A worksheet translates health terms from English to Spanish at Catholic Charities’ El Centro in Trenton. Uncertainty has become a hallmark of daily life for many in the Hispanic community – and others – since the presidential election, advocates say. Monitor file photo

A worksheet translates health terms from English to Spanish at Catholic Charities’ El Centro in Trenton. Uncertainty has become a hallmark of daily life for many in the Hispanic community – and others – since the presidential election, advocates say. Monitor file photo

By Patrick T. Brown | Correspondent

The Trump Administration’s ban on travel from seven countries in the Middle East has set off nationwide protests, prevented refugees from entering the country and spurred legal challenges, sparking passionate conversation about the balance between national security and humanitarian policies.

It was also a jolting reminder for many immigrant members of Hispanic ministries across Central New Jersey that their status in the United States has recently become more precarious. 

In the last week, says Roberto Hernandez, director of Catholic Charities’ El Centro program, Trenton, family after family has made the difficult decision to uproot themselves and seek more secure futures elsewhere.

“I counted 67 families who self-deported [from the area,]” said Hernandez, adding that they felt safer taking their chances in other regions, states, or even leaving the country in anticipation of future immigration actions. “Those are the ones that I’m aware of, but I’m sure there are many more.”

Uncertainty has become a hallmark of daily life for many in the Hispanic community, particularly the undocumented, since the presidential election and immigration action.

Because of the fear of increased focus on undocumented immigrants, “folks are not sending their kids to school; they don’t want them to have their information handed over to the government; a lot of paranoia and fear is starting to creep into these families, which leads to a lot of other issues – emotional instability, anxiety, depression,” Hernandez said.

One parishioner and member of the Hispanic ministry in St. Rose of Lima Parish, Freehold, for nearly two decades – who wished to remain anonymous – says the executive order reinforced the instability facing many of the people he knows. The “community has a lot of fear. They don’t know what’s going to happen.”

‘The Church is a Refuge’

“The Catholic Church and Catholic Charities has always stood by the refugee and the immigrant,” says Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton, whose agency offers community services to immigrants at Trenton’s El Centro family resource center and an immigration support and human trafficking center in Lakewood. “We have a history of providing social services to this community, and we will continue to do so.”

The ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – hit especially close to home for Lao-Collins, who saw the refugee process first-hand when Catholic Charities in Trenton used to participate in a resettlement program.

“What really tugged at my heart was knowing the amount of barriers and vetting that already goes into this program, having been part of this side of it,” she said. “Our experience … is that when we provide the proper support for refugee and immigration families, they thrive. … They are feeling violence, they’re fleeing unrest, poverty, [or] religious persecution, and they’re so grateful to be here.

“To hear all of a sudden that families can’t be reunited, knowing the kind of unrest and violence and persecution these refugees face … I know that we can do better, and I trust that we will do better,” Lao-Collins said.

That history of welcome, Hernandez says, has constructed deep bonds between the immigrant community and the Catholic community that supports them in faith and social services.

“Our Diocese has been very welcoming to the immigrants and refugees who have come to this community, and that’s been important, because people feel safe, feel that the Church is a refuge,” he said.

As the legal battles rage over the status of the Administration’s travel ban, Lao-Collins says that her agency is committed to speaking out on behalf of the refugee and immigrant, pointing to the organization’s three “pillars” of service, community development and advocacy. For example, the agency’s social policy committee recently met to endorse putting institutional muscle behind the Bridge Act, bipartisan legislation that would effectively extend for three years the legal protections for undocumented individuals brought to this country as minors that had been found in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In addition, Catholic Charities recently supported the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants action alert to stand in solidarity with refugees by writing a message to Washington.

“Speaking out for the refugee and the immigrant is really at the heart of what we do,” Lao-Collins said. “Our mission is to restore dignity and provide assistance to the poor and vulnerable, and the refugee and the immigrant are an especially vulnerable population.”

That special relationship between the immigrant community and the local Church begins at the top of the Diocese with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., says Hernandez.

“Bishop O’Connell has been fantastic. He’s come to visit El Centro, and … the community loves him for that. They feel safe with him; they feel that he won’t turn his back on them. When you have the leader of your Diocese willing to spend the time here with folks, getting to know them, visiting classes, those type of things, it says a lot.” 

‘Christ on the Curb’

Hernandez estimates he’s recently received about 30 calls per week from families wanting to know the answers to questions he can’t fully answer. “[They want] to know, ‘Has anything changed?’ ‘What can we do?’ So we’re reassuring our brothers and sisters that we’re here for them and that we’re going to advocate for them.”

In addition, Hernandez has been making in-home presentations around Trenton to go over the changes and legal questions. 

Hernandez, who was named chairman of Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson’s Latino Advisory Council’s executive committee in 2015, says he hopes to expand his outreach to parishes and social concerns committees in the Diocese to help parishioners become more aware and engaged around the issue of immigration.

“We’re all God’s children, and we all just want an opportunity,” he said. “When you touch people, on the human side of it, and you tell them the success stories we see here at El Centro, and people who have given back ... our Catholic brothers and sisters who might be removed from this a little bit can be compadres to support families. Because this is all about families.” 

El Centro provides immigrants with small cards that feature their rights and the phone numbers of Hernandez and local Catholic attorneys. Hernandez also regularly intercedes with law enforcement on behalf of immigrants who might be unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system.

“Most of the police officers are very good about it – they know El Centro,” Hernandez said. “We’ve worked together for years on many, many occasions, and they’re willing to help us out because many of these families are not criminals – they’re just out there trying to do their best, working hard. Just like the rest of us, they just want to follow the American Dream.

“Now the policemen have started calling me ‘Christ on the Curb,’ which, hey, we’re out there trying to do Christ’s work, but I keep telling them ‘I’m not there yet, guys, not even close!’”

National Witness

The USCCB has also responded to the executive order by issuing a statement saying that the decision has “generated fear and untold anxiety among refugees, immigrants and others throughout the faith community in the United States.” 

“I was really heartened to hear the bishops speak out on this executive order, and it supports us and the work we are doing,” Lao-Collins said.

“What really struck me was their reminder that in these political discussions, ultimately we’re talking about human beings,” she said. “And they reminded us that as we look at these polices, we have to look at each other with the eyes of faith, to see our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters.”

Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian relief organization of the U.S. Church, called for the ban to be suspended “until a more focused, targeted and humane approach can be developed.”

“The simple fact is that returning refugees can have life or death consequences,” said Sean Callahan, CRS president and CEO. “We see this from experience working with them in some of the most dangerous places.”

Across the national network of Catholic Charities agencies, 66 local agencies provide refugee resettlement services, according to the nonprofit’s annual report. Following the executive order, Catholic Charities USA launched an $8 million fundraising campaign around the plight of refugees to support those resettlement efforts. 

“We need to stay focused on our care for those who are frightened and vulnerable,” said CCUSA president Sister Donna Markham. “The executive orders are having an impact not only on very frightened people seeking to come to our country and the refugees already here, but also on those serving them and trying to get them integrated into our communities.”

“Everything is local,” encouraged Lao-Collins. “Get engaged at the parish level with your social concerns group, or find out if your parish is organizing some way to get involved.”

The parishioner from St. Rose of Lima, who said the parish is “a great community, a really welcoming place,” admitted that hearing people speak out on behalf of immigrants is “very important, and very nice to hear,” but it doesn’t fully assuage the underlying trepidation facing many families feel, suddenly facing a future that may no longer be entirely in their hands.

“People in the community may feel very afraid, but they keep on working hard. They are brave, and they hope for the best.”

For more information about how the USCCB’s advocacy efforts around immigration, visit www.justiceforimmigrants.org.