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Welcoming new Americans

Our commitment to host a refugee family in our home and to acclimate them to American life was to last one week.
 
In 2004, my husband, toddler son and I waited at Burlington Airport as a Somali-Bantu woman named Zahara Arbow came though the arrivals door with a baby knotted to her back. Behind her trailed four youngsters, ages 3, 5, 7 and 9, shuffling in oversized Keds supplied by the resettlement agency.
 
At the 23rd hour, Zahara’s husband stayed behind in the Kenyan refugee camp where she bore each of her children. So she came as a single mother to Vermont, a name that meant nothing to her other than a place of safety where her children could be educated.
 
This stoic woman became excited during one of our first drives around town. A translator communicated her question posed to me as she pointed out the window: “Is that the school where my children will go?”
 
In those first days, I helped round up coats and boots, and prepped the family for the impending cold. The only explanation of the winter season they received prior to resettlement was to hold a small block of ice during an orientation session in the camp. I recall the eldest daughter, Madina, phoning me after the first snowfall, asking if it was safe to go outside; they feared they might die of exposure.
 
We ferried the family to doctor appointments and grocery stores until Zahara got a driver’s license and purchased her own van. My husband arranged mentors for each of the children.
 
Through the years, we attended parent-teacher conferences, graduations and college tours and even provided refuge for two of the girls when they got kicked out of the house by their new stepfather.
 
Why I ever imagined that our hosting commitment would last a week, I don’t know. Thankfully, our connection has continued strong for 13 years to the present day.
 
Our encounter with this refugee family (they are American citizens now) has been nothing short of life changing for our family. We acknowledge the “First World problems” we used to fuss over, such as dropped cell service or a stained favorite T-shirt. Our expectations about what constitutes a meaningful life have shifted — from acquiring things (we downsized our home recently) to engaging with people; from fulfilling wants to serving needs. We fail miserably at times.
 
Still, our relationship with this New American family keeps us anchored in what’s most important as followers of Jesus. At no other time in human history have so many people been forcibly displaced throughout the world — some 65.6 million people, with an increasing 20 people per minute.
 
One of Pope Francis’ signature themes in recent years has been to encourage people of faith to create “cultures of encounter” with refugees and migrants, to fight indifference in ourselves and to share the journey with people outside of our normal lives.
 
The pope predicts an inner transformation of sorts; I can say with utmost humility, I know of what he speaks.
 

--By Marybeth Christie Redmond
 
Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

Thanksgiving Day Appeal for Protection of the Vulnerable

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), offers a Thanksgiving Day message to the nation with special gratitude for the gift of immigrants and refugees. 

Full statement follows:

“As we do every year, we will pause this coming Thursday to thank God for the many blessings we enjoy in the United States. My brother bishops and I, gathered last week in Baltimore, were attentive in a special way to those who are often excluded from this great abundance—the poor, the sick, the addicted, the unborn, the unemployed, and especially migrants and refugees.

My brothers expressed a shared and ever-greater sense of alarm—and urgency to act—in the face of policies that seemed unthinkable only a short time ago: the deportation of Dreamers, young hard-working people who should be the lowest priority for deportation; the anxiety and uncertainty of those with Temporary Protected Status from countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras, which are still recovering from natural disasters and remain ill-equipped to humanely receive and integrate them; and an unprecedented reduction in the number of people we will welcome this year into our country who seek refuge from the ravages of war and religious persecution in their countries of origin. 

One common feature of all these developments is their tendency to tear apart the family, the fundamental building block of our, or any, society. These threats to so many vulnerable immigrant and refugee families must end now. My brothers have urged me to speak out on their behalf to urge the immediate passage—and signature—of legislation that would alleviate these immediate threats to these families.

Another common feature of these policies is that they are symptoms of an immigration system that is profoundly broken and requires comprehensive reform. This is a longer-term goal, one that the bishops have advocated for decades to achieve, and one that must never be overlooked. Only by complete reform will we have the hope of achieving the common goals of welcoming the most vulnerable, ensuring due process and humane treatment, protecting national security, and respecting the rule of law. We are committed to such reforms and will continue to call for them.

So this year, I give thanks for the gift and contributions of immigrants and refugees to our great nation. I also pray that next year, families now under threat will not be broken and dispersed, but instead will be united in joy around their tables, giving thanks for all the blessings our nation has to offer. 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving all!”
  • Published in Nation

Of Immigrants and Refugees

American history has always fascinated me. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. All of us, except for those descended from the Native American tribes, have immigration in our background. And with the exception of those descended from African American slaves, our families immigrated either seeking refuge from oppression or seeking economic and social freedom.
 
In history, a number of cycles of “nativism” have emerged over the years. Nativism is built on fear of the unknown, fear of those who are perceived as different. Among the groups of immigrants that faced opposition were Catholics (Irish, Italian and Eastern European), Jews (Russian, Eastern European and German) and Asians. It is ironic that with each wave of immigration, high achievement arose over one to two generations. That high achievement benefited not only the immigrant families but the broader community as well.
 
On Feb. 21, Pope Francis made a compelling statement that we all need to think about. EWTN News reported that on Feb. 21: “Defending (migrants’) inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedom and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted.”
 
We have to take his message very seriously.
 
Against this background, let us examine the current debate on immigration and refugees. Recent executive actions are playing into and exacerbating nativist fears and suspicions about two groups: Muslims and Latin Americans, especially the 11 million or so “illegal aliens” now living in the United States.
 
The current plan for “extreme vetting” plays well in the minds of many and would seem to be reasonable except for one thing: The average refugee admitted to the U.S. has already gone through about two years of vetting by U.S. agents. A moratorium that allows for a review of the current vetting process, again, sounds reasonable.
 
This is something that was discussed throughout much of the recent presidential campaign. But does this mean that the present vetting process should necessarily be suspended while this review takes place? The unfortunate decision to suspend all immigration from particular countries has lead to unnecessary human suffering.
 
Legitimate refugees continue to suffer in camps that fail to meet the basic human needs of the refugees. MOST of the illegal immigrants in this country work hard at agricultural jobs and whatever jobs they can find. Much of the food we eat is produced and picked by their hands. They are in the shadows of the economy. Some of them are our neighbors here in Vermont.
 
They have come to the U.S. with the same motivation that our own ancestors had -- to seek a better life for themselves and their children. They desire refuge from oppression and danger.
 
Does deportation really make sense? Not as a blanket policy that makes no distinctions based on individual situations. Perhaps some form of legalization makes more sense on a practical level.
 
We cannot morally turn our backs on these immigrants and on the refugees. Making it impossible for them to enter or remain in the U.S. under the ruse of security and legality simply is wrong! It is time for a better solution.
 
____________
 
Deacon Pete Gummere is Director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington and serves at Corpus Christi Parish in the St. Johnsbury area. He is adjunct faculty at the Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches moral theology and medical morality.
 
 

Solidarity with refugees, immigrants

The Catholic Center at The University of Vermont in Burlington hosted a Feb. 23 evening of prayer in solidarity with the 65 million refugees and immigrants throughout the world.
 
At a time of uncertainty for those seeking refuge and peace in the United States, students wanted to take a stand. Participants in the vigil were able to light a candle, say a prayer, write a message to the refugees in the community or send a letter to a politician.
 
Brianna O’Brien, a senior environmental studies major and an organizer of the event, sought to create a space for those who regularly attend Mass and events at the Catholic Center and for others to stand together, grow in empathy and have an opportunity to reflect on “the reality of the plight of millions of refugees and even more immigrants all over the world.”
 
Between 30 and 50 people attended. 
 
“I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit and have had the opportunity to hear and see foreigners’ perspectives of the United States and the desire that so many people have to come here,” O’Brien said. “I have seen first hand some of the situations that people are trying to escape, and it is heart-breaking to me.”
 
She understands foreign policy and immigration laws are not simple issues, “but recent political events have shed light on the plight of these struggling people,” she said. “I took this to be an appropriate time to host this vigil.”
 
O’Brien said it is important to stand in solidarity with refugees because “there is so little we can do to help.” But standing together saying, “I care about you,” “This issue matters to me,”  “Your safety and health are important to me” is, for her, a way to demonstrate that the “dignity of these peoples’ lives is something that we have concerned ourselves with in some capacity.” 
 
 
 

Poor but ‘never alone’

At a Mass packed mostly with immigrants, Washington, D.C., Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville tried to get the crowd to focus on the plight of the Holy Family.

They had no home, he said. Many closed their doors to them when they were seeking shelter and running from persecution, he said. But he reminded them also of God’s promise.

“We might be poor, but we’ll never be alone,” Bishop Dorsonville said to those in the pews, some who were likely facing similar situations.
At a weekend Mass to mark the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he assured them that God and the Catholic Church would be with them “in these difficult moments.” Millions, he acknowledged, are waiting for relief in the form of immigration reform. But with a president-elect who made campaign promises to form “deportation forces” and remove 11 million immigrants, many faced 2017 with trepidation.
 
The landscape for immigrants in 2016 already had been a rough one. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court States deadlocked on a case dealing with plans by President Barack Obama to shield 4 million from deportation through executive action. Without being able to break the 4-4 tie, the high court essentially left in place an injunction blocking the immigration policy from being implemented.

Various polls also reflected an increasing reluctance by some groups in the country to welcome immigrants from the Middle East. The Brookings/Public Religion Research Institute Immigration Survey, released in June, showed that while 58 percent of Americans surveyed opposed a temporary ban on Muslims from other countries entering the U.S., non-white Americans were the ones most opposed.

“Close to half (46 percent) of whites express support for a temporary ban on Muslims coming to the U.S.,” the survey said, “while only 30 percent of Hispanics and 25 percent of blacks support a ban.”

Some say these views in part helped President-elect Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, win, since they were able to mobilize those who felt fears and concerns about immigrants from Latin America and Muslims.

But just what will happen after Trump takes over the presidency remains a mystery. In a TV interview shortly after his election, he said he would deport 2 million to 3 million “people that are criminal and have criminal records” but didn’t mention the 11 million in the country without legal permission that he had originally quoted as deportation targets. He also removed his call for a “Muslim ban” from his website shortly after winning the presidency.
In a recent Time magazine interview, after the publication chose him as “Person of the Year,” Trump said he is “going to work something out” on childhood arrivals, young people who were brought into the U.S. as children by their parents but have no legal documentation.

Using executive action, Obama in 2012 created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, which allows certain undocumented young people to have a work permit and be exempt from deportation.

More than 720,000 have been approved for the program. In November 2014, Obama took executive action to expand DACA to allow more young people to benefit from its provisions. He also implemented a program for parents of citizen children — the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, or DAPA.

Trump said he would end these policies. Some who meet the qualifications to apply for the DACA have not done so, fearful of what the new administration could do to them and those who already have enrolled. But in the December Time magazine interview, Trump said some of the youths were good students, some have wonderful jobs.

“And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that “we’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”

Trump also correctly noted during the campaign that President Obama’s administration has been fierce on deportations. The Department of Homeland security, which tracks the number of people deported each year, says from fiscal years 2009 to 2014, there have been more than 2.4 million “removals.”
But Catholics groups that work with immigrants, such as Washington’s Faith in Public Life, say they are concerned about what Trump said as a candidate and they vowed in a statement to continue “advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, and will continue to work with leaders of both parties to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their status, are treated with dignity and respect.”

Others joined the organization in the statement, including Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, who said: “We are deeply concerned by threats and proposals — such as the increased use of detention and deportation.”

Such attitudes, he said, sow fear, and “threaten the unity and well-being of families and communities. Instead, we call on the Trump administration and Congress to develop and uphold humane policies that honor the dignity and contributions of those among us who live at the margins of society.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops have not directly spoken out against Trump and what he said while campaigning, but they have voiced their support for immigrants. They declared the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day of prayer with a focus on the plight of refugees and migrants.

“To all those families separated and far from home in uncertain times, we join with you in a prayer for comfort and joy this Advent season,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recognizing in a statement addressing the uncertain future many are fearing.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., addressed a letter to those “who at the present time find themselves in a miserable condition because of a change of the administration of our nation which has threatened many with deportation.” Walls are not solutions, he said, and deportations do not guarantee the country’s security.

California Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton also called attention to similar fears and to racism.

“The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States,” he said. “Many have friends and family members who are without papers. Many are without papers themselves. Children in school are being bullied and young immigrants who signed up for DACA are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation.”

Racism, too, “has raised its ugly head in many communities,” Bishop Blaire continued.

“I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you,” he said. “You are the Church. I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets.”

“I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our interfaith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way,” he said. “The way of God is the way of love.”

Alejandra Catalan, a parishioner at Our Lady Queen of the Americas in Washington, said she felt the support the Archdiocese of Washington and the Church in general was trying to convey during Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The reality for immigrants is difficult as Bishop Dorsonville pointed out, she said, but as she stood Dec. 10 with her husband, Francisco, and son Samuel at Washington’s Marian basilica, all dressed in indigenous clothing to honor the Virgin, she said she could only depend on one thing: faith.
 
 
  • Published in Nation
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