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WBUR and Catholic Charities host panel discussion on immigration crisis

Moderator Tiziana Dearing, Sister Norma Pimentel and Mohamad Ali appear onstage during the panel discussion, "From the Border to Boston: Making Sense of Immigration Today." Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault

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BOSTON -- "From the Border to Boston: Making Sense of Immigration Today," was the theme of a panel discussion hosted by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston and public radio station WBUR Feb. 27.

Held at WBUR's CitySpace on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, the panel discussion featured Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, and Mohamad Ali, the CEO of International Data Group.

The moderator for the evening was Tiziana Dearing, the host of WBUR's Radio Boston and the former head of Catholic Charities.

For most of the discussion, Dearing poses questions and Sister Norma and Ali took turns answering.

In her opening comments, Sister Norma said that she became involved with helping immigrants because she grew up in South Texas near the border with Mexico, where many immigrants happened to be.

"It's not because they're immigrants, but mostly because they're people," she said.

She said that the humanitarian crisis has worsened under policies, such as the Remain in Mexico Policy, which requires asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. She said they feel hopeless when they are forced to wait so long.

"We're there with them and we're reaching out to them and providing them with the care, the compassion, the presence that a person needs to give them back hope," Sister Norma said.

Ali emigrated from Guyana to the United States with his mother when he was 11 years old. The residents of his new neighborhood were immigrants from around the world, who are now "contributing members of society."

He started to research immigration three years ago, when the new presidential administration popularized anti-immigrant rhetoric. Ali brought to the discussion a 270-page document that was submitted to the Supreme Court in the case against President Donald Trump's 2017 executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Ali referred to data in the document throughout the discussion.

Ali said the biggest misconception he would like to correct is the idea that immigrants are "a drain on society." He cited research that suggests the opposite is true.

He said 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. He pointed out two notable examples: Steve Jobs, whose father was from Syria; and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in Russia.

"Without immigrants our country would not be where it is," Ali said.

Looking at the past 100 years, he said, not all immigration has been legal, but both legal and illegal immigrants have contributed to the economy.

"At the macro level, immigrants are a net positive," he said.

Sister Norma said the biggest misconception she encounters is the "fear narrative," the belief that Americans ought to fear immigrants. She spoke from her experience running her shelter, the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, which provides temporary relief to migrants released from detention. She said that she has never had to call the police or seen any of the people who pass through the center harm anyone.

"The narrative needs to change, because we have no reason to be afraid," she said.

Ali shared data points to support her, saying there is little evidence that illegal immigrants increase crime in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, he said, increases in immigration have coincided with decreases in crime in many states. Additionally, the incarceration rate of men ages 18 to 39 is four times higher for those born in the United States than for those of foreign birth.

While discussing how to help immigrants both at the border and in one's community, Sister Norma and Ali both talked about the importance of electing good leaders.

"If the people that are elected by the people are not representing the people, why are they still in office?" Sister Norma asked.

She alluded to the deaths of a Salvadoran father, Oscar Alberto Martinez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria Martinez, who drowned in June 2019 while trying to cross the Rio Grande to enter the United States.

"We made it impossible for them to cross legally into the United States to ask for safety. We are to blame for that child and that dad that drowned in the Rio Grande, and so many others, because we haven't really taken it seriously -- the responsibility that we have to elect the leaders that make policies that are just and that are humane," Sister Norma said.

Ali identified two factors contributing to the U.S. immigration crisis: the fact that people have to flee their native countries, and the fact that Americans do not recognize how economically valuable they are.

He described the situation in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the countries with the highest rates of gender violence in the world. Ali has worked with Oxfam America to implement a gender violence prevention program in schools in El Salvador. On a visit to one Salvadoran school, he was told that a quarter of the girls that went there were sexually abused by the age of 10.

"What can we do to create conditions in other countries so that this (choice) isn't required? I don't think our government does enough. There was a time when America played a more global role in creating, in enabling more stable countries. I can't say that that's a path we're on anymore. We actually have a government that has said that we are going to a more isolationist view of the world," Ali said.

What people can do in their communities, he said, is educate others about the economic benefits of welcoming immigrants.

As the discussion drew to a close, Dearing asked Sister Norma about the language used in discussing "human dignity," a concept that Dearing said is "universal" at one level yet "profoundly Catholic" at another. Sister Norma said that the goal of "restoring human dignity" has helped her community, including law enforcement, city officials, and universities, come together to support immigrants.

"We are all called to respect life and to defend it," she said.

Sandra Pelkie, a Brookline resident who attended the talk, said she was glad that Sister Norma was spreading the word about the "grave situation" at the border. Pelkie started Children and Families on the Border two years ago when she learned that children were being separated from their families. She has visited the border on the Texas side multiple times to volunteer and bring donations she collected from churches and synagogues.

"When I went down there, I was so thankful to see communities together helping these people, and Sister Norma running it. It's just amazing," Pelkie said, speaking to The Pilot after the discussion.

Dr. Stephen Baccari, a theology teacher and the director of campus ministry at Malden Catholic High School, also attended the event.

"What this presentation did for me was reiterate why I teach theology. Because God has called us to do for others," he said.

Earlier that day, he said, he had taught his students about the corporal works of mercy.

"We teach the students about the people who live on the margins. Well, Sister (Norma) is dealing with the people on the margins. And if we truly believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, then who are we to reject anyone?" he said.

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