▶ Watch Video: Head of Catholic Charities along border says migrant families are “desperate” to flee home countries

The following is a transcript of an interview with Sister Norma Pimentel that aired Sunday, April 4, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”

MARGARET BRENNAN: Arrivals of unaccompanied children at the southern border reached an all-time monthly high in March, and the pace of migrants crossing the border does not appear to be slowing down. Sister Norma Pimentel is executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and she joins us this Easter morning. Happy Easter, sister.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So for our audience. I just want to describe your organization, the role you play. You provide assistance to migrants who are seeking refuge here in the US. They often meet you after they’ve been released from US custody and told to come back for a court appearance in the future when they’re asking for asylum. I’m wondering, since you have been on the border for so long, what you are seeing with your own eyes right now. What are migrants like when they are arriving here?

PIMENTEL: Yes, what I’m seeing today is what we’ve seen already for several years back, surges of families arriving to our border that leave their country because what’s happening in their country has not changed. It continues to be a place where they are afraid to be there for their children. And so what we see a lot here at the border since 2014, we saw it in great surges, children unaccompanied and families, moms with their kids. And even in 2019, and throughout- up to today, it’s no different. We’re seeing it again. And so it’s just families that are hopeful that entering the United States, they may be safe and that’s what they’re looking for. And it’s not- it’s not different. And that’s why we have so many children here at the border now again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What state are the migrants arriving in?

PIMENTEL: You know, the- the conditions that they arrived, you know, in 2014, it was devastating what I was seeing with the- the- the families and the children dirty and muddy and crying and dehydrating and scared. And today they are- they- they definitely are, you can see it in their faces that they’re scared that they’ve been through so much, but they’re- they’re hopeful, hopeful, you know, that maybe now they have a chance to be somewhere safe because they have been through a lot. This journey that they take from their country through all along the path they go through, people taking advantage of them, you can see it in their faces and- and what they’ve been through. And having to wait in Mexico for so long also makes them very vulnerable and at high risk.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What you are referring to there is the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy that President Biden just lifted, when you said they were asked to remain there. As you know, immigration is so politically fraught and President Biden has been heavily criticized for lifting that Trump-era policy, also for allowing migrant children who arrive unaccompanied to stay here, even though on- on paper the policy is to push back during the pandemic anyone coming to claim asylum. I know you’re not political, but I’m wondering what you think is driving migration right now. Is that the message from the US or is it what’s happening at home?

PIMENTEL: You know, it- the message from what is happening in the United States is just utilized by those who take advantage of these families, who exploit these families, who- who try to use them, whatever is happening here, to convince them that whether it’s who, no matter who is in office, no matter what’s happening here, it’s used to their advantage to get these families and encourage them to come. And, you know, because they’re desperate to leave their country because of the situations that are there. It’s almost as if we’ve never seen it addressed. The root causes, why these families come are going to continue to come and we’re going to continue to see these surges and these great numbers of children, especially children, here at our border. And- and the traffickers that use this to their advantage. And so it doesn’t matter whether or who is in office or what is happening here, the message is- is twisted and- and used for their advantage. And so I think that contributes a lot of why these families are all of a sudden surges at some points and then others, you know, and of course, there are so many factors involved, but that may be one of them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Biden administration has outsourced a good deal of the COVID testing to local agencies and to organizations like yours. I know you have to provide a lot of these services. How challenging is that? What kind of resources do you need?

PIMENTEL: You know, there’s so many families arriving, so many children, and so being able to provide hundreds and hundreds of toothpaste, toothbrushes, just basic things a- a person needs just to be ok is- is- it’s a challenge in itself. But thanks to the generosity of so many people that reach out and say, how can I help you? And- and even the present government is- is reaching out and wanting to help as well. So I think that- that- that together we can respond and we can address what is happening at the border. And that’s what’s happening right now. Definitely the numbers are high and I can see why the children are not being sent back because of the fact that they run a big risk. You have to keep the child safe. And- and especially if they’re unaccompanied, they can- you cannot just send them back like they’re sending everybody else. They have to be protected. They want to- they need to be processed correctly to make sure they are handed over to the- the right family member. And so that’s why we’re seeing such high numbers of children right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: TIME magazine referred to as the pope’s favorite nun. I know when you met him a few years back, you presented him with a painting of a mother and child. I- I wonder what your message to him was about this unique part of America and whether you would like the current president and vice president to come down and meet with you at the border.

PIMENTEL: I always encourage everyone to come down and see for themselves, because if you get close enough, like I get close enough to the families and accompany them and see for yourself, you can be able to really, truly understand better what is happening and feel what I feel so that we can reach out to help, you know, because honestly, this is- should not be about politics. It needs to be about people, because that’s what we’re seeing here at the border. And I- the Holy Father’s recognition was recognizing all of us doing what we were doing, where we reach out to those that we see before us suffering. And- and so I certainly hope that our present–


PIMENTEL: –president joins us and comes on and accompanies us so that he can see for himself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you, sister, for your time today. Good luck to you. We’ll be right back.