The pieces of paper that this nun carries reveal the hidden stories of the border between the United States and Mexico

“It’s a life, every single one of them,” Pimentel says.

One of the most well-known advocates for migrants in the Rio Grande Valley and director of the region’s Catholic charities, Pimentel helps run relief centers and faith-based shelters, such as Reynosa’s Senda de Vida, on both sides of the border, caring for thousands of people.

The result in the border towns is staggering to see. Shelters are filled with desperate people. There are also tent cities where some sleep with only tarpaulins over their heads, not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

They are under conditions that make vulnerable migrants – many of whom are fleeing violence and extortion in their home countries – an easy prey for criminal organizations.

But their situation may soon change: the Biden administration’s latest announcement that it will lift public health restrictions at the border means migrants may have a chance to cross without being subjected to immediate deportation.

More than 7,000 migrants, mostly from Central America and Haiti, are waiting in Reynosa for Title 42 to be lifted, according to Pimentel. She is in contact with the port director of Hidalgo International Bridge to coordinate a safe passage for them – the details are still being worked out, says Pimentel.

At least once a week visit Pimentel Senda de Vida. She does not know why migrants give her the notes, but she takes their stories and prayers for help to God, whom she calls her “boss.”

Sister Norma Pimentel was offered a bite to eat by the migrants she serves at Senda de Vida, a faith-based shelter.

“I just say it to my boss, I say, ‘These are your people. You have to guide me and tell me what to do to help them. If you think we can, show me the way,’ says Pimentel.

Now there is renewed hope among them at the shelter – for an end to their painful wait and finally a shot at the American dream.

Nearly 10,000 cases of violence against migrants

Many of the migrants at the shelter were deported by U.S. immigration authorities at the foot of the international bridge connecting Hidalgo, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico. It’s a dangerous place, according to Pimentel.

“It’s a space that’s not protected,” she says. “The children are not safe; they can be taken (kidnapped) or the youngest can be raped.”

A migrant woman from El Salvador, whom CNN will call Matilde, breaks down crying as she talks about the square. (Pimentel asked CNN not to name migrants because of the dangers they face in Reynosa and in their home countries.)

A few months ago, the place was taken over by heavily armed men wearing masks, says Matilde. She describes how her 9-year-old daughter shook with fear as the takeover unfolded.

Matilde still sees her daughter responding to that day’s trauma, even though time has passed, she adds.

“Sometimes when she’s asleep, she shakes and jumps up in fear. Believe me, we’ve been through so many things during our journey (and) in the square,” she says.

We expect a large increase in migrants at the US-Mexico border.  But this time is different
Since President Biden took office, Human Rights First has identified nearly 10,000 cases of kidnapping, torture, rape, or other violent attacks on persons blocked or deported to Mexico under Section 42.

The Trump administration put Title 42 in place in the early days of the pandemic, arguing that the policy would stop the spread of Covid-19 – a claim that some public health experts questioned. Many proponents expected President Biden to lift the order when he took office, given his campaign promises to build a more humane immigration system. Instead, his administration defended the controversial policy for several months in court.

The Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa has been in operation for nearly three decades, according to Sister Norma Pimentel.
It was not until March 2022 – more than a year after his presidency – that officials announced that the policy would be repealed. It has sparked concern among U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle, who fear the Biden administration does not have enough of a plan in place to deal with the expected increase in migrants at the border.

But here in Reynosa, time is a major concern for asylum seekers. Migrants face danger every day, Pimentel says, and there is not enough shelter to keep them safe.

The number of migrants in Reynosa is fluent and changes from day to day, according to Pimentel. She estimates that around 3,000 migrants are currently staying at the site – some with only a tarpaulin to protect them from the elements and little to protect them from other dangers in this border town.

Migrants help build a new shelter while they wait

A Honduran woman’s face lights up as she proudly shows off her shovel. She is part of a crew of migrants helping Pimentel build a new, larger shelter – with a capacity for 3,000 people – while they wait for a chance to enter the United States.

“For me, it’s a pleasure to help others,” said the woman, whom CNN will call Nora.

Nora says she fled Honduras after gangs beat one of her daughters so hard that she lost the baby she was carrying. “I had to leave my home,” Nora says in a broken voice. “I own nothing.”

The team of migrant construction workers helping to build another shelter is waking up at 6 p.m.  5 in the morning to begin their day-long shift, Pimentel says.

She has been waiting at the border for more than a year for title 42 to lift, says Nora.

Recently, she says she has noticed that the situation in Reynosa is starting to change.

Before, most of the migrants in Senda were from Central America and Mexico. In recent weeks, Nora says that Ukrainians have also started arriving in Senda – and they have been allowed to cross the border after only waiting a few days.

The refugee crisis is much bigger than Ukraine
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently issued a memo telling border authorities that they should consider excluding Ukrainians from Section 42 on a case-by-case basis. It has sparked criticism that the United States is using a double standard: letting Ukrainians enter, while many other desperate and deserving migrants are forced to wait. The head of DHS has denied this claim.

Nora says she has seen Ukrainians enter the United States before thousands of others from Central America, Haiti and other nations who have been waiting for months. But Nora says she is not against the dispensation.

“We have only been threatened by the gangs,” Nora explains. “In Ukraine there is war.”

‘Give us a chance’

For other migrants, the long wait has been devastating.

A woman hands Pimentel a piece of paper and breaks down crying. “I did not realize that the American dream would turn to this,” she says.

Pimentel listens intently as the woman explains that she left her home country to be reunited with her 17-year-old son in North Carolina. Her son, she says, wanted a better life in the United States – and what else should a mother do?

The woman’s farewell is a message to President Biden: “Give us a chance.”

Biden tries to map a new road on the US-Mexico border, but similar roadblocks remain

Pimentel folds the piece of paper and stuffs it in a zippered purse she wears around her neck, along with the countless other messages she has received.

“I hope someone can listen to their story and hear that they are hurt and they need protection,” Pimentel says. “That’s all they ask for.”

CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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