Nuns who feed the hungry at the US border attacked by conspiracy theorists

Nuns working on the United States (US) Mexico border are the latest targets of online conspiracy theorists spreading misinformation and vitriol via YouTube.

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) works directly with the United States Government, US Border Control, and the Department of Homeland Security to provide services for people seeking asylum – and has done so for decades.

When people who have a legitimate claim to seek asylum in the US arrive at the border, they are registered by US Border Control and then directed to the sisters at CCUSA for practical assistance.

Having travelled hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, often with small children, people arriving are generally hungry, exhausted and dirty. So, the sisters provide them with food, showers, clothing and rest.

They then move on to their next destination – often a city where they have a sponsor – sometimes with the help of CCUSA. There, they await the consideration of their asylum claim in an Immigration Court.

Recently online claims that the sisters are causing a surge in migration from the south, operating as secret agents for the Biden administration, and are running a sex trafficking ring have gone viral and been picked up by conservative media outlets.

Donna Markham, President and CEO of CCUSA, says she has been shocked by the torrent of abuse unleashed upon the sisters via phone, email and online.

“We certainly have received hateful, hateful calls from people who say they are Catholics,” Sister Markham told America Magazine, “and speaking to us in language that I would never repeat and threatening our agencies. It’s a very sad situation.”

“Once the federal government determines the immigrant families can enter this country, we simply offer humanitarian assistance in their time of crisis.” – Norma Pimentel, CEO Catholic Charities,  Rio Grande Valley, Texas

Markham said she was “mystified” by the attack on the Catholic Church’s work by any group calling itself Catholic. She said their work was humanitarian, grounded in their faith, and not political.

Markham has taken the time to specifically refute each accusation so that there is no need for people to be misinformed.

To those who have accused CCUSA of being agents of the Biden administration, she pointed to the decades they have done this work under both Republican and Democratic governments.

“We’ve certainly been respected by various administrations on both sides of the aisle, so this is puzzling to me,” she said.

Markham said the US Immigration system is broken and in need of reform. “No administration has been able to really accomplish” fixing it to date, she said.

“All of us are trying to do the best we can within a broken system,” she said.

In response to people smuggling and human trafficking accusations, Markham explained that CCUSA “does not enter into this situation until an individual or family has been processed” through the Department of Homeland Security.

“When they’re released [by Border Patrol], that’s when Catholic Charities enters into the humanitarian work,” Markham explained.

“The government agencies often will bring the migrants to our facilities, or to the Lutherans’ facilities or to the Jewish facilities, because those faith communities are also involved in this humanitarian work.”

To those that claim CCUSA’s work on the border capitalises on a profit-making opportunity or receives payment from the US Government, Markham again explained CCUSA’s financial processes.

“Most of the work that we do is sponsored through private donations. And some small part of that is reimbursement by federal grants back to us after we do get [asylum applicants] settled,” she said.

“We have to raise some money, help them get where they’re going, and then the government reimburses a certain portion of their food, their shelter, [and a] minimum amount of their travel.”

The catalyst for the outbreak of abuse was a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act by two political action groups, Judicial Watch and CatholicVote.

The lawsuit demanded records of communication between the US Departments of Homeland Security and of Health and Human Services “with Catholic organisations near the Texas border that were aiding illegal immigrants”. They then announced the lawsuit via press releases, and media reports followed.

“Non-profit groups operating a secretive, taxpayer-funded and likely illegal operation must be honest and transparent about their role in exacerbating the border crisis,” Texas Republican Lance Gooden told Fox News Digital. He described CCUSA as “the biggest villain of them all”.

“It’s Matthew 25, and Catholic Charities, in particular, has been doing this since 1910” – Sister Donna Markham, President and CEO, Catholic Charities USA

Sister Norma Pimentel was named one of Time 100 most influential individuals in the world in 2020.

Sister Norma Pimentel is the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, Texas. Both Pimentel and the Rio Grande office’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, have become a primary focus of anti-migrant anger. Anti-immigrant commenters are often seen outside the facility filming videos that will spread misinformation.

“The claims made by the congressman show a lack of knowledge and understanding on his part of immigration law and our work here on the U.S.-Mexico border,” Sister Pimentel wrote in an email to America Magazine.

“I invite the congressman to come here and visit with me and see what we do firsthand.”

Pimentel rejects the assertion that extending basic humanitarian care to people who have applied for asylum has caused immigration numbers to surge.

“It is outrageous to think that our work is driving the immigration numbers,” she said.

“Do you really think that people are uprooting themselves, putting themselves in danger as they undertake a difficult journey just so that they can come to our respite centre to take a bath and have a meal or sleep on a mat?

“They are leaving dire circumstances back in their home countries,” she said, “risking everything to come here with the hope that they can find a safe place to raise their families. Government policy determines whether they enter or not.”

Pimentel said the work was about “restoring dignity” to people.

“Once the federal government determines the immigrant families can enter this country, we simply offer humanitarian assistance in their time of crisis.”

Sister Markham stressed that their faith had always been the reason for the CCUSA’s work and the reason it would continue.

“Our work with those who are poor takes its impetus, really, from our Catholic faith, and the Gospel mandate that calls all of us for over 2,000 years, especially as Catholics, to care for those who are vulnerable, homeless, hungry and suffering,” Markham said.

“It’s Matthew 25,” she noted. “And Catholic Charities, in particular, has been doing this since 1910.

“This is really our identity, and we don’t have any intention of stopping this ministry.”