US parishes must better serve hidden migrant communities, bishops hear

Migrants Aug. 17, 2017 - A volunteer at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas helps a Central American refugee family | Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock

Many parishes in the United States are unaware of the immigrant, refugee, and itinerant communities within their boundaries, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee on pastoral care for migrants said on Friday.

In a presentation to the U.S. bishops at their annual spring meeting – held virtually this year –Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima introduced a new report by the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on migrant communities in the United States, and the Church’s awareness of them at the parish level. The bishops’ conference contracted with CARA to produce the report.

Regarding migrant populations – which include immigrants and refugees, but also seasonal and transportation workers and human trafficking victims – “there is a widespread lack of awareness of the presence of the communities by Catholic worship sites, including parishes, missions, cathedrals, basilicas, chapels, shrines, and other pastoral centers,” said Bishop Tyson.

“Where worship sites do report an awareness of these communities, a majority do not provide specialized pastoral care to migrants, refugees, and itinerant communities,” Bishop Tyson,chair of the bishops’ subcommittee on pastoral care for migrants, refugees, and travelers, said on Friday.

The U.S. bishops met virtually this week for their annual spring general assembly. From Wednesday through Friday afternoon’s session, the bishops held public debates and votes as well as private meetings, discussing issues such as a planned three-year Eucharistic Revival initiative, two causes of canonization, translations of liturgical texts, pastoral statements, and a teaching document on the Eucharist.

The CARA report presented to the bishops on Friday was compiled through an inventory sent to nearly 20,000 “worship sites” in the United States, and which remained “in the field” from June 2017 to November 2020. Of these sites, 2,391 of them – parishes, basilicas, cathedrals, shrines, and chapels – responded for the survey.

Territorial parishes are “not necessarily stable” models now, Bishop Tyson said, noting that many Catholics are quickly transitioning in and out of parish boundaries.

According to a General Social Survey, four-in-10 of foreign-born persons residing in the United States in recent years self-identified as Catholic, Bishop Tyson said.

Prior to the pandemic, CARA studied residential mobility between dioceses, he said, and  the archdioceses of Miami, Galveston-Houston, and Los Angeles saw the majority of new residents coming from other countries.

“We hope the data collection will increase the visibility of the communities and provide the initiative to reach out to them, and develop new programming and resources to serve their needs and draw them closer to Christ and the Church,” Bishop Tyson said.

Among these communities are human trafficking victims, he said, stressing the need for parishes to provide specialized outreach to this vulnerable population.

“How can the Church assist the victims of human trafficking, who may not have anyone else to turn to in the new community that they’ve been taken to against their will?” he said.

Parishes in the South were slightly over-represented than those in other regions among respondents in the CARA report. This might reflect a greater number of migrant communities in the South and West, Fr. Thomas Gaunt, SJ, executive director of CARA, noted.

For sites that did not respond, “Many worship sites had no awareness of the presence of any of these communities in their territory, and so did not have anything to report,” Fr. Gaunt stated on Friday.

Of the parishes that responded, around 22% indicated they provide at least one Spanish Mass each weekend, and around 8% of them have a Mass in a language other than Spanish or English.

Of the respondents, 554 of the sites reporting serving an immigrant community, Fr. Gaunt said,

Of immigrant communities from various world regions, parishes were most aware of immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala – out of Latin American and Caribbean countries. They were most aware of Nigerian immigrant communities from Africa, and in Asian and Pacific communities, they were most aware of immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

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Some communities have high rates of Catholics; 65% of Filipino Americans self-identify as Catholic, Fr. Gaunt reported.

Certain communities are more likely to be clustered in certain regions. The largest communities of Nigerian-born people are located in the archdioceses of Galveston-Houston, Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas. The largest communities of Filipino-born people are in the Pacific West, in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Diego, Oakland, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Bernardino.

More than 270 responding parishes reported undocumented immigrant communities in their boundaries, while 256 parishes reported annual tourist and pilgrim populations. Nearly 220 parishes reported migrant farmworker communities. Other communities reported included refugees, family members of migrants in U.S. immigrant detention facilities, truck drivers, circus performers, unaccompanied child migrants, and airport communities.

Parishes in the Pacific and Mountain West – in California areas of Fresno, Los Angeles, Monterey, Yakima, and Sacramento, as well as Portland, Oregon, and Boise, Idaho – reported the largest foreign-born agricultural worker populations.

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