“That’s life, every one of them,” says Pimentel.
Pimentel, one of the Rio Grande Valley’s best-known migrant rights advocates and director of a regional Catholic charity, helps organize temporary recreation centers and religious shelters, such as Senda de Vida in Reynosa, on both sides of the border, caring for thousands of people.
The result in the border towns is staggering. The shelters are filled with desperate people. There are also tent cities where some sleep with only a tarp over their heads, not knowing where their next meal will come from.
They are in such a situation that vulnerable migrants, many of whom flee violence and extortion in their countries, become easy prey for criminal organizations.
More than 7,000 migrants, mostly from Central America and Haiti, are waiting in Reynos for Section 42 to be lifted, Pimentel said. She is in contact with the port director of the Hidalgo International Bridge to arrange safe passage for them — details are still being worked out, Pimentel says.
Pimentel visits Senda de Vida at least once a week. She does not know why the migrants give her notes, but she passes on their stories and pleas for help to God, whom she calls her “boss”.
“I just tell my boss, ‘These are your people. You must guide me and tell me what I need to do to help them. If you think we can, show me the way,” says Pimentel.
Now, those in the orphanage have a new hope—for an end to their agonizing wait, and finally a chance to make the American dream come true.
Nearly 10,000 incidents of violence against migrants
“It’s an unprotected space,” she says. “Children are not safe, they can be taken away (kidnapped) or the youngest can be raped.”
A migrant woman from El Salvador, whom CNN will call Matilda, burst into tears as she talked about the square. (Pimentel asked CNN not to name the migrants because of the dangers they face in Reynos and in their home countries.)
According to Matilda, masked men armed to the teeth took over the square a few months ago. She describes how her 9-year-old daughter was shaking in fear as the hold unfolded.
Matilda still sees how her daughter reacts to the trauma of that day, even though time has passed, she adds.
“Sometimes when she sleeps she shakes and jumps in fear. Trust me, we went through a lot during our journey (and) in the square,” she says.
The Trump administration enacted Section 42 in the early days of the pandemic, arguing that the policy would stop the spread of Covid-19, a claim some public health experts question. Many supporters expected President Biden to rescind the order when he took office, given his campaign promises to build a more humane immigration system. Instead, his administration defended the controversial policy in court for months.
But here in Reynosa, time is a major issue for asylum seekers. Migrants face danger every day, Pimentel says, and there is not enough shelter space to keep them safe.
According to Pimentel, the number of migrants in Reynos is constantly changing and changing from day to day. She estimates that around 3,000 migrants are currently in the square – some with only a tarp to protect them from the weather and few to protect them from other dangers in this border town.
Migrants help build new shelter while they wait
The Honduran woman’s face lights up as she proudly displays her shovel. She is part of a group of migrants helping Pimentel build a new, larger 3,000-person shelter while they wait to enter the United States.
“It’s a pleasure for me to help others,” says the woman, who CNN will call Nora.
Nora says she fled Honduras after gangs beat one of her daughters so badly that she lost the baby she was carrying. “I had to leave my house,” Nora says in a broken voice. “I have nothing.”
According to Nora, she waited at the border for over a year for Section 42 to be lifted.
Recently, she said, she noticed that the situation in Reynosa began to change.
Previously, most of the migrants in Senda were from Central America and Mexico. According to Nora, in recent weeks, Ukrainians have also begun to arrive in Sendu, who were allowed to cross the border after waiting only a few days.
Nora says she saw Ukrainians enter the US before thousands of others from Central America, Haiti and other countries have been waiting months. But Nora says she doesn’t mind being expelled.
“We were only threatened by gangs,” Nora explains. “There is a war going on in Ukraine.”
“Give us a chance”
For other migrants, the long wait was devastating.
The woman hands Pimentel a sheet of paper and cries. “I didn’t know the American dream would turn into this,” she says.
Pimentel listens intently as the woman explains that she left her home country to reunite with her 17-year-old son in North Carolina. Her son, she said, wanted a better life in the US, but what else is a mother to do?
The woman’s parting word is a message to President Biden: “Give us an opportunity.”
Pimentel folds a piece of paper and stuffs it into a zippered pouch she wears around her neck, along with the countless other messages she’s received.
“I hope someone can listen to their story and hear that they are in pain and that they need protection,” says Pimentel. “That’s all they ask for.”
Katherine E. Shoichet of CNN contributed to this report.