This story is the first in a series related to National Migration Week Jan. 5-11, an initiative of the U.S. bishops that calls Catholics to help ease the struggles of vulnerable immigrant populations.
Efraín and Angélica lived on a small ranch in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. Their situation was precarious. They had a baby to care for, and neither of them had steady work. Efraín soon made the decision so many men and women in his situation make—he left for the United States.
He wasn’t seeking out the “American dream.” All he wanted was to make a little money so he could return to his ranch, his family and his hometown, and start a business. It was a good plan.
“Six months after he left, I received a call from a hospital. My husband was gravely ill and they asked me to come immediately as he had nobody there to help him,” Angélica recounted in an interview with El Pueblo Católico.
Efraín was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Acosta-Hernández family, faced with a life-threatening diagnosis, was stuck.
“I felt I couldn’t leave my husband alone, but I couldn’t take him to Mexico either,” Angélica recalled.“We didn’t have anything, and he needed expensive and extensive medical treatments. In a sense, we had to establish ourselves here.”
Push and pull
When considering the 40 million people that make up the immigrant population in the United States—including 494,760 individuals in Colorado—it’s important to remember the “push and pull” that brought them here in the first place, explained Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, Esq., director of Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver.
“People flee their homelands due to poverty, persecution, civil war or simply looking for a better life with greater freedoms—the ‘push factors,’” she said. “The ‘pull factors’ are U.S. demand for cheap labor, and our economic and political interests abroad, which can cause worsening conditions in other countries.”
Immigrants make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. While they represent a wide range of ethnic groups, religions and education levels, the one thing almost all of them have in common is they have left behind their home. It is a struggle for many, even if that home consisted of very little.“
Rarely does someone want to pick up and leave their family, leave their friends, and leave their communities for a new country,” said Todd Scribner, Ph.D., education outreach coordinator for the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services in Washington, D.C. “Most people don’t want to do that, but they feel forced to.”
Living in the shadows
National Migration Week, launched by the bishops more than a quarter century ago, will be observed in dioceses around the country, including the Archdiocese of Denver, Jan. 5-11.
Themed “Out of the Darkness,” the initiative aims to raise awareness about populations living in figurative darkness—undocumented immigrants, children, refugees and victims of human trafficking—when the ability to live their lives is severely restricted.“
When people are living in the shadows, they’re functioning on the margins of society,” Scribner said. “So they can’t fully participate in the life of the community, which destabilizes communities. We want to make sure communities are as strong as they can be.”
In Colorado, the immigrant population increased about 34 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That number equates to nearly 10 percent of the overall population of 5.1 million. The largest share of Colorado’s immigrants, nearly 56 percent, came from Latin America, followed by Asia at 22 percent. The remainder are from: Europe 14 percent; Africa, 6 percent; Northern America (including Canada, Bermuda and Greenland), 2 percent; and less than 1 percent from the Pacific islands of Oceania.“
The majority of immigrants in the area are Spanish-speaking,” Martinez-Gloria said, mostly from Mexico but some from Central and South America. “In accordance with Catholic social teaching, recognizing that we are all made in God’s image … those who are suffering must be received, welcomed and supported.”
A large part of what Catholic Charities’ immigration services does in Colorado is family visa processing, according to Martinez-Gloria. This helps keep families together by obtaining a visa for a spouse, parent or child.“
It is not necessarily an easy process,” she added.
Efraín and Angélica Acosta Hernández can attest to that.“The police stopped my husband because his headlight was broken, and when they realized he didn’t have papers, they arrested him,” Angélica said.
While in jail, he was offered several options for legal services. “When we saw among the options the help of Catholic Charities, we knew immediately that’s where we had to go. It was a great relief and joy for us, as we are Catholics. For me, it was a sign,” said Efraín.
Angélica added: “Knowing that the Church had a service in this area gave me so much confidence. After our first appointment, we left very happy and knew that we were in the right place, and that our case was in good hands with Catholic Charities.”
Catholic Charities has been able to ramp up the services it provides to immigrants through a two-year grant the agency received in early 2013 from the SC Ministry Foundation created by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in 1996.
Dignity and immigration reform
Advocating for meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform legislation, currently pending in Congress, is another example of how the Church works for migrants and their families.
Other areas where Migration and Refugee Services is involved include: educating people “in the pews” on immigration reform, coordinating a grassroots’ Justice for Immigrants campaign, protecting and reuniting unaccompanied migrant children separated from their families, liberating victims of human trafficking forced into hard labor or sexual slavery, and resettling refugees.“
We’re the largest non-governmental refugee resettlement agency in the United States, and really, the world.” Scribner said. “It’s a very important aspect of our work.”
Locally, 1,464 refugees were resettled in Denver in 2012 from countries including Bhutan (Nepal), Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The work of the bishops’ conference couldn’t happen without the coordination of many agencies, Scribner said, including the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and Catholic Charities, both national and local agencies. Northern Colorado’s immigrants are also served by Centro San Juan Diego, the Hispanic Institute for Family and Pastoral Care for the archdiocese.
“We recognize the multidimensional aspects of what it is a person needs and address them in their entirety,” Scribner said, which can include material, pastoral, legal, psychological, community, or spiritual needs. “Everything we do is rooted in the notion of human dignity, which is rooted in the idea that we’re made in the image of God.”
- Contact your representatives and urge them to pass just and compassionate immigration reform. For Colorado information, visit www.cocatholicconference.org or call the Colorado Catholic Conference at 303-894-8808.
- Consider becoming a foster parent to help a migrant child in need. To learn more, call the USCCB at 202-541-3347 or Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver at 303-742-0828.