WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to move beyond statistics in discussions of migrants and refugees, and to remember that “each of them has a name, a face and a story,” said John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America.
He made the comments in opening an event titled “On the Margins: At the Intersection of Catholic Thought and Migration” hosted by the university.
The Jan. 11 discussion was held during National Migration Week, observed Jan. 7-14 this year. The event was co-sponsored by Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Ivone Guillen and Ana Tello-Duran, who both immigrated to the United States from Mexico as minors, told two of those stories of migration the pope has urged Catholics to learn about.
As she introduced them, Ashley Feasley, director of policy for USCCB Migration and Refugee Services, discussed the theme for this year’s National Migration Week: “Many journeys, one family.”
“In the end, we all want the same things: love, family unity, and the ability to stay together and achieve a peaceful life,” said Feasley.
Guillen migrated to Washington state when she was a child, where her mother began working as a migrant farmworker, which was dangerous, did not provide much money and caused the family to continue to move around a lot, she said.
“I very much grew up with the fear of not knowing if I’d see my mom when I came home from school,” said Guillen.
Growing up in this environment helped her learn how to be resourceful, value family and have a good work ethic, she said, while at the same time, it fostered in her a desire to pursue other opportunities.
She finished high school as a first generation graduate, and went on to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where she received a bachelor’s degree in international studies and Spanish. The DREAM Act — — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — was first introduced when she was in high school, which gave her hope, but now almost two decades later, it still has not been passed, she said. The measure would provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created in 2012 by President Barack Obama through an executive order, was “great news,” she said, but even then she and others knew that “a lot of pieces had to be considered,” including the situation the country is currently facing: If they did apply and down the road another administration rescinded it, what would happen?
Nevertheless, she applied for and received DACA protection, and currently works with the USCCB doing education and outreach about Catholic social teaching. She is still not sure what is going to happen if Congress is unable to reach an agreement to preserve DACA.
Tello-Duran migrated to the United States to flee the violence that she saw in the small town where she grew up. She remembers having to leave school because of violence resulting from cartels, walking down the streets to see everything shutting down and hearing her friend tell her that they “just need to run and hide.”
“I could see the fear in the mothers’ faces picking up their children from school,” she said. “I saw things that no child should see.”
She decided to flee to America with her older sister when she was 17, making the long journey across the border, and drinking vinegar after they ran out of water.
“I was afraid. I didn’t know what was going on, I just knew I wanted a better life,” she said. “I wanted to save myself before I died.”
Eventually, authorities took them into custody in Arizona, and her older sister was deported. But because she was not yet 18, she was taken to a shelter. Tello-Duran said she prayed every night that she would not have to return to Mexico.
“I knew if I held onto that hope and that faith, someone would help me,” said Tello-Duran, adding that at the same time, she was afraid of what could happen.
“I cannot tell you the endless nights I cried because I thought I was going to go back where I didn’t want to go,” she said.
Eventually, someone did help her, and Catholic Charities put her into the foster care system. Over her years in that system, she met other people in her circumstances, and some of them got sent back to the countries that they came from. One of them got killed upon his return.
“All I could think was, ‘What if I got sent back? Would I be alive?'” she said.
Throughout this process, Tello-Duran discovered a passion for social work. She graduated from community college, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University, and is now working on completing her master’s degree.
“I am very, very privileged to be here alive,” she said.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, sees children like Tello-Duran and Guillen on a daily basis, as she runs a welcome center for migrants in Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas.
She recalled how in 2014 they saw a huge influx of migrant children, who would show up “dirty, muddy, hungry and dehydrated.” During that time, 130,000 people, half of whom were children, crossed the border in just a matter of weeks, and the United States was unprepared to deal with such huge numbers, said Sister Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus.
“We saw them there and we wanted to help because they were people,” she said.
Through Catholic Charities, the community of the Rio Grande Valley rallied together to help migrant families as they awaited their fate, so they “could get the care and dignity they deserve,” Sister Pimentel said.
Sacred Heart Church was packed with donations that people brought, which resembled what she called “holy chaos.” At the welcome center, families who have been released from Border Patrol are invited to get clothes, eat food, take showers, and have a place to sleep.
One day an official from the local city government stopped by and asked Sister Pimentel, “What is going on?” and she told him, “We are restoring human dignity.”
Next, he asked, “How can I help?”
From then on, Sister Pimentel said she and her team have had full support from the government, as well as from Border Patrol.
One day, Sister Pimentel visited a detention facility that held children who had crossed the border. When Sister Pimentel arrived at the facility, she asked if she could go inside one of the cells holding the children and pray with them. While at first they did not want her to do that, she insisted, and they allowed her to do so.
“It was so hard to be there with the children,” she said, describing how they were all packed too closely together in cells, crying, pulling on her dress, and asking her to please get them out of there. In particular, she said it was difficult “to not be able to do anything but be there with them and show them we care.”
Nevertheless, the Border Patrol was touched by what she did, and she said they have developed “a very good working relationship” to “make sure our humanitarian assistance is as good as possible.”
Every day Border Patrol agents will send her a text to let her know how many people they are releasing from the detention center, so she can know how much soup to have ready to feed them.
In the end, Sister Pimentel said, it is important “to do our job, whatever it is, but never forget that they are humans.”
Sankowski is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
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