened in 2014, when tens of thousands of people arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador crossed the border causing an emergency situation in the Rio Grande valley. Immigrant families, in a state of hunger and fear, crowded bus stations with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, left with no food or water. Sister Norma, along with several Christians communities and organizations, pooled efforts to provide at least a meal and basic assistance, which with time developed into the respite centre she runs today. “When families cross the border, they are typically apprehended by authorities, held for a few days and released with a court date to consider their request for asylum.” After they are released, the migrants are received at the centre.
“By the time they find their way to our doors, most adults are wearing Border Patrol-supplied ankle bracelets and carrying bulky chargers to keep those devices powered up”,
she explains in the letter to the U.S. President. The letter does not depict threats, criminal activity nor any form of violence whatsoever. The families arriving at the centre are exhausted and scared, carrying their few belongings in a small plastic bag. Few speak any English and many of them have small children with them. There are no signs of the state of emergency that the US President is planning to declare after the four hours spent in this border zone, neither at the respite centre nor in the square of El Paso where thousands of migrants were released by border guards in the first days of the year. Sister Norma insists on her invitation, especially in the early morning hours “You will see that the families who have spent the night are tidying up their sleeping spaces. Some are sweeping, some are helping prepare breakfast, and some are getting ready for their bus departure to other places in the United States”, she writes. “You will see volunteers arriving to offer a hand either preparing hygiene packets, making sandwiches, cutting vegetables, preparing the soup for the day or sorting through donated clothing. Others may assist with the intake or help a mother or father contact family living in the United States. They are armed with a sign that reads:
‘Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I take? Thank you for your help!’
To be shown to whoever they meet on their way.” With the U.S. Customs and Border authorities “our team has cultivated a culture of mutual respect and dialogue” and in communication with them the centre’s staff prepares in advance to receive groups of immigrants who have been released. That is why most of the signs welcoming the President’s arrival clearly read, “There is no crisis”, because this, as many other centres on the border, now offer concrete, organized assistance that has managed to involve communities, not only at local level, but also across the United States, as donations and volunteers arrive from every corner of the Country.
Also US bishops intervened in the heated debate triggered by the Presidential speech and by its following interventions, explaining that
“Secure borders and humane treatment of those fleeing persecution and seeking a better life are not mutually exclusive. The United States can ensure both and must do so without instilling fear or sowing hatred.”
Mons. Joseph Vásquez, Chairman of U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, pointed out that with his confreres they will continue “to advocate for immigration reform.” He called upon “lawmakers to look beyond rhetoric and remember the human dignity that God our Father has given each of us simply because we are all His children.” The bishops urged Congressional leaders “to come together and end the shut-down with a solution that recognizes the dignity of work of affected employees, respects the humanity of all regardless of immigration status.”