BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — Sister Norma Pimentel has been a stalwart, steely force who has tirelessly advocated for over a year for the release of asylum-seekers living across the Rio Grande in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.
She hasn’t cried “since Day 1,” she told Border Report, “since the very first moment since I saw the very first person.” But on Friday, after she led a second bus-load of migrants who arrived at the downtown Brownsville bus station, her eyes were red-rimmed and she admitted the tears had been flowing.
“Now it’s like I can’t believe it,” said Pimentel, the South Texas nun who heads Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s such an emotional moment for every single one of them. Just seeing them for so long suffering so much. Hopeful and yet desperate and now it’s happened. The doors opened wide and they’re walking through with their head held high,” she said. “God hears the cry of his people.”
This was the second group to arrive since Thursday morning, and later Friday others followed. A total of 104 migrants were released Friday from the Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” And this is just the beginning, Pimentel said Friday in an outdoor corridor area cordoned off for the migrants where volunteers passed out toys and blankets and meals of rice, beans and chicken to those arriving around 11 a.m. on Friday.
“The encampment is draining out. This is the end of the encampment,” Andrea Rudnik, who heads volunteers for the nonprofit organization Team Brownsville said Friday as she helped the new arrivals.
About 1,200 asylum-seekers live in the encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande, just blocks from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas — the same bridge where the newly released are walking over into the United States.
Along the Southwest border, so far 8,600 asylum-seekers living in Mexico have applied for release from MPP via an online portal that opened last week; 350 have so far been approved. There are an estimated 25,000 migrants in MPP who are eligible to apply, U.S. officials say.
Nearly 70,000 migrants have been placed in MPP since the Trump administration implemented the program in 2019. However, those whose cases have already been decided or are closed are no longer eligible to apply.
On Friday, Homeland Security officials in West Texas in El Paso began accepting the first group of released migrants from Juarez. And release of migrants continues from Tijuana into San Diego, which began on Feb. 19.
In South Texas, the arrival of so many so fast signals the end of a long struggle and much pain and suffering, and the volunteers said they will miss the many new friends that they have made and their thankful smiles and hugs every time they brought supplies to the camp.
“It’s a little bittersweet for us because we won’t see them again. So this is kind of a final thing for us. We’re so happy for them but it’s sad too. It’s hard to explain,” said Kathy Harrington, a volunteer with Team Brownsville who has walked over the Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville into Matamoros, bringing food and supplies to the migrants several times a week for the past year and a half.
“You can’t help but shed tears,” Harrington said.
Rudnik said she crossed on Friday morning and was the official greeter. “I was actually the first volunteer, humanitarian person who saw them and their eyes just lit up like, ‘we know you. We know you,'” she said.
Judy Macarellos Morales, of Guatemala, was among those who crossed on Friday morning with her three daughters, ages 7, 9 and an 8-month-old. She says they were going to Nashville, Tenn., to join her brother and she said she hopes to forget the cold and the pain they endured. She traveled from Central America she said for better opportunities for her young daughters in America but ended up stuck in Matamoros in the camp for three months.
Last week was the worst, she said, as an arctic air blast plummeted temperatures and the region suffered an unseasonal deep freeze.
“It was difficult. Trying to leave was complicated. But I am looking for a future for my daughters and I hope our lives get better,” Morales said.
Juana Elisabeth Herrera-Ayu, of Honduras, was going to Greeley, Colo., with her two young boys, ages 3 and 1. She wore a white wristband on her right arm with a number identifying her and her family. The bands were placed by officials with the United Nations, the organization that is heading the crossing of families from Mexico into the United States, and is sorting out and prioritizing those with the greatest needs and who should cross first.
Pimentel says that eventually the entire camp will be dissolved.
“Everybody at the camp is being processed and moved out and to get them through. It doesn’t matter how long they have been there,” she said.
So far, all except one family who have been released have had family or friends to sponsor their travels or provide lodging for them.
The family currently was staying in South Texas under the care of Catholic Charities as they looked for a sponsor. They want to go to New York, she said.
“In the meantime they will wait in a shelter until that happens,” Pimentel said.