Local Church leaders consider options in wake of immigration executive orders

| Matthew Davis, Dave Hrbacek, Jessica Trygstad and Maria Wiering | February 8, 2017 | 1 Comment

A crowd gathers in front of the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis Jan. 31 to voice opposition to executive orders issued by President Donald Trump on immigration and refugees. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Three men live with the Franciscan Brothers of Peace who are not religious brothers. They are among 55 victims of torture seeking political asylum in the U.S. whom the brothers have housed in their friary on Lafond Avenue in St. Paul since 1995.

In the past, the brothers have welcomed refugees from Iraq, one of the seven countries whose citizens the Trump administration temporarily banned from entry into the U.S. with a Jan. 27 executive order. The order, which also suspended the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days, is currently blocked by federal court judges. It is the third immigration-related executive order President Donald Trump has issued since his Jan. 20 inauguration. The others order the expansion of an existing barrier between the U.S. and Mexico, sanctions for “sanctuary cities” and an increase in deportation of unauthorized immigrants.

The orders have motivated protests across the U.S., including in the Twin Cities, and calls to action from faith leaders, including Archbishop Bernard Hebda.

A crowd gathers in front of the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis Jan. 31 to voice opposition to executive orders issued by President Donald Trump on immigration and refugees. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On Jan. 26, the archbishop issued a statement calling for prayers for local immigrants and refugees, as well as for people in a position to help them. He first acknowledged that many people were experiencing fear because of the executive orders.

“This is clearly a moment for continuing our prayers not only for the immigrants and refugees who call our archdiocese home, but also for our parishes who are discerning ways of responding to this situation and for our government leaders at all levels who are called to work for the common good,” he said.

He said the U.S. bishops “have recognized that this is a moment for comprehensive immigration reform and have repeatedly called for collaboration between the White House and our lawmakers in the House and Senate to work together to this end.”

“While recognizing the right of countries to protect their borders and to regulate immigration in a way that is fair and promotes public safety, the Church has repeatedly underlined the importance of treating our undocumented brothers and sisters with the dignity that is theirs as children of God,” he said, adding that Pope Francis has called for people to welcome the migrant and refugee.

Archbishop Hebda repeated his message in a video the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis posted that day, and while speaking with other faith leaders at a Jan. 30 event in Minneapolis organized by the Minnesota Council of Churches.

His statements echo the Minnesota Catholic bishops’ immigration document, “Unlocking the Gate in Our Hearts.” It was released in 2012, before Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens were leading the archdiocese. However, the pair, along with Father Kevin Kenney, vicar for Latino Ministries, have been affirming its call to action.

Weeks after the election, they acknowledged immigrants’ mounting concerns, including the possibility of deportation. On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Archbishop Hebda, Bishop Cozzens and Father Kenney marked the Dec. 12 National Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees with a video and written message, in which they promised immigrants they would “seek to protect you … and do what we can to prevent unjust deportation.”

Always an immigrant Church

A 2014 Pew Research Center study estimated there were 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., with 100,000 in Minnesota. States with the greatest number of unauthorized immigrants included Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas. California had the most, with 2.3 million. Most come from Mexico.

Father Kenney said Church leadership is prioritizing the immigration issue because it affects a large percentage of its members. The majority of Latinos entering the U.S. are Catholic, and there’s a Latino population within each parish boundary in the archdiocese, he said.

“The face of the Catholic Church is changing. It’s always been an immigrant Church,” he said, adding that Latino Catholics are “going to be the future of the Church” in the U.S.

While the “waiting game” continues on questions surrounding the implementation of Trump’s executive orders, so does the “praying game” — “praying for conversion of whomever to see that we’re all human beings,” Father Kenney said. He encourages people to embrace immigrants as part of the greater Church, rather than viewing them as outsiders coming in.

“Then, there’s a relationship that moves us a little deeper,” he said.

“Make a decision one Sunday to go to a nearby parish that offers Mass in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, just in a way that allows one to experience another culture,” he advised, “and see they’re faithful, good Catholic people and Christians who are trying to live their life based on Jesus Christ.”

But Father Kenney, who is also pastor of Divine Mercy in Faribault and St. Michael in Kenyon, acknowledges the challenges of the Christian call to welcome the stranger while keeping the nation’s borders safe. He said it would be most productive for Catholics to “work for a system that works” by contacting their elected representatives.

In the meantime, he doesn’t believe protesting accomplishes long-term goals.

“It sure gets the word out, but we’ve done it for years, and what change has it made?” he said, noting that in recent history, he believes only Martin Luther King Jr. has succeeded through protesting, and it took a long time.

Essentially, he said, the immigration system needs to be fixed, and Catholics should work for that reform.

For the local Church, the work now involves comforting people who are living in fear of the unknown, he said. Archdiocesan leaders are focusing their efforts with pastors and parish leaders to educate and train them about how they can support immigrants. That involves writing wills and determining custody of children in the event that parents are deported.

Welcoming the stranger?

Trump’s executive order to suspend the U.S. refugee resettlement program directly affected 24 refugees Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis had planned to settle this month, the organization said in a statement.

“These men, women and children who have already been through an intensive, two-year security review have had their travel to the U.S. canceled and are unable to join their families here,” the statement said. “Most are Somali and Burmese nationals fleeing violence in their home countries and will have to stay in refugee camps until the ban on refugee resettlement is lifted.”

Catholic Charities has resettled 24,000 refugees from more than 25 countries in the past 40 years. It said it would monitor the situation and focus on helping the refugees who have recently arrived find housing, work and education.

Most of the refugees the Franciscan Brothers of Peace serve have come from African countries and have gone through a difficult process to seek asylum, said Brother Pio King, who serves as the order’s guardian overall.

“It’s often quite lengthy and involved with a lot of waiting time,” he said. “But they’re very courageous men with a lot of patience, and we’ve been blessed to see many families united, and quite a few men have become citizens of the United States. They’ve enriched our lives greatly. We just hope that there’s not a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering that will be involved with this [executive order].”

Brother Pio said he and the other brothers do not want to get embroiled in politics, but simply want to continue helping — and have others be allowed to help — those in need.

“We would hope and expect that mercy is going to be part of whatever the solution is,” he said. “And, justice is important, too. But, it’s human lives and their families that are very important.”

Some parishes are wondering if housing immigrants is part of their calling, too, as they consider the various ways they could become a “sanctuary” or “sanctuary-supporting” parish. It’s an idea that
St. Thomas More in St. Paul is seriously exploring.

Parishioners agree that they have to do something, but are discerning exactly how, said its pastor, Jesuit Father Warren Sazama.

“We’re really trying to do this in such a way that really unites and galvanizes the parish in a way of how we respond as a Christian community to the situation that’s going on in our country right now,” he said. “There was a real sense of, ‘We have to do something, what makes sense?’ … I haven’t heard one parishioner say we shouldn’t do something.”

The parish held two well-attended meetings in December to discuss supporting immigrants at risk for deportation, and another meeting is scheduled this month. The parish will likely have its plan in place by March, Father Sazama said.

Father Sazama became pastor of St. Thomas More in July 2016, after serving 10 years as president of a Catholic high school in Milwaukee. There, he knew several students who were born in the U.S., but who feared their parents’ deportation. He said the parish is focusing on people who may be deported themselves, or who, like his former students, are citizens but are afraid they might be separated from parents who entered the country illegally.

“Obviously, we recognize that every nation has the right and even obligation to defend its borders or control immigration, but these people that are here, and are productive ‘citizens’ — it’s the terror of those people … that really galvanized us. We can’t say, ‘Too bad, so sad’ to those people,” he said.

He said the parish is considering several options, from lobbying efforts and offering pro bono legal counsel to immigrants, to housing immigrants at risk of deportation on parish grounds.

Father Sazama said responding to immigrants’ needs is essential to Catholic social teaching, and he hopes more local parishes discern the possibility of being a sanctuary or sanctuary-supporting community.

“Statements are good, but we have to offer some material support,” he said. “The important thing is that we stand together. I mean, wouldn’t it be fantastic if all the parishes in the archdiocese made a united statement that we stand in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters, and we will fight any unjust deportations? The bishops said that, how about if all of us as parishes said that? Wouldn’t that be powerful?”

Seeking sanctuary

About 20 Minnesota churches from several denominations have already declared themselves sanctuary or sanctuary-supporting churches, including a handful of Catholic parishes outside of the archdiocese. About 10 Catholic parishes in Minnesota, including St. Thomas More, are discerning sanctuary status, but have yet to determine their role.

Several have been working with Catalina Morales, 25, an undocumented immigrant who is protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy the Obama administration initiated in 2012. Her parents brought her and her two older sisters from Mexico to the U.S. illegally when Morales was 2 years old, and she hopes sharing her family’s story will change people’s hearts and U.S. policy. Read more of Morales’ story.

As the immigration organizer for ISAIAH, a faith-based advocacy organization in Minnesota, Morales said her experience and her Catholic faith motivate her work. A parishioner of St. Odilia in Shoreview, she said her faith has been a support amid the uncertainty and difficulties her family has faced as undocumented immigrants.

Through ISAIAH, she’s been meeting with Church leaders to discuss the idea of sanctuary, which she ties to the historical idea of people in danger finding protection on sacred ground. She said that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has issued a memo stating that its officials won’t enter churches or schools to apprehend undocumented immigrants for deportation.

What being a sanctuary church means will differ for each community, Morales said, and she realizes not all churches can logistically commit to the arrangement. It might mean offering shelter, clothing, food, legal services and physical accompaniment for immigrants to court hearings, she said. Some churches might simply make a public statement of support for the immigrant community.

“We are actually trying to have the community see immigrants as human beings,” she said. “The narrative of this country is that we’re criminals, but it’s more that this person is a child of God. This person came into this country for a better opportunity. Scripture says welcome the stranger.”

She said that not every Catholic parish is obligated to become a sanctuary church, but “every single Catholic Church right now should be struggling with this question,” she said. “People inside the parishes should be talking about this, and they should be struggling inside of their minds about what is it in our teaching, and what is it that they have to do.”

Immigration issues have long been a focal point for Anne Attea, Latino ministries pastoral associate at Ascension in Minneapolis, who has worked with Mexican immigrants for two decades. She said that many people from Latin America who want to immigrate to the U.S. find the process cost prohibitive.

“It’s really, really important to understand [that] unless you are someone with a lot of money and a lot of resources, you can’t even get a visa to the United States,” Attea said.

Visas for permanent immigration to the U.S. currently range from $205 to $425, excluding adoptions, according to the U.S. Department of State’s website. U.S. News & World Report estimates that the average household income in Mexico is $12,806 in U.S. dollars. Other immigration expenses, such as applying for green cards, can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, Attea said.

The value of the peso, Mexico’s currency, plummeted in the 1990s when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The resulting poverty and desire for a better life for their children drove the immigration of Mexicans to the U.S. from the 1990s until now. Those “are the same reasons our immigrant ancestors came to this country,” Attea said.

She strongly believes in the need for immigration reform, something that hasn’t happened since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

In its call for immigration reform, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops envisions a pathway to permanent residence status and, eventually, citizenship for “foreign nationals of good moral character who are living in the United States.” The USCCB also calls for immigration public policy to address migration’s root causes, workplace protections for immigrants and family unification.

Improving opportunities for immigrants’ legal entry to the U.S. plays a role in stronger borders, the USCCB argues.

“The bishops also believe that by increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers and would-be terrorists,” it stated in a 2013 document on immigration reform. “Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional and humane.”

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  • Charles C.

    Allow me to ask a couple of questions first.

    Which Church body sheltered Elian Gonzales from the Clinton Department of Justice when his Miami relatives wanted to provide for him away from the Castro dictatorship? Which Bishop condemned the Clinton administration and called for demonstrations and civil disobedience then?

    Are the Franciscan Brothers of Peace sheltering anyone else who has broken the law? Is any church or American Catholic group providing shelter to any other group? Perhaps there is a sanctuary shelter for counterfeiters? Child rapists? Campus rioters? Drug dealers? I haven’t heard of any other type of criminal who the Church is sheltering, why is that?

    Would someone like to take the position that laws against illegal immigration are the only immoral ones we have? If there are others, what are they, and what is the Church doing to shelter people who break those.

    Maybe I’m getting suspicious in my old age, but this seems more political than spiritual. I am, however, completely open to learning how my vision might be fogged and my opinions might be in error. I really don’t like being in error.