MCALLEN, Texas | Sister Norma Pimentel was “truly disappointed” after not being given an opportunity to speak during a roundtable discussion with President Donald Trump during his Jan. 10 visit to McAllen.
The president traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to make his case for a southern border wall and other security measures amid a partial government shutdown that began over funding for the wall.
Calling the president’s visit “quite an important moment,” Sister Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, lamented that representatives of local agencies working with migrant people and local elected officials were not invited to speak during the discussion.
“I was looking forward to this roundtable discussion, but there was no discussion unfortunately,” Sister Pimentel told The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Brownsville Diocese. “There were certain people selected to speak, people who support the president’s agenda,” she added.
“We would like for President Trump to know who we are and what the reality is here on our border,” said Sister Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus
Trump arrived about 12:45 p.m. local time, along with Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House staff.
Supporters of Trump as well as protesters gathered on opposite sides of a street near the airport awaiting the president’s arrival.
Trump was taken to a nearby U.S. Border Patrol Station for what was billed as a roundtable discussion with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, local officials and key players of the immigration story such as Sister Pimentel, who has spearheaded efforts to assist about more than 100,000 immigrants since June 2014.
A Jan. 10 Catholic News Service story incorrectly reported that Trump would visit the Catholic Charities-run Humanitarian Respite Center that Sister Pimentel oversees and that serves migrant people.
When asked what she would have said to the president if she had been recognized, Sister Pimentel said, “I would definitely say that I appreciate and understand the importance of border security and keeping our border safe — that’s so important. We must support our Border Patrol and their job to defend and protect our borders. We must know who enters our country.”
Sister Pimentel noted she has a good working relationship with the U.S. Border Patrol and other government agencies.
“When I walked into the meeting room, all the Border Patrol agents present, even the ones from D.C. were happy to meet me and talk to me,” she said. “It really demonstrates the importance of how we on the ground work together as a community — city officials, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the volunteers — to the realities we face at the border.
“We recognize, yes, it’s important to keep our border safe to support our Border Patrol but we also recognize there are lots of families, innocent victims of violence that are suffering,” she said. “We as a community are responding to help them. It’s a part of who we are as Americans: compassionate, caring.”
Sister Pimentel continued, “That’s a side that unfortunately our president was not open to listen to. I would have loved to have the opportunity to personally invite him to the respite center, to meet the families, to meet the children. As Catholics, as people of faith, we feel God has asked us to support, defend and protect all human life and that’s what we’re doing here at the respite center.”
In an op-ed posted to The Washington Post website Jan. 9, Sister Pimentel invited Trump to visit the center, which opened in 2014 to provide assistance in response to the influx of immigrants arriving from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other countries.
Sister Pimentel said the center offers shelter, meals and showers for people who have been released after being apprehended by authorities as they crossed in the U.S.
On some days as few as 20 people arrive, she wrote, adding, “Other days it’s closer to 300.”
In her column, she invited the president to see how the center cooperates with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to ensure the needs of the newcomers are met.
The center is staffed with volunteers who offer food, clothing, toiletries, baby supplies and travel packets, which include supplies for their journey.
These immigrants, mostly women and children, already have been detained and released by immigration authorities. They have been granted permission to continue to their destinations outside of the Rio Grande Valley and given a date for a court appearance.
Ybarra is assistant editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.