Plight of Migrants Focus of Biennial Poverty Conference

Young woman being comforted by older woman
October 6, 2020

Now, more than ever, the immigrant population is in desperate need of support, compassion, and love; this was the message conveyed by speakers at St. John’s University’s biennial Poverty Conference, “Migrants and Mission,” held online on October 3.

Sponsored by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society and hosted by its Executive Director, Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., the conference featured presentations from Sr. Norma Pimentel, M.J., Executive Director, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV), and Dohra Ahmad, Ph.D., Professor and Assistant Chair, Department of English, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“St. John’s University was founded to serve the educational needs of the children of immigrants,” Fr. Griffin observed. “The plight of a different immigrant community remains a priority for our institution today. In this 150th anniversary year of St. John’s, listening to women who serve the needs of the marginalized and who wish to give them a voice clearly captures our mission.”

With an office located in Brownsville, TX., Sr. Norma is a daily witness to thousands of families who flee violence and corruption in search of a better life. Helping them is an integral part of the Church’s mission. “These families arrive in terrible condition and in great need of help.” The conditions in their home countries make it impossible for them to lead their lives safely and peacefully.

Sr. Norma said she is often asked why she helps immigrants. “I do not help them because they are immigrants. I help them because they are people who are suffering. They are the marginalized, and they are hurting. They are part of who we are as a human family.”

Since 2014, CCRGV has mobilized the local community, including government entities, to help people restore their dignity. This includes assisting with political asylum claims as they weave their way through the legal process. “We all recognize the importance of human life and restoring what is broken,” she said. “It is the right thing to do.”

Sr. Norma stressed many of the people she helps would much rather stay in their home countries if they could. “They are good people who are just trying to stay alive.” She noted that recently the US federal government has tried to deter them from coming into the country by enacting the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forces people to stay in Mexico as they await word on their asylum cases. The COVID-19 pandemic has halted these proceedings indefinitely.

“Some days all we can do is cry with them,” Sr. Norma said, adding that they are powerless to change policies that govern this process. “We hope for a day when policies are more humane. Policies that contribute to human suffering are wrong and must be replaced by those that respect life. As a country, we cannot be part of the destruction and pain and suffering of another person.”

Dr. Ahmad, editor of The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns, focused her comments on the importance of becoming more familiar with the immigrant population through literary works. “It is incredibly important to get to know who immigrants are,” she said.

Migration is a worldwide phenomenon that has gone on for centuries and is not exclusive to the United States, Dr. Ahmad explained, adding that it can be voluntary or involuntary. Common themes reveal themselves across generations, including feelings of “otherness,” conflict, and welcome. 

She prefers not to think of immigrants being assimilated into a new country or culture but rather views their arrival as redefining what it means to be American. Dr. Ahmad said she has been told her anthology has helped humanize immigrants. “That makes me glad and sad. I feel proud to do that work, but sad that it has to get done in the first place.”

Sr. Norma added that the image of immigrants’ basic humanity has been distorted. “We have to make people see them as human beings, whether they are legally here or not. Propaganda has been taking away that human reality—and I am glad I am part of its restoration.”