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Catholics learn how to put church teaching on immigration in action

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Catholics can be a source of unity in a troubled world by becoming true and faithful disciples of Jesus, Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge told 180 attendees at the diocesan peace and justice symposium Sept. 16. 

The theme of the event, “Strengthening our unity by welcoming the stranger,” was inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

In his homily for the opening Mass at Church of the Nativity in Burke, Bishop Burbidge said that recent events in Virginia have demonstrated painfully how anger toward one’s neighbor causes hurt and division. 

“In Charlottesville, we saw racism and prejudice and bigotry. We saw violence on a baseball field in Alexandria,” Bishop Burbidge said. “But even in our diocese, where our Catholic Charities and Migration and Refugee Services do so much to help brothers and sisters, (we) face opposition from those who do not want to welcome the stranger in our midst. 

“When we see all this, what do we do? What can we do?” he asked. “And the only answer is that we renew our own commitment in the midst of all this to be true and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Providentially, in the Gospel today, Jesus tells us the marks of a true disciple. A true disciple is one who encounters Jesus Christ, who listens to His word and acts upon it.”

Father Gerry Creedon, pastor of Holy Family Church in Dale City, moderated a panel discussion after the Mass. Speakers included Arlington Catholic Charities CEO Art Bennett and Catherine Motolenich-Torres, program director for Hogar Immigrant Services. 

Hogar, a part of Catholic Charities, provides consultations, defense in immigration court and other legal services to immigrants who cannot afford an attorney. Hogar also hosts workshops educating immigrants on their rights in addition to legal screenings that help determine eligibility for relief. 

Data collected by Syracuse University gives a glimpse of the need. In Fairfax County alone, there are nearly 10,000 individuals with pending immigration cases; less than 70 percent have representation to help navigate a complicated legal system. 

Motolenich-Torres said that after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, many calls came into her office from young immigrants fearful of deportation.   

“A lot of calls (are) saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m going to end my life,’” she said. The staff calls 911 if necessary and makes referrals to suicide hotlines. 

Under DACA, nearly 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and met certain criteria were granted relief from deportation and temporary authorization to work. DACA is being phased out over a six-month period, though lawmakers have indicated a deal for future legislation may be in the works. The prospects for a law successfully passing were unclear as of Sept. 18. 

Hogar also has seen an increase in the number of clients who are victims of violent crimes in the U.S., Motolenich-Torres said. 

“Unfortunately, these types of cases we’re seeing more and more. We’re not entirely sure why,” she said. Still others are afraid to apply for relief at all or even seek out information. 

Father Creedon pointed to the need to correct abuses within the immigration system itself. 

“A young woman I met — 20, pregnant — spent some time in a detention center,” he said. “She was burnt from time spent in an ‘ice box,’ ” — a cell kept at frigid temperatures to pressure immigrants to agree to deportation. 

Father Creedon said that recently he baptized the woman’s healthy baby. He urged attendees to not only support services, but reform efforts. 

“Not only do we deal with services and education, but we also have to look at the unjust systems. Jesus was a servant. Jesus was also a prophet who spoke about the injustice around Him,” he said. “Sometimes we’re reluctant to take that next step.”

Bishop Burbidge noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported comprehensive immigration reform.

“The bishops are relentless, tireless, in saying we need immigration reform,” he said. He spoke of a two-year period of heightened immigration enforcement during his time as Bishop of Raleigh, when officials were “knocking on doors in the middle of the night and taking parents from their children.

“We know that the fear is there,” he said. 

Bishop Burbidge urged attendees to support their pastors in the hard work of speaking about these issues in a unifying way. 

“Hopefully, what you have learned today will be information that you bring home and to your parishes,” he said.    


How to help

Hogar Immigrant Services needs attorneys, interpreters, ESOL instructors and other volunteers. Go to hogarimmigrantservices.org

Register for email alerts from the Virginia Catholic Conference at vacatholic.org

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017