For immigrants and refugees now in the United States, or who hope to come here in the near future, recent weeks have been a steady diet of anxiety and confusion. The legal struggle over travel bans on immigrants from various nations has disrupted the plans of thousands who seek to come here for all sorts of reasons, including escape from persecution and reunion with family members already here.
Stepped up detention and deportation efforts against undocumented persons have the potential of tearing families apart and traumatizing children caught in the middle. Parents have resorted to diversionary measures, taking different routes to work or school each day, avoiding any stores where police are often present, even changing their appearance or swapping cars to avoid being easily noticed.
We’ve seen both mass demonstrations of support for those adversely affected, and strengthened resolve by those who want tighter immigration restrictions. Good people—a lot of them—exist on both sides, and we need to resist the temptation to demonize the motives of those with whom we disagree. The ensuing polarization among the general populace has uncovered deep divisions among Catholics who find themselves at odds with family, friends, colleagues and fellow parishioners.
Immigration policy is complex. It involves many competing values, among them the duty of government to ensure the security of U.S. citizens and legal residents. That responsibility must be balanced with our country’s long history of welcoming newcomers, especially those fleeing persecution. The U.S. bishops have repeatedly called for deep immigration reform aimed at meeting both goals. We need to pray that our leaders exercise the good judgment needed to come to a reasonable solution to the current impasse, and soon.
But this week I want to speak about the ongoing commitment of our local Church to offering pastoral, legal and social service aid to immigrants and refugees in the Greater Philadelphia community. Our Office for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees coordinates a network of priest chaplains, religious sisters and lay leaders who provide for the spiritual and material needs of persons from places like Indonesia, Haiti, West Africa, Vietnam and Brazil.
Our ministry to Hispanic Catholics likewise provides support for Catholic immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America. These are faith communities that enrich the devotional life of our whole Archdiocese. We do and always will welcome all Catholics to worship and fellowship with us, regardless of their legal status. They’re our family in Jesus Christ, first and foremost, and being undocumented diminishes neither their dignity nor personhood.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) has for many years offered low-cost legal services to help immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers with document preparation and help with visas, permanent residency, work authorization, and citizenship. Their work has reunified thousands of families over the past four decades. Additionally, CSS had successfully administered a Refugee Resettlement Program in the past, and at the invitation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently restarted an effort to help to refugee families with housing, job opportunities, educational placement for children, and medical services. Under a contract with the U.S. State Department through the USCCB, four new staffers were hired to begin receiving referrals from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and even Syria.
Actions of the Trump administration have frozen those efforts for now. But CSS has retained their new staffers by redeploying them to work more closely with immigrants and refugees already here who can benefit from the services they offer.
The USCCB has also provided a grant under its Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees (POWR) initiative. It’s being used to build an informal coalition of archdiocesan resources, parish-based groups and independent Catholic organizations engaged in helping immigrants and refugees with supportive services. Collaborative efforts have grown across the region. These offer training to both documented and undocumented immigrants about their rights under the law.
This St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is a good time to remember that Catholics originally came to this country as poor, often non-English-speaking immigrants seeking a better future. Philadelphia became the adopted home of a German immigrant priest who became our city’s bishop and later saint, John Neumann. As immigrants, Catholics were the target of a bigoted Nativist movement whose adherents torched Catholic churches in urban areas all along the East Coast. For exactly this reason, our cathedral, built during that turbulent time, has its only stained glass windows placed unusually high—above the reach of potential fire bombs.
As a Church that herself bore the cross of hatred toward immigrants, our Catholic past is a compelling reason to welcome the immigrants and refugees among us today. These persons and families need our help. They are not strangers but friends. And how we treat them will prove or disprove whether we take our Christian discipleship seriously.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.