MCALLEN, Texas – The executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley thanks God for President Biden’s decision to reverse the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy.

Sister Norma Pimentel says it is God’s plan to have the asylum requests of unaccompanied minors from Central America fully processed in the United States.

Under MPP, otherwise known as Remain in Mexico, tens of thousands non-Mexican asylum seekers were sent back to Mexico while their claims were adjudicated. The policy gave rise to what became known as Tent City, Matamoros, where hundreds of asylum seekers lived in tents for two years. 

President Biden undid MPP as soon as he came into office, with children allowed to stay in the United States throughout their appeal for asylum. 

Asked during a recent webinar about the change in policy, Pimentel said: “The big amazing change is the fact that we are making something wrong, right.”

Pimentel said the conditions asylum seekers had to live in during the two years of MPP were “devastating” and “horrible.” 

She said: “So many people were reaching out to provide for them the basic things like water, food, a tent. In spite of all of that they were still suffering because it was a terrible situation they were in. Thank God this administration started out by correcting that and liberating them from that human suffering that they were forced to stay in because they were waiting in Mexico for so long. And now they are in the United States.”

Pimentel said: “I think it is God’s plan to liberate these people, to make sure they are safe. Thank God that happened already. I applaud the administration’s immediate effort to correct that. And so now we are going forward.”

Pimentel said she had just returned from Reynosa where she was helping a group of people cross into the United States. “It is good that these people who were kept for so long in Mexico are now continuing that asylum process here in the United States. I am very happy for that. It is God’s plan.”

The webinar at which Pimentel made her remarks was hosted by Children At Risk. During the webinar, child advocates discussed the need for all unaccompanied children to be treated humanely.

Dr. Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children At Risk, pointed out that in February, more than 9,250 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. He said this number has increased significantly from around 5,600 children that crossed the border this January. 

“Due to the Biden Administration’s current policy which no longer expels unaccompanied children, and the COVID-19 restrictions facilities have in place, the immigration system is under tremendous strain. This has left unaccompanied children facing increased risks as they wait to be processed in a system that lacks the necessary resources to support them,” an advisory from Children At Risk stated.

Sanborn said: “We need to ensure that all unaccompanied children, are treated humanely as they are processed into the U.S. It is of utmost importance that every child is released swiftly into the care of their guardian or sponsor. This is crucial for the sake of the child’s well-being. It is imperative that our elected leaders work together to address this issue and that we uphold the basic human rights of each and every child.” 

In her remarks, Pimentel recounted a story about girl in one of the migrant camps in Mexico. “She was not even eight years old. She told her Mom, don’t worry, God already told me we are going to the United States on March 1st. This was months before it happened.” Pimentel said she asked the CBP officer if he could put the family on a list to be allowed entry into the United States but to put them at the back of the list. She said so many people crossed the bridge that day that the family had to remain in Mexico a further day. “Guess what day that was? March 1st. That is a clear sign that it is God’s plan.”

Pimentel started her remarks on the webinar by saying it is important to remember that the policy shift centers around kids. She said there needs to be a process to keep the kids safe. “To keep them from human trafficking, to keep them from those that are going to hurt them, not sending them back. So many of them were sent back under the last administration. So, I think that needs to be the priority, that needs to be the focus.”

Pimentel also said the United States needs to address the reasons why the children are coming to the United States. “More than a crisis, it is an opportunity for us to do something,” she said.

Sanborn asked Pimentel about testing for COVID. She said when Border Patrol started sending migrants to her charity’s respite center in McAllen they were not tested for the coronavirus. She said with the help of city and county leaders, testing was introduced.

“We got together to establish a response, to make sure every single person gets tested for COVID before they enter into our center, before they enter into a bus station or an airport. We wanted to guarantee that that was in place,” Pimentel said. “I always ask, why is this not happening before they enter a detention facility? We need to make sure we can contain the virus and help all of us.”

Now, Pimentel noted, the Department of Homeland Security is taking on the responsibility of testing migrants before they are sent to her respite center.

Previewing its webinar, Children At Risk pointed out that conflict, poverty, and corruption in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala continues to play a large role in migration to the U.S. border. This has been compounded, the group said, by damage from recent hurricanes in the Northern Triangle countries and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“However, unaccompanied children making the journey to the U.S. is not a new phenomenon. Prior to the current administration, these children were still fleeing for their lives, but were largely turned away as a result of Title 42 which closed the border to all ‘nonessential’ travel under a public-health law, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. This policy has been reversed for unaccompanied children but otherwise largely remains in effect.”

Children At Risk noted that in order to support unaccompanied minors, government representatives from DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services have responded by creating joint processing centers, which will allow children to be placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) care, which is overseen by HHS, immediately after they are apprehended by Border Patrol. 

In addition, the group said, emergency housing facilities, such as those at the Dallas Convention Center, have been set up across the state to hold the children until they are processed. 

“However, children continue to be held in overcrowded and unfit Customs Border Patrol (CBP) facilities. In many cases, they are held longer than the 72 hours allowed under the Flores agreement, which provides basic protections for unaccompanied minors in CBP custody,” Children At Risk stated.

“To protect these children, we need to ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure, capacity, resources, and trauma-informed personnel available to provide the critical care and release for all unaccompanied minors.”

Children At Risk said reports of children sleeping on the floor, unable to shower for days, and not being able to call family members “indicate unacceptable conditions for children.”

The group added: “Detention of children for any length of time can negatively impact their physical and mental health. Most children already have some form of trauma when they arrive in the U.S., due to their experience in their country of origin and what they have undergone on their journey. Inhumane conditions and lengthened time in facilities exacerbate these issues.”

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