Sister Norma Pimentel, who recently made it on this years’ Time 100 Most Influential People list for her work on the U.S.-Mexico border, has lamented the politicization of the immigration issue, insisting that politics should serve people, not partisan interests.
Speaking to Crux, Pimentel said she believes her nomination to the Time 100 list “is about defending life at all costs.”
“Politics sometimes gets in the way,” she said. “Instead of addressing life itself and the circumstances we live in, it just focuses on taking sides. We need to focus on the sanctity of life. Politics should be there for people, and it appears at times it only benefits the needs of the party.”
A member of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, Pimentel is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, where she ran a large shelter for migrants who had been released from immigration custody.
In the past, she has called for an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and to the 2019 “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires would-be asylum seekers to stay on the other side of the border until their case is decided.
After the policy’s implementation, Pimentel shifted her activities to the Mexican side of the border and currently assists those staying in a migrant camp in Matamoros.
Her remarks come days after the release of Pope Francis’s new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which, among other things, criticizes political systems focused on advancing economic or private interests at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, and urging more care be given to migrants and refugees.
Pimentel said that for her, the word “frustrated” doesn’t quite capture the sentiment of having immigration become a political issue, rather than a question of human decency. A more fitting term, she said, “is disheartened. People are suffering, they are hurting, and those who can make a difference to change that are not taking action to stop it.”
“I think it is unfortunate that life issues, like the circumstances that immigrants and refugees are living, has become so politicized,” she said, adding that “political partisanship has taken away from the work of actually addressing the humanitarian crisis we see before us.”
“That is what is disheartening – to see the issue of human life and the human suffering become part of a political conflict where no one is truly looking for solutions,” she said.
Pimentel, who has also been recognized by secular outlets such as “60 Minutes” and CNN said she believes her nomination by Time is a recognition for the work they do along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, which in her words primarily involves “restoring human dignity to those in need.”
It is a recognition, she said, “of the generosity of the people of the Rio Grande Valley and from throughout the United States. Together we recognize that we have a responsibility.”
“We are a people of God, people driven by the presence of God in ourselves and in others,” she said, explaining that because of this, “when we see human suffering, we cannot turn our backs; we must respond.”
She voiced her hope that her Time nomination will bring more “understanding” to the issue and allow people to “see more clearly what we can each do to respect all human life, especially the most vulnerable.”
Referring to her very visible public profile, Pimentel said this does not make her or her work any more important than anyone else and the work that they do, including other women religious.
“There are many other religious women who are influential in their circles, but who have not been recognized because they are behind the scenes,” she said, and voiced her admiration for all women religious in the United States who have committed “to serve God in all people.”
“We are not afraid to give it 100 percent,” she said. “I think within our own circle of what we are able and capable of doing, we are all influential. In this moment, I just happened to be singled out.”
Yet despite the wide global recognition for her and the help she readily offers to needy immigrants in secular circles, Pimentel said this is secondary, but it was the Catholic Church that “recognized me long before Time did.”
“It was the Holy Father who called me forward before the world and recognized the work we are doing here along the border,” she said, adding, “That was the biggest affirmation – from my Church.”
In 2015, Pimentel was featured in a virtual papal audience broadcast on ABC News, during which Pope Francis spoke to Hispanic youth – many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants from a welcome center Pimentel oversaw at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas – and listened to their stories.
During the broadcast, Pope Francis called on Pimentel personally so he could thank her and all religious sisters in the United States for the work they do, saying, “I love you all very much.”
In 2018, Pimentel she received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame – the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic award. She was also given the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Outstanding Leadership Award during the organization’s annual assembly in 2019.
Regarding her work, Pimentel said that what it all boils down to, in her view, is “humanity. It’s about the fact I don’t help immigrants because they are immigrants, but rather because they are people.”
Immigrants, she said, “are human beings that are suffering. This is about life, about recognizing that we all have something to do when we see somebody hurting and suffering. Whether it is an immigrant or homeless, someone who is cast out or put aside, people on the peripheries of our lives, it’s about them.”