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Catholic Organizations Responding to Kids Crossing the Border

migrants on Mexican freight train


Brian Fraga - published on 07/23/14

Church responds to humanitarian crises "because we are pro-life,” says bishop, responding to critics.

Volunteers help provide clean clothes and hot food for immigrant mothers and their young children in a temporary Catholic Charities shelter in McAllen, Texas, a border city located along the Rio Grande.

Meanwhile, Catholic immigrant activists in California and Arizona have visited federal detention facilities to check on the welfare of thousands of minors who migrated alone to the United States from Central America.

On the East Coast, Catholic Charities attorneys in Boston and Washington educate young migrants, most of whom crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documents, on what they can expect while their cases are pending in the federal immigration court system.

In recent months, the Catholic community across the country has stepped up to provide direct humanitarian assistance to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have fled their homes in Central America’s war-torn Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They are helping those immigrants despite the fact they crossed the border illegally–and in spite of the resulting political backlash.

"There have been questions as to why Catholics are involved. The Catholic Church responds to humanitarian crises here at home and all across the world because we are pro-life," Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh said in a July 19 prepared statement.

Bishop Zubik announced that the Holy Family Institute, a ministry of Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Emsworth, Penn., would be providing temporary shelter to Central American children, all under the age of 12, until they were placed with relatives or other sponsors nationwide. Holy Family Institute performed a similar ministry for many Haitian children after a devastating 2010 earthquake in that country.

"Whether they are traveling because of poverty, or violence, or with the hope of reuniting with relatives on the other side of the border, followers of Jesus are called to protect these children and help them because they are very vulnerable and defenseless against any abuse or misfortune," Bishop Zubik said.

Since October 2013, more than 57,000 child migrants have been caught at the border. The government expects 90,000 minors to cross the border this year and another 140,000 in 2015. A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops report attributes cartel and gang violence to be the "overriding factor" to explain the mass youth migration, with other "push factors" that include a lack of economic opportunities and the desire to reunify with adult relatives already living in the United States.

However, the sudden spike in illegal border crossings is also aggravating what was already a politically sensitive issue. In several locations across the country, people have protested attempts to open local temporary shelters for the unaccompanied minors. In Murrieta, Calif., a crowd of protesters in early July turned back buses carrying hundreds of migrant women and children that were headed for a federal processing center.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of media relations for the USCCB, contrasted what she called "the mob in Murrieta" with volunteers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley who are assisting mothers and young migrant children at parish-based welcome centers in McAllen and Brownsville.

"The youngest guest: a one-day-old baby girl," Sister Walsh wrote. "The baby and others are being helped by a host of volunteers."

Earlier this month, the Diocese of San Bernardino in California opened a temporary shelter in a former convent that took in 46 migrants; 32 of them were children.

"It was a temporary transition center where they could come in, have some water, have some rest, get a change of clothing. The kids could relax and play a little bit," John Andrews, the San Bernardino diocesan spokesman, told Aleteia. Jones said volunteers also helped the migrants contact relatives in the United States, and then arranged for them to find transportation to stay with those family members.

In Nogales, Arizona, Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, visited a warehouse-like Border Patrol detention center last month where hundreds of migrant children were being processed.

"These are children. We need to tend to their needs first. I think we can address questions about the flow of these children while taking care of the ones who are coming and making sure they are safe," Father Carroll told Aleteia.

Father Carroll said he also attended the National Migration Conference in Washington D.C. The conference, held every five years, is sponsored by the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, the Catholic Legal Network, Inc., and Catholic Charities USA. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, said July 7 that the Catholic community “will continue to push” lawmakers to pass immigration reform legislation this year, regardless of political commentary that Congress is unlikely to act.

“Our mission as Church is to defend the rights of the migrant, no matter what the political situation or polls may dictate,” Bishop Elizondo said.

Father Carroll said he and representatives from other faith-based organizations have urged the Obama administration to resist pressure to immediately deport the young Central American migrants.

"We’re concerned that, first of all, children who have legitimate claims as refugees won’t come to light because there won’t be adequate due process," Father Carroll said. "And second, we fear they will be deported back to dangerous situations."

Michelle Mendez, a senior managing attorney for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, told Aleteia that the surge in immigration is predominantly due to violence being perpetuated by drug cartels and violent street gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street. She said one of her clients had a parent murdered "in a very terrible way."

"It’s a humanitarian crisis, and nobody is advocating for these kids. It’s a very difficult situation for these families," Mendez said, adding that her agency helps provide legal representation to the minors in immigration court.

"At any one time, we’re representing, in-house, 15 kids," Mendez said. "At the same time, we’re also representing another five to 10 kids through our pro-bono program."

During the previous four years, Mendez said her agency had been seeing a lot of young undocumented migrants who were teenagers.

"They tended to be older because they could make the voyage north through Mexico," Mendez said. "Now, it’s really frightening. We’re seeing kids under 10, and a lot more little girls who are susceptible to assault and abuse.

"It’s not uncommon to have a girl, maybe 13 or 14, who has been the victim of sexual assault by gang members back home. The sexual assault prompts her to come to the United States, and then through that journey, she might get raped twice. Then when she’s here, we need a ton of caseworkers to help this little girl overcome the trauma she’s been through,” Mendez added.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Catholic Charities of Dallas has been providing legal orientation to educate the young migrants’ custodians of their responsibilities to ensure the children appear at their immigration court proceedings, as well as their obligation to protect the children from mistreatment, exploitation and trafficking. Catholic Charities of Dallas has also been looking for attorneys, preferably those who speak Spanish, to help represent the children in the immigration courts.

In a press conference this month where the bishops of North Texas called for volunteers to assist the young migrants, Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas framed the issue as a humanitarian matter, and less about immigration politics, according to published reports.

"As a Church, we are concerned for the children," Bishop Farrell said. "This is a humanitarian crisis that will judge the character or morality of our nation."

Brian Fraga is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.

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