CAMDEN — Bishop Dennis Sullivan sat at a round table as 16 individuals made their way into the conference room. Once all of his guests arrived, he made his way around the room, asking each individual’s name, shaking hands, welcoming them and thanking them for joining.
These guests were students, electrical engineers, firefighters, architects, medical assistants, art therapists. They were taxpayers and community leaders, first responders and parish secretaries.
All were under the age of 30 and came to the United States as babies, toddlers or children. And, currently, as Dreamers (DACA recipients), they all are now subject to deportation due to laws imposed by the current administration.
After taking their seats, they turned to Bishop Sullivan, and his voice rang loud and clear as he addressed the room.
“As Catholics, we want you to know that we are doing the best we can as a church to accompany you in a bitter and difficult experience — and one that I can’t even begin to imagine. I want you to know that we are with you.”
He opened the floor to the Dreamers, welcoming them to share their stories with him and the others present: Catholic Charities staff, clergy, diocesan staff and the media.
The Dreamers were not shy in recounting their experiences, their hopes, their struggles — and their dreams.
A 27-year-old woman named Magali seated next to Bishop kicked off the conversation. “My parents and I came to this country from Mexico City when I was 3 years old. In Mexico, we lived with my grandparents on a second floor of an apartment building with 20 other people … and life was hard, the poverty was unimaginable.”
But, growing up in America, she was able to work, save her money and eventually study parish administration at the College of Saint Elizabeth. The married mother now works as a parish secretary and hopes to someday study law.
“I have two children — ages 2 and 10,” she explained. “And my kids don’t know that I might be deported. They think everything is fine, and I know that I need to keep a calm face for my children. … and I just can’t imagine a future without them.”
Bishop Sullivan nodded as she explained her story, commending her spirit, her selflessness, her love of family, reminding her, “That’s critical for our society to have families like yours. And like so many others, your parents didn’t come here because they wanted to, they came here because they had to.”
Luis Botello, dressed in a suit and tie, stated that he has no memory of coming to the United States from Mexico, as did many others. Now, he works as an electrical engineer, while also training in the academy to become a volunteer firefighter.
“I’m supposed to graduate in June from the academy,” he said. “If I get deported, if I lose that, I lose everything. I’m an American first, this is the only place I know, the only place I’ve ever known. Everything and everyone I know and I love is here. I consider myself an American in every way, except on a piece of paper.”
Responded Bishop, “You, like thousands of others, you’re contributing to our country. You’re not living off of it. You work hard, you help others, you’re a great neighbor. I hear that from you. And you – and everyone else here — is as much of an American as I am.”
Some reflected upon their first memories of living in Mexico.
One young woman, Evelyn Marquez Auza, fought through tears as she explained her first memory: receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness as a toddler.
She came to America, where she attended school, learned English and worked tirelessly to save up enough money to attend college.
“I almost had enough saved to go to college, when I found out that my father was really sick. He couldn’t afford medical bills, so we used all the money I had to pay for his medical expenses.”
Ultimately, she lost her father. But, wiping away tears and straightening her posture, she said, “I still hear his words in my head, pushing me to work hard, to try my best no matter what, to get a good education. And that’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do. As early as grade school, people have told me ‘go back to Mexico,’ or that ‘you’ll never get into college, you’re an alien.’ I’ve heard ‘you’ll never get a career, you’ll probably just have a bunch of kids and never get married like all Latinos.’ But these words never discouraged me. They gave me motivation. Even now.”
Others described their earliest recollections from the countries from where they came – abuse, violence, witnessing deaths of family members, and impoverished living conditions — but it became very clear that through these struggles and tragedies came resilience and determination.
Botello, the electrical engineer, said, “Whenever I hear talk about the possibility of being deported, it makes me work harder, it makes me more motivated and more determined. If I give into the fear, I know it’ll be crippling. So I don’t. I keep going and trying my hardest, every day.”
The gathering was held in light of the administration’s termination of DACA, which, for these individuals and 1.8 million other young people in America, provided the first semblance of safety they had ever known, allowing them to pursue college degrees, start companies and apply for jobs.
Now, Congress has become deadlocked on what to do with these Dreamers.
In light of this, Bishop Sullivan and the other members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are encouraging Catholics, and people of all faiths, to participate in a National Catholic Call-In Day to Protect Dreamers. He and other bishops across the nation are asking the faithful to call their members of Congress on Monday, Feb. 26, to protect Dreamers from deportation, to provide them a path to citizenship, and to avoid any damage to existing protections for families and unaccompanied minors in the process.
“It is both our moral duty and in our nation’s best interest to protect Dreamers,” Bishop Sullivan stated. “…The plight of these Dreamers is not a matter of politics, but a matter of human rights. Our actions should be an example of how we live our faith as Catholics.”
Before Bishop Sullivan ended the meeting with a closing prayer, one young woman asked if she could add one more comment.
“Hearing you support us – it makes me feel that we matter, that we’re humans too,” she said, tearing up. “Nobody has ever taken the time to listen to us, what we’ve been through. And knowing that you’re standing next to us, and making our voices be heard … you were the first to ever do this. And we thank you.”
Lenten Action for Dreamers: Congressional Call-in Campaign
On Monday, February 26, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is asking all of us to call our Senators and Representatives to urge them to pass legislation that protects Dreamers, young people without immigration status who were brought to the United States by their parents. Dreamers are our brothers and sisters.
In our Diocese, Bishop Dennis Sullivan asks that you contact Senators Booker and Menedez, as well as Representatives LoBiondo and Norcross and ask them to support a bipartisan, common-sense, and humane solution for Dreamers; to protect Dreamers from deportation and provide them with a path to citizenship; and to reject proposals that undermine family immigration or protections for unaccompanied children. Let our representatives know that as Catholics, we know that families are not chains, but a blessing to be protected. To learn more, go to: http://www.camdendiocese.org/DREAMERS
Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s message to the Diocese of Camden regarding Dreamers: