I recently returned from a pilgrimage with 11 other men and women from the Camden Diocese. The pilgrimage was led by two Catholic Charities staff members and was called, “Share the Journey.” We traveled to McAllen, Texas, a city that sits on the Texas-Mexico border and has been in the news a lot as the arrival point of the many migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
I am the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Shrine in Lindenwold in Camden County and prior to this assignment served as pastor of the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton in Cumberland County. As a priest for seven years, I have had the joy of working with the immigrant community. I am also a civil lawyer, and in my work at the non-profit law firm, The Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, I practiced immigration law. Thus, as a lawyer and as a priest I have joyfully worked with the immigrant community. But this experience was different. This experience was not in Camden, or Bridgeton, or in Lindenwold. This was right at the border, and much rawer. I saw the pain in their eyes and the fear on their faces. They were on a difficult journey and their future in the country remains uncertain. They worry about family left behind who live in danger and deep poverty.
Where are they from? Every person I met was from Central America or South America. Most, from Honduras. Many others from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Why do they come to the United States? I listened to their stories. They live in fear. Fear from violence. Fear from gangs. Fear from murder and persecution. They live in poverty, and they want a better future for their children. They want hope. They want what we want. A secure life for their family. I realized that the migrants I met from Central America came to our great country for the same reason my grandparents came from Northern Ireland. To escape poverty and prejudice and for a better future for their family. As Americans, a country of immigrants, we all share the journey.
It was a very long and difficult journey for the migrants I met. Some traveled two or three months on the road. At times on foot and on the run. At times in the back of hot trucks, packed in and forced to sit or lie down in uncomfortable positions so more men and women and children could fit in the truck. They are often mistreated by professional “coyotes.” Once they reach the border they have the daunting task of crossing the dangerous Rio Grande River.
I heard many stories. A teenage boy from Brazil I met was kidnapped for 10 days in Mexico before he escaped. A man told me that he saw a 9-year-old boy die while being smuggled in the back of a hot truck. At the border my heart was broken. I saw the tired faces. I heard the cry of children.
The migrants I met seek to be detained by border agents, and once in custody they claim asylum. Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” The law defines a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They are held in Immigration Detention for a period of time, and then are released by the government to the Catholic Charities Respite Center in the Rio Grand Valley.
During my visit there were 600-900 people (men, women, children and babies) coming to the Catholic Charity Respite Center every day. At the Center they can shower, eat a warm meal, obtain fresh clothes, and receive help for transportation on a bus or plane to be with family and friends in different parts of the United States. Their claim for asylum must be heard by an immigration judge, and for that they may have to wait two years.
What did our group do? Many things. We helped distribute clothes; prepared and served meals; played games with the children; cleaned tables and floors; emptied the trash; and helped people make telephone calls to family in the United States and in their home country. I was so proud of my fellow travelers from our pilgrim team who all acted with great compassion and mercy.
I was also a priest for them. Many had not seen a priest for months. I prayed with them, blessed them, and I cried with them. I was a priest, a father and a brother for them. I prayed for their safety and the safety of their family. I encouraged them to pray to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph because they too were migrants. I told them that God was with them on their journey and that our bishop and our diocese are praying for them.
We have one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ, and one Mother, the Virgin Mary. We are all brothers and sisters. From different countries of birth and with different languages, but all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all on a journey. And we are called to share the journey with our brothers and sisters who are broken.
The Catholic approach to migration is rooted in the Gospel and in the life and teaching of Jesus, who himself was forced to flee for his life with Mary and Joseph. The church recognizes the right of our country to control its borders, but nations also have a strong obligation to treat migrants humanely, to protect children at risk, and to protect those fleeing from persecution. As a nation of immigrants and refugees, we have a long history and commitment to providing welcome and protection for vulnerable immigrants and refugees. I pray we continue that tradition.
On a practical level, I urge readers to join the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and oppose Senate Bill 1494, legislation that would roll back protections in current law for vulnerable unaccompanied children and also makes it difficult for people, like the ones I met, to seek asylum at our country’s borders.
Father Vince Guest is pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lindenwold.