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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