‘We’re there to walk with them on this journey’

With great uncertainty to what direction President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration will take on immigration policy, the nation’s Catholic bishops, immigration advocates, university officials and others are speaking out and offering their support to migrant communities.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a special Day of Prayer on Dec. 12 — the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — with a special focus on the plight of refugees and immigrants. The bishops conference is also developing pastoral resources for migration-themed activities.

“Migration is something the Church has a long history of supporting in the sense that it’s part of our mission,” said Ashley Feasley, the director of migration policy and public affairs at the USCCB.

“We recognize the human dignity of people regardless of where they’re from,” Feasley told Our Sunday Visitor.

Trump’s immigration rhetoric during the campaign — when he promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants in the country without legal documents — rattled many migrants who are concerned about being deported and having their families separated by federal raids.

Vulnerable students

One group in particular that could be affected would be the college-aged adults who were brought to the United States without legal permission when they were young children. Many of them are currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that President Obama created in 2012 through executive action.

During the campaign, Trump said he would rescind DACA, but in a recent interview with Time Magazine, the Republican president-elect indicated his administration would be interested in “working something out” for the estimated 720,000 young migrants who have been approved for the program.

“These are very talented young people who are Americans in everything except on paper. Many of them would win or be hired on (Trump’s) show, ‘The Apprentice.’ It’s penny wise and pound foolish to end DACA at this point,” said Kevin Appleby, international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank founded by the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo.

Colleges pledge support

More than 100 Catholic university and college presidents have already pledged their support for DACA students attending their schools. In a statement posted on the website of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the presidents said they hope DACA-qualified students will be able to continue their studies without interruption.

“We pledge to support these students – through our campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics, and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal,” the university and college leaders said.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told OSV that more than 60 percent of his organization’s members have signed the letter, and he expects that figure to grow.

“This is a very significant issue for our country, for our Church and for our universities, and for Hispanic and Latino families throughout the United States. Most of all, it’s important for our country. The future growth of our country is closely aligned with people from all countries coming here to study and making our country better,” Galligan-Stierle said.

“These young people who are immigrants, who are not citizens and do not have permanent residency, they were brought here as kids by their parents, and they have done what we want all young Americans to do, which is to succeed in high school, go to college and work hard,” said John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America.

Garvey, who signed the ACCU letter, told OSV that a deep level of concern has set in among undocumented students and their families, and that it has made them feel uncertain about their place in the culture.

“It’s really important we change the terms of the debate, that we make students who are here on visas, young people who didn’t arrive here under their own steam, to make them feel welcome in this country,” Garvey said.

Luis Ricardo Fraga, co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV that about 20 migrant students, most of them undocumented, cried in his office the day after the Nov. 8 elections.

“They were very worried about what’s going to happen to them, but their primary concern was what was going to happen to their families,” said Fraga, noting that many of the students come from mixed-status families where some relatives have official documents but others do not.

At Notre Dame and several other Catholic colleges, DACA and undocumented migrant students and their allies have held campus public meetings to discuss possible next steps and to request university officials to formally indicate their commitment to support students and their families.

Fraga told OSV that Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, said during a public prayer service that the university will do all it can not to share migrant students’ information with authorities if requested, will offer no active cooperation with enforcement agents if the federal government takes such measures, and will provide all possible means of support to help students finish their studies.

Said Fraga, “I’ve been very moved by the leadership shown by many Catholic universities who have accepted the undocumented and DACA students as part of their commitment to Catholic social teaching.”

Advocacy and vigilance

Catholic immigration advocates across the United States have also been working to provide accurate information to their clients, and to offer any available support and resources.

“I think the biggest thing for us is to make sure they know we’re in solidarity with them, and regardless of what changes come down in the next few months or the next few years, we’re there to walk with them on this journey,” said Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas.

Lopez told OSV that it is vital the Church be a refuge for migrants, and that bishops reassure their people that they will stand by them, adding: “It’s one thing to hear from the Church office in D.C. saying we’re concerned and we care. But it’s a completely different thing for them to know they’re safe in their own community.”

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Several bishops — including Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit — have issued statements pledging their support for local immigrants. Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, newly elected vice president of the USCCB, also said in a prepared statement that the Church will be offering its prayers and “actively monitoring” immigration-related developments at the diocesan, state and national levels.

How the Trump Administration handles immigration policy remains to be seen. Some Catholic observers take his campaign hardline stance at face value while others doubt he can actually carry out any of those promises.

But Catholic leaders and advocates say they will be watching.

“We’re working with this administration and the next to engage in policymaking that is humane, that recognizes the importance of immigrants and refugee families, and respects and honors the rules of law,” said Feasley, of the USCCB, adding that it is vital that refugee and migrant communities know the Church stands by them.

“I think that is a very important message,” Feasley said. “I hope the bishops’ solidarity is evident.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.