At Manhattan College in the Bronx, Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., urged the 430 guests gathered in Kelly Commons to “speak out” against U.S. immigration policies.
“We need to be denouncing what is wrong; we must do something,” said Sister Norma, a Texas-based advocate for immigrants and social justice, during her evening lecture Feb. 19.
“We need to have a stronger voice, a more prophetic voice. We have to make sure that our policies are respectful to life. This is something that we must work on…It’s a way of, as I would say, to reclaim my humanity. Because it’s being robbed from us. There are thousands of families that are there in South Texas, hurting.”
Sister Norma, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. A licensed counselor, she was instrumental in organizing community resources as a response to the surge of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States and setting up Humanitarian Respite centers in McAllen and Brownsville, Texas.
Noting the struggles of immigrant newcomers, Sister Norma said, “It’s not easy for them. But most definitely it’s safer than going back home.”
For those seeking asylum, she said, “We begin the healing process of all the trauma that they’ve been through, especially the children.”
Sister Norma, a native of Brownsville, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her work on behalf of immigrants has given her national prominence. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame.
Along with speaking out, she encouraged audience members, including nearly 150 Manhattan College students, to pray for new immigrants and to reach out to them here in the New York area, down in South Texas and anywhere else their despair and desperation are evident. It is important to do this, she said, so that people can make a difference “as a community, and as a Church, and as a school.”
She has witnessed such despair in South Texas many times, many times sharing tears and prayers with families. She said she begins each morning with God, praying to Him, trusting in Him—and she relies on the power of the Eucharist.
In fact, it is her answer to those who ask whether she gets exhausted and overwhelmed. Yes, she does, and she returns to prayer and the Eucharist.
In addition to speaking out, Sister Norma suggested writing letters to lawmakers for fair and just immigration policies, and getting involved in seeking immigrant rights, locally or elsewhere.
“Go to Mass. Pray to God. He will guide you,” Sister Norma told audience members.
Recent immigration policies, cited by Sister Norma as unjust, included the separation of families, the detention of children and now the Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires migrants to remain in Mexico while seeking asylum in the U.S.
“They have faith, they have tremendous faith,” Sister Norma said of immigrant newcomers escaping dire circumstances in Central American countries, and seeking to start anew in the United States. It is common, she noted, that when they enter a respite center and see images of Jesus and Mary they fall to their knees and cry tears of relief. “Their faith is amazing,” she said.
Kevin Ahern, associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, was one of the lead organizers of Sister Norma’s lecture. “Like our Holy Father, Sister Norma invites us to move beyond political rhetoric, overwhelming statistics and heartbreaking photos to remind us that each and every migrant child, woman and man reveals to us the face of Christ,” he told Catholic New York.
“Based on our Lasallian Catholic mission, our college takes very seriously the realities and struggles faced by immigrants and refugees,” Ahern explained. “We have student groups that regularly go down to the border (to volunteer).”
He noted many students organize activities “to help raise awareness of the realities of migrants, and the call of Pope Francis for us all to take action.”