Undocumented immigrant hopes her experience changes hearts, policy

| February 9, 2017 | 7 Comments

Catalina Morales, an undocumented immigrant with DACA status, is working with parishes exploring the sanctuary concept. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

After Catalina Morales’ family immigrated illegally from Mexico when she was 2 years old, her parents were able to piece together factory and sales work and cleaning jobs to help ends meet in Chicago. Then, immigration raids and the implementation of E-Verify, which confirms Social Security numbers, made it more difficult for her parents to work.

Her parents divorced, and her mom lost her vehicle because she didn’t have a driver’s license. Without transportation, it was hard for her mom to work, and the family couldn’t afford rent. They spent one winter living in a foreclosed house with no heat and no electricity.

Morales, 25, shares her story as part of her work with ISAIAH, a faith-based advocacy organization in Minnesota. A parishioner of St. Odilia in Shoreview, she said her faith has been a support amid the uncertainty and difficulties her family faced as undocumented immigrants. Now protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy the Obama administration initiated in 2012, she hopes sharing her family’s story will change people’s hearts and U.S. policy.

After the homeless winter, her mother decided it was better to return to Mexico, and at age 13, Morales was living in Mexico City. Before returning to her birth country, she didn’t read or write Spanish, and she spoke it poorly. She improved in the year and a half she was there, but her mother couldn’t find work and missed her older daughters. They returned to the U.S. with the help of two “coyotes,” people paid to smuggle people across borders. She said she nearly drowned crossing a river into Texas and suffers PTSD because of it today.

Even as a young child, Morales said she knew not to share her immigration status for fear of deportation. Even within the immigrant community, many people who are undocumented do not talk about it, for fear their status will be used to manipulate them, or that someone who is angry with them could call ICE in revenge. Morales’ mother suffered domestic abuse for years because she didn’t want to involve authorities. Many people who qualify for DACA have never applied, Morales said, because it reveals their undocumented status. She thought about that risk when she applied, but she was so unhappy with her life that she felt like it was worth it.

“I thought, we’re never going to be OK in this country unless we have something,” she said of official documentation. She said she had to submit “crazy” stacks of paperwork to apply. “They have everything.”

DACA wasn’t yet a possibility, however, when Morales graduated from a South Dakota high school. Without a Social Security number, she wasn’t eligible for federal funding for college, making more education out of reach at that point. She worked as a receptionist and other jobs where her employers knew she was undocumented and paid her less because of it, she said. Now, seven years after she had hoped, she just started classes at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where she wants to earn a theology degree. Under DACA, she still isn’t eligible for federal college funding, but she has a work permit.

The current political climate, including President Donald Trump’s campaign promises and recent executive orders, make Morales very nervous and sometimes physically sick.

“I haven’t been able to sleep at night,” she said. “The level of anxiety is crazy. … We just feel in danger every day now.”

Even if Trump doesn’t rescind DACA, she still worries her mother will be deported. There’s no life for her, or her family, in Mexico, she said. She recently returned under a special permit to bury her father, who had returned to Mexico and died in November. Her uncles wouldn’t let her walk outside alone, even to the corner store, for fear she could be kidnapped, raped or killed, she said. Family members in Mexico don’t have money to support her if she returned, and she doesn’t think it would be easy to find work. She’s not so worried about losing material things as she is of being separated from her family, she said.

Morales said that the idea that all undocumented immigrants should just return to their home countries is naive. She said that with illegal immigration, the U.S. is reaping what it has sown with foreign policy that has damaged the economy of Latin American countries, including Mexico.

“If we get deported, Mexico isn’t equipped to receive us,” she said. “A lot of people immigrated here because there are no jobs. Agriculture is dead. What are we going to do?”

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 is person is a child of God. This person came into this country for a better opportunity. Scripture says welcome the stranger.”

She believes that the Catholic community has been given an opportunity to live out its faith in its response to immigrant and refugees, she said. The Church has always taught that people should show help people who are marginalized or in need.

More than 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 of St. Paul and Minneapolis. About 10 Catholic parishes in Minnesota are discerning sanctuary status, but have yet to determine their role.

She said that not every Catholic parish has 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.”

Editor’s note: Some portions of this story also appeared in “Immigration situation: Local Church leaders pledge solidarity, consider options in wake of Trump’s executive orders.”

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  • Charles C.

    Nice work, finding an attractive young lady and making a strong emotional plea. But by the time you get through your first year of law school you will have heard “Hard cases make bad law.” Making a national policy based on an appealing individual or group is risky, especially if the national policy is “Let’s eliminate laws that make in hard on these poor lawbreakers, we should feel sorry for them.”

    Now, before I start getting the standard insults (which are, thankfully, relatively rare here), let me say that I’m all for helping people in trouble. Articles and experiences which help individuals to broaden their hearts and increase their empathy and generosity are all good things.

    But that’s not what this article is about. The headline indicates that the goal is a policy change. There’s no call for increased individual donations to aid (Illegal aliens? Refugees? Undocumented immigrants?), but for new laws, and apparently, for churches and communities to declare themselves “Sanctuaries.”

    If I understand it correctly, illegal immigrants are saying “I (or my parents) broke the law. In Mexico, what was done would be a felony. In fact, Mexico deports more people than the US does, and they do it within days. I know it’s serious, but I don’t want to face the prescribed punishment for my crime, so please, US, change your laws so I can stay here and not go to prison. Oh, and by the way, I want the churches, cities and states to protect me from law enforcement so that I can avoid the punishment for my crimes.”

    Yes, I know that people want to have jobs that will pay more money so they can have better lives. They want to escape poverty and live in dignity (whatever that word means here). But consider, there are approximately 750 million people who live on $1.90 a day or less. (Adjusted for price differences between countries) Roughly 82% of those people live in Africa or Asia. Certainly those areas need help more than Mexico does, which has fewer than 3% of it’s population living in that extreme poverty.

    If, which I don’t believe, the US has an obligation to provide residence, healthcare, education, some welfare benefits, and the chance for employment to the seriously destitute and those in the middle of fighting, we would have to provide for a billion people, more than three times the current population. And no, we can’t possibly pay for it.

    Illegals currently send about $13 1/2 Billion annually to the state and federal governments in taxes. State and Local governments spend about $113 Billion annually on illegals, the clear majority of that is for education, medical care, and public assistance. That’s for approximately 11 million illegals.

    So, if we can’t bring in all the neediest people, who should we bring in? Those who save enough money to get here? Those who are closest? How about the needy from cultures which respect the rule of law, freedom, and acceptance of different religions? “Legal status, housing, medical care, good jobs, and financial assistance for all who cross our borders” is not a sane policy.

    The unanswered question remains. “What should our policy be?” Describe it, explain it, account for its costs, list who will not be admitted and who will be, and why. Describe how it will be enforced with reasonable certainty and provide protection to the people residing in the country.

    A discussion that simply calls for a policy that is “Fair,” “Just,” “Compassionate,” “Comprehensive,” or “Ensures dignity,” is worse than useless, it is harmful. It wastes time and energy, raises passions, clouds the questions which must be resolved and divides the country. Vague, nice sounding words and goals have no place in a serious discussion of policy unless they’re made concrete with specifics.

    • Jae Bates

      While your opinion is a common one, it’s not really rooted in faith. Furthermore, dehumanizing a person to “illegal” is immoral and erroneous. A human being can not be an illegal. Nothing about being human is illegal. The act of crossing a border undocumented is illegal. So is driving over the speed limit. Living here undocumented is not an criminal issue, but a civil one. Breaking a civil law, federal or otherwise, does not render an entire existence illegal. It allows people to label a human being as something other than that. While I don’t anticipate your opinion on this entire issue to change, please consider your vernacular when you speak about a creation of God and your brother or sister. Blessings.

  • Mary Jo M

    Thank you, Catalina for sharing your powerful story with the greater Catholic Community. I strongly believe our faith calls us to “welcome the stranger” and live out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We are one human family. Our responsibilities to one another cross
    national, racial, and economic differences. We are called to
    work together for justice and to protect the human dignity of all people. Our country is in serious need of immigration reform, but while we are working on that, the answer is not deporting people, tearing apart families, and punishing hard working people who want to participate fully in community with us. Let us open our hearts and our churches to protect the vulnerable among us.

  • Sarah G.

    Wow, how brave of Catalina to share this. It reminds me of how we often really don’t know one another’s stories. Catalina and other people in her position are as important a part of this community as I am. And more importantly, as much children of God and members of our Catholic family as I am. I am glad that my parish is participating in sanctuary because I believe that we are called as Catholics to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.

  • Pope Francis has reminded us that the earth is our “common home.” This means the whole earth belongs equally to everyone and should make us reconsider how we view all the borders and boundaries we’ve put on it.

  • DebraBrunsberg

    So, let me get this straight? People commit a federal crime by entering the U.S. illegally. They refuse to leave and the Church says, we will assist you in your criminal activity? We have immigration laws and people may apply for amnesty or as a refugee or to be sponsored etc. Those people can sit in a refugee camp for five years before they can come here, and we should be assisting them and welcoming them. That is our Christian duty. I am a little lost on the mindset that if you come here illegally, we will defy our government and break out laws and assist you in breaking our laws. I’m not buying it. I have seen too much in 36 years in social services.

    The naivete of most people is beyond belief. To actually believe that any person who wants to come to the U.S. should be able to do that , whether or not it breaks the laws of our country shows how totally ignorant they are as to the reality of what is going on in this country. I see it. I know. You think everyone who crosses that border is a sweet loving mom and dad with their baby. No, most are single people who come here and then have children, knowing they could be deported at any time. People who make choices that are now standing up and saying, woe is me, who knew?? Why did people not talk about their immigration status? Because they knew they were here illegally. No one wants to hear about the 400,000 people a year, yes a YEAR, that we are deporting. Who pays for that? Your church? I think not. Why were they deported? Do you know that? I think not. I see it. They aren’t deporting anyone for driving without a license. They aren’t deporting people for DUI’s or domestic abuse either. They are deporting people for felony drug convictions, armed robbery, sexual offenses etc. This situation hasn’t changed in years, but the leftist media, who want to sow dissension and division have played this just perfectly So has the Catholic Spirit. I’m not buying it.

  • Meghan Grossman

    Thank you to the Catholic Spirit for highlighting this important issue in a human way. God calls us to welcome the stranger and this movement is answering that call. Thank you, Catalina, for your leadership.