Immigrants’ plight highlighted in local ministry, Church observance

| January 6, 2017 | 2 Comments

A woman holds a child’s hand as they arrive for a rally in support of immigrants’ rights in New York City Dec. 18, 2016. CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

Since 2011, a Twin Cities-based group of volunteers has met with detained immigrants awaiting deportation hearings at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center in St. Paul. Visiting with men — and, on occasion, women — in a large classroom, the volunteers are there to listen and be a friendly presence amid isolation, said volunteer Steve Kraemer.

“You can’t even imagine that on a Sunday night, when we sit down in the classroom and are waiting for the guys to come in … 20 guys stream in with smiles, greeting the volunteers by name,” said Kraemer, 59, a retired financial analyst. “It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, representing people from all over the world.”

Kraemer, a parishioner of St. Gabriel the Archangel in Hopkins, joined United Church of Christ Pastor John Guttermann shortly after he formed the interfaith group Conversations with Friends in 2011. In 2015, volunteers started visiting detained immigrants at the Freeborn County Adult Detention Center in Albert Lea. About four to five of CWF’s 25 volunteers spend two Sundays a month at both of the centers. The detainees come from Central America to Africa to Asia. Kraemer said his calling to visit with the detainees comes from the Bible.

“We’re called to be with people who are suffering,” Kraemer said. “And that includes people imprisoned physically or psychologically. We are meant to be Christ to others.”

Kraemer’s sentiments echo Pope Francis’ call to create a “‘culture of encounter,’ and in doing so to look beyond our own needs and wants to those of others around us,” as highlighted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for National Migration Week. From Jan. 8 to 14, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is observing the week, and on Jan. 8, the Church in Minnesota will observe Immigration Sunday, started by the state’s bishops in 2009 to encourage Catholics to learn more about the Church’s teaching on immigration and raise awareness about migration and immigration issues.

Kraemer, who now directs Conversations with Friends, acknowledges that the visitation ministry is out of a lot of people’s comfort zones. The training includes presentations from a human rights advocacy director, a chaplain and others who detail the nitty gritty of the visits and explain how to process the stories volunteers are likely to hear. The training also highlights what the visits mean to both detainees and volunteers, and profiles some of the men’s situations, which vary widely. Some, he said, immigrated as children and never thought they had to apply for citizenship. Others overstayed a visa or had family in the U.S. and risked staying. Kraemer said one of the men he visits is 32 and arrived in the U.S. as a child 29 years ago.

He points to the majority of detainees who became employed without proper documentation. He empathizes with them; when undocumented immigrants apply for a job and get it, “[they] think it’s a strange signal if they’re not supposed to be there,” he explained. “A job sets everything in motion: next comes housing, family, kids, school, church. Suddenly, they’re a member of the community, and they’re here for the long run.”

“What we’re taught in the Catholic Church is that the family unit is the most critical and is a holy, sacred unit,” Kraemer continued. “Now, we’re talking about destroying that relationship, potentially forever.”

Aside from visiting immigrant detainees, people may choose to write letters, be part of a prayer group or release support group, and donate. Volunteers don’t need to speak Spanish or other foreign languages.


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Category: Featured, Local News