A mixture of frustration, concern and distress colored Sister Norma Pimentel’s expressions as she delivered an impassioned message in a video interview Thursday afternoon in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s new order restricting migrant transport by civilians.
“I can just see catastrophic problems arising because of this,” Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley said Thursday.
The governor signed an executive order instructing Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to stop, even impound, vehicles transporting migrants if the drivers are not federal, state or local law enforcement officers.
Abbott made the decision after a situation in La Joya where a migrant family quarantined at a local hotel by Catholic Charities, a nongovernmental organization, went to a nearby restaurant.
Reports surfaced of some of the family members not wearing facial coverings, although they may have had COVID-19, according to a news conference held by the La Joya Police Department on Tuesday.
“I’m amazed at how with the misinformation that happened from one single case that actually one of the families decided to get out of the room and go buy a hamburger. And so, because of that, we’re seeing what we’re seeing today,” Pimentel said in the video.
“This misinformation that all these families are all over exposing everybody to COVID is false. It’s not true,” she added.
The same concerns were raised by another Valley city on Thursday.
“The city of Weslaco discovered that the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has been temporarily housing COVID-19 positive patients at a private business in Weslaco,” the city said in a statement.
Echoing similar concerns raised in La Joya recently, Weslaco Mayor David Suarez said “providing us with further information can save lives.”
“While the city of Weslaco has no immigration enforcement capabilities, city officials believe in full transparency and urges non-governmental organizations, such as the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, to inform local governments and officials when and where COVID-19 hot spots are created in our communities,” the statement further read.
Concerns about safety and privacy might complicate disclosure of information about where people are staying.
“I think the health of the community is extremely important and I certainly understand and support the people in La Joya about what happened here,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said Wednesday, but acknowledged the complications. “You got the right of the individual versus the right of the community.”
In spite of the recent concerns raised by both cities, the practice was discussed publicly as early as Jan. 19. Pimentel told The Monitor of the use of hotels to quarantine migrants, at a time before the vaccine was available.
The respite center accepts migrants released from federal custody and tests them for COVID-19 before they enter the shelter, a practice urged by Pimentel and approved by city and county leaders.
If a member of a family tests positive, the whole family is placed under quarantine at a local hotel.
The protocol was in place for about a year after the pandemic. Volunteers and parishes help check on the migrants staying at local hotels every day to test and care for them.
Pimentel expects the order to severely impact their operations.
“So, we’re not going to be able to take them to a hotel. We’re not going to be able to take them to the hospital if they’re sick. What’s going to happen after that?” she asked.
Though the nonprofit leader typically refrains from commenting on government policy, she urged change.
“I think actions like this need to be corrected. We must reconsider what is being done, and look at it in a way that’s more helpful to find solutions for all of us that really help us hold to the principle of defending human life,” Pimentel said, looking at the camera.
The center continues to receive migrants, though in the past week, Border Patrol started releasing too many families for the shelter to handle alone. Other churches, like Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission, opened their doors to take in overflow.
Once enforced, the transportation to the overflow shelters will likely be affected.
Ground transport out of the Valley, like Greyhound buses, could also be impacted, though the company said it was studying the order and its effect on their business Wednesday.
The Texas Department of Public Safety also shared a statement Thursday.
“The Texas Department of Public Safety is committed to securing our border under the direction of Governor Greg Abbott and through the Executive Order applicable to DPS,” the statement read. “While the department does not discuss operational specifics, we will continue to monitor the situation at the border to make real-time decisions and adjust operations as necessary.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to included a city of Weslaco statement.