Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, members of Catholic Charities’ case management and immigration divisions, and some recently arrived migrants greeted members of the local and national media on Aug. 16 to discuss the surge of asylum seekers arriving in New York City by the busload from Texas and Arizona—most via Washington, D.C.—over the past three to four weeks.
Cardinal Dolan said that it makes sense that so many are turning to Catholic Charities at this critical time, since Catholic Charities is “old hands” at doing this type of work and operates with “immense respect, dignity, and efficiency.” The Cardinal explained that the Church’s perspective is not political, but rather, “We try to see with the eyes of Jesus, and He’s the one who said to us, ‘When I was a stranger, when I was an immigrant, you welcomed me.’” In the eyes of the Church and of Catholic Charities, “These just aren’t cases. These just aren’t problems. These just aren’t statistics. These are not just refugees and asylum seekers in the plural. These are people with names, and with dads and moms. These are husbands and wives and kids, and we love them, and we welcome them.”
Catholic Charities staff and volunteers have been operating all hands-on deck to assist an unprecedented surge of immigrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela and other Central and South American countries. The agency is welcoming these newcomers with food, clothing, information about shelters and other resources, help for enrolling their children in school, immigration attorneys to review legal documents, and more. More than 300 notices to appear in court have been mailed to Catholic Charities offices, some even before the immigrants have arrived in New York.
“More than 1,500 men, women, and children have arrived suddenly and unexpectedly at our doorsteps.” – Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York.
As one immigrant from Venezuela explained, when she arrived at the U.S. border without a residential destination, the border official told her, “I’m going to help you out,” and wrote the address of Catholic Charities New York on her paperwork. This mass redirecting of new arrivals has happened without the knowledge of Catholic Charities, which has had to pause normal operations to address the unforeseeable humanitarian crisis unfolding on its doorstep.
Msgr. Sullivan announced that Catholic Charities plans to work with New York City once the city establishes a reception center for this indefinite surge of immigrants. He acknowledged the commitment of New York State to “continue the legacy of New York as a welcoming place in our country.” He gave thanks to Catholic Charities’ volunteers, donors, and business partners, who have generously risen to the challenge of providing help and creating hope for the new arrivals. He also offered a word of recognition to New York City officials: “From the onset of this upsurge, New York City has welcomed those coming here. And even though this surge is unprecedented, and yes, there have been glitches, understandably caused by this crisis, they’ve never shirked from accepting their responsibility to provide shelter as a right for those in New York City, even if those in New York City only arrived a few hours ago.”
Msgr. Sullivan also called upon the Federal Government to set up humane reception centers at the border; expand funding to meet the increased need for shelter, housing, and food at the border and in the interior of the country; and extend “the same humanitarian parole and work authorization response that was rightly afforded to Ukrainians and Afghan [to] asylum seekers in our own hemisphere.”
Catholic Charities in Texas is welcoming immigrants with a much-needed shower and hotel room upon arrival (several of the immigrants recalled that they spent more time in the shower than in the bed trying to wash off seemingly endless layers of dirt). Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., is helping immigrants bussed there without a choice, as mandated by border-state governors, to make it to their final desired destinations, while Catholic Charities in New York is doing its best to receive, orient, and assist waves of troubled yet exceedingly grateful immigrants and asylum seekers.
“There is frustration [about] the upsurge of the past week, but there is pride in being a New Yorker, that we’re stepping up to the plate. And there is hope, too, that shortly, with a little bit of help, those who have arrived recently, these individuals and families, will be contributing to the vibrancy and the economy of New York, as other immigrants have for more than a century,” said Msgr. Sullivan.
The immigrants report that they have made unimaginable sacrifices, leaving loved ones, children, and other family members behind, perhaps forever, and enduring a life-threatening journey to arrive at an unknown future in the United States. They are robbed of all personal belongings along the journey, even of their clothes, and if they have anything left the Mexican police will take it before they cross the U.S. border. Some have walked for a full month from Venezuela, without rest, through the perils of the jungle and the heat and dangers of Mexico. Others take their chances atop “La Bestia” train, where they ride, caked with grime, for four days without food, sleep, or water, if they are even fortunate enough to jump aboard without losing a limb.
Some have been kidnapped by Mexican cartels along the route, who try to extort money upon the threat of death. Others have suffered physical and sexual abuse. The migrants survive through the good will of individuals along the way who drive up to hand them some pizza, sandwiches, or water and then drive away. It is illegal in the countries they pass through to transport them in a vehicle.
Despite all these dangers and the sacrifice of leaving everything and everyone they know behind, they still choose to make the journey to escape horrible situations in their home countries—threats of death, sexual violence, political oppression, lack of opportunity, persecution, and hate crimes—or to earn some money for the survival of their families at home.
Overall, these immigrants have expressed to Catholic Charities’ workers similar hopes they have in coming to the United States: they seek tranquility, safety, and the opportunity to work hard.
“It’s not only the services we provide,” said case manager Mariana Dueñas, who is herself from Venezuela, noting the importance of the work of Catholic Charities in such a situation. “It’s how we embrace each person with hope, as a human being…dignified as women and men.”