South Texas nun makes gutsy decision to continue moving migrants despite governor’s executive order, for now

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Catholic nun who runs the largest migrant shelter in the Rio Grande Valley told Border Report on Thursday she will continue to transport migrants released by the Department of Homeland Security until she’s personally told otherwise.

Sister Norma Pimentel’s decision comes on the heels of an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott designed to help limit the spread of coronavirus by restricting anyone other than a certified peace officer from moving migrants in the state.

Abbott’s executive order issued Wednesday has many in this predominantly Hispanic border community fearful that state troopers will racially profile residents who are out and about. And it has led to varying interpretations of the new rule, including by Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV).

Sister Norma Pimentel is seen at her San Juan, Texas, offices on July 29, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Pimentel’s organization runs the Humanitarian Respite Center shelter for migrants in downtown McAllen. She told Border Report that she has spoken with officials in the federal government, as well as Bishop Daniel Flores of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, who advised her that she can keep doing what her group has been doing for the past seven years to help the migrants, at least for now.

“So far we’re still doing that until the moment we’re told we can not do that anymore,” Pimentel said Thursday morning outside her offices on the grounds of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Juan, Texas.

But her defiance isn’t without worry.

“There’s so many ifs that we are bringing up and wondering what’s going to happen so everybody is concerned and everybody is worried,” Pimentel said.

Abbott’s orders were issued, he said, due to concerns that migrants are spreading coronavirus. He cites a 900% increase in COVID-positive migrants detained by federal officials in the Rio Grande Valley.

His order states that “No person, other than a federal, state, or local law-enforcement official, shall provide ground transportation to a group of migrants who have been detained by CBP for crossing the border illegally or who would have been subject to expulsion under the Title 42 order.”

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On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland threatened legal action over Abbott’s executive order, calling it “dangerous and unlawful.”

Garland in a letter urged Abbott to rescind his order, saying, “The Order would jeopardize the health and safety of noncitizens in federal government custody, federal law enforcement personnel and their families, and our communities.”

Garland added that Abbot’s order “would exacerbate and prolong overcrowding in facilities and shelters and obstruct the federal government’s arrangements with state, local, and nongovernmental partners to ensure that released individuals are transported for appropriate COVID-19 testing to address public health concerns.”

On Thursday morning, giant white charter buses operated by DHS continued to drop off migrants at the Humanitarian Respite Center, while several taxis were seen taking migrants away, and many migrants walked to the bus station across the street.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands behind a bus that just pulled up on July 29, 2021, at Catholic Charities RGV’s Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Since February, Border Patrol agents have been dropping off at the Respite Center migrants who are legally released to be in the United States and allowed to travel to other cities. But first, they are tested for coronavirus across the street.

If they are negative, then they can enter the Respite Center to take a shower and get a hot meal, new clothes and help to book bus and airline tickets to destinations beyond. But even if only one family member tests positive for COVID-19, then CCCRGV sends them to one of 10 area hotels that have been contracted for the families to isolate until they are all negative of the virus.

It’s a “partnership” between the federal government, and the City of McAllen, which has given them space and funds to test the migrants, Pimentel said.

A group of migrants crosses the street on July 29, 2021, to the bus station in downtown McAllen, Texas, after leaving the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the RGV. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

But the careless actions of some migrants under the care of Pimentel’s organization earlier this week triggered a firestorm of concerns and Abbott’s strict executive order when they were spotted at a local restaurant visibly sick and without masks instead of isolating in a hotel in the town of La Joya.

Now Pimentel says the entire operation — in which upwards of 1,000 migrants per day move in and out — is in jeopardy. And she says that puts the border community at risk if her organization cannot test and safely relocate the migrants.

“I am saddened that this is happening because what we’re doing is something good. It’s helping the community be safe. It’s helping the families to be treated with dignity and respect and it’s nothing but good and so for this to be taking place it’s almost as if the immigrants are used as a political opportunity to make a point instead of to really address what we’re seeing and what we’re doing. Our community here in the Rio Grande Valley has worked together to really respond correctly to what is happening to what we’re seeing with all the immigrants,” Pimentel said. “We’re trying to do something that is helping our community so it doesn’t make sense to me why this is happening.”

We’re trying to do something that is helping our community so it doesn’t make sense to me why this is happening.”

Sister Norma Pimentel

But sadness by some has manifested into anger by others toward this new policy.

Danny Diaz of the civil rights group La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) alleges “it’s racial profiling” against Hispanics on the border.

“It’s another unfortunate use of the governor’s power to tie it into his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that he’s trying to make this about. We see this as racial profiling,” Diaz told Border Report on Thursday.

“He’s basically talking about people like myself, other folks volunteers, groups like Catholic Charities who do God’s work — like Sister Pimentel who do charity work — when Border Patrol actually releases folks for their court dates and they need to get connected to our society, to their destination points. There’s a process already for these NGOs to be able to do that,” Diaz said. “To criminalize people doing God’s work is crazy for me under this executive action. I think it’s just a direct attack and it’s direct conflict with the federal government.”

Calls to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on what their response would be were not answered. However, in a statement, CBP on Thursday wrote: “RGV continues to encounter significant numbers of undocumented migrants crossing the border. RGV continues to expel individuals under Title 42 authorities as part of COVID mitigation efforts and utilizes pathways under Title 8 proceedings to remove those amenable to their home countries. During these challenging times, our federal, state, and local partnerships are indispensable as we work to secure our borders and to quickly move individuals out of USBP custody and through the appropriate immigration pathway.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this region, told Border Report that he blames the Biden administration for not taking charge of the situation when thousands of migrants began crossing into South Texas in early February.

“This is the administration’s fault,” Cuellar said from Washington, D.C.

He called the evolving situation “chaotic” and said the administration has done a “disservice to my border communities.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez at first didn’t think it applied to migrants who had been released by DHS, but later told Border Report he has been advised that his administration is interpreting the new rule to include them.

This confusion among border leaders regarding Abbott’s orders has been coupled with outcry from national organizations.

Several other civil rights organizations criticized Abbott’s actions, like the ACLU, which said in a statement: ” “Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest efforts to make Texas an anti-immigrant police state are yet another unconstitutional assault on civil rights targeting border communities. The governor’s order will lead to racial profiling and over-policing — with state troopers pulling over cars and buses without lawful justification, profiling passengers, and questioning people about their immigration status. The fiat continues a long, racist history of placing blame for the spread of disease onto immigrants and communities at the border. There is no reason for the governor to halt travel in the state of Texas other than to terrorize these communities and distract from his own leadership failures.”

League of United Latin American Citizens National President Domingo Garcia called it: “clear-cut militarization of Texas against individuals, children, and families by an out-of-control governor who thinks he has unilateral power to do whatever he wants and violate the civil rights of people based solely on appearance or suspicion.”

In his letter to Abbott, Garland said federal law requires individuals processed for release to appear before immigration courts or report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices throughout the country. He said Abbot’s order violates federal law in numerous respects, and Texas cannot lawfully enforce the Executive Order against any federal official or private parties working with the United States.

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