By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian

The plight of immigrants and refugees in the United States who face possible deportation deserves a Christian response in light of Sacred Scripture and recent statements by Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But how can Catholic parishes and people in the pews help advance that response?

In an attempt to provide answers, a panel discussion on immigration issues and legislation which affects public policy was held April 27 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Richmond. It was sponsored by the Diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry in collaboration with the Virginia Catholic Conference.

The purpose of this discussion was intended to be educational at the request of various priests and parish staffs who work with immigrant parishioners.

The goal of the meeting was to increase understanding and “how we as a Church can live that out,” said Diana Sims Snider, associate director for communications with the Virginia Catholic Conference, who served as moderator.

The meeting was broadcast live to a group of parish staff on the Eastern Shore and in the Western Vicariate who have similar concerns.

A panel of both clergy and laity addressed the issues and emphasized the importance of “welcoming the stranger among us.”

“People have a right to emigrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families,” said Msgr. Timothy Keeney, pastor of St. Bede Parish in Williamsburg.

At the same time, countries have the right to regulate immigration into their land and should “regulate their borders with justice and mercy,” he added.

Catholic Social Teaching, Msgr. Keeney asserted, supports a commitment to the common good which implies that every person has basic human rights.

He cited Luke’s Gospel which states the importance of taking care of the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable in society, “not just tolerate them.”

In looking at the migrant and refugee, one should remember “that among those who have been refugees are the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Msgr. Keeney said.

Every person has a right to live in his or her own country, he asserted, but there are often factors which cause individuals or families to move.

This can include natural disasters or poor economic conditions with no jobs.

Refugees may leave their country to flee from war, fear of political reprisal or hunger. This often involves an emergency situation which forces a sudden move.

The issue of immigration is personal to Christy Williams, advocacy attorney with Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) in Silver Spring, Md., one of the seven panel members. CLINIC was founded by the USCCB in the late 1980s and is the largest non-profit immigration legal service network in the country.

“Sometimes a refugee is forced to leave because of persecution or threat of future persecution,” she explained. “There’s no time to plan.”

Ms. Williams came to the U.S. from Liberia as a teenager, but was not a refugee.

Msgr. Keeney recalled that when he was involved in priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Ethiopians were allowed to enter Italy but could not get a job. As a result, some became street peddlers.

Countries are today challenged to “have an open heart and look at the needs of children,” but do not have to accept more people than they can assimilate.”

Father Jack Podsiadlo, a Jesuit who is director of leadership at the Sacred Heart Center in Richmond, urged Catholics to take a look at statistics which show the growing number of Latinos in the Richmond area.

Most of the Latinos at Sacred Heart are under age 40. Few are older than 65, Father Jack said.

The median age of all Latinos there is 27, but the median age of those who were born in the United States is 15.

He emphasized that Latinos are an ethnicity, not a race.

“They come in all different colors, sizes, shapes,” Father Jack said. “It’s a big mixture.”

He cited Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua as the places which draw the largest number of Latinos who live in the Richmond area.

Children seem to be the major concern of Latino parents.

“They see their children’s education as very important,” Father Jack said. “The parents’ concern is to learn English so they can communicate with their children’s teacher. “They come to Virginia because there are jobs here,” he said.

Many work hard at gaining their GED (Graduate Equivalency Diploma) which can be taken in either English or Spanish.

“The GED to them is like a doctorate from Harvard,” Father Jack said.

Jeff Caruso and Kevin Mauer, executive director and associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, respectively, spoke about the VCC’s support of legislation that would have removed barriers that prevent immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses.

Having a license enables them to get to a job, go grocery shopping and get to church.

“We want people to be able to get to church and have access to the sacraments,” Mr. Mauer told The Catholic Virginian.

There is increased fear undocumented immigrants have about being interrogated about their immigration status if they are stopped by local police.

Undocumented immigrants are not legally allowed to have a driver’s license. The DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) issues driver’s licenses only to citizens and immigrants who have a certain legal status.

Joanne Nattrass, executive director of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, said that the U.S. resettlement process for refugees may take 18 to 36 months from the initial interview.

Refugees can apply for permanent resident status one year after their entry into the U.S. With this status they can receive a Green Card which allows them to live here indefinitely. They can later, but to do not have to, apply for U.S. citizenship.

While some Americans have concerns and fears about criminal activity of refugees, Ms. Nattrass pointed out that there are 11 levels of security clearance before a refugee can arrive in the U.S.

A distinction was made between refugees, those who have fled their country because of violence, conflict or persecution, and immigrants who leave their country to find a job or might have a variety of other reasons.

“The people most in danger are those who are undocumented or who have overstayed their visas,” said Eleanor Sullivan, immigration counselor with Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

Undocumented people who have been in the U.S. less than two years are now subject to an Executive Order which states they are no longer eligible to plead their case before a judge.

“One must prepare for the worst,” Ms. Sullivan said. “They need to keep a binder to show that they have been in the U.S. over two years so they can plead their case,” she said.

But one has to be careful about which legal advisers are hired.

“There’s a huge market for immigration fraud,” Ms. Sullivan said, adding that some people who claim to be immigration advisers are not accredited and have no legal expertise.

“You should first contact local attorneys to see how much they charge” and to determine if they are reputable, she suggested.

Regarding the Executive Order known as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — it was established by President Obama for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents before they were 16 and who have lived here continuously.

Father Jack advised immigrant parents to register their U.S.-born child’s Baptism record and first Communion certificates to document a time frame.

Msgr. Keeney voiced the opinion that he has found there has been harmony between Anglo and Latino married couples at what St. Bede’s calls “Date Night.”

“If people actually get to know people, that’s when attitudes begin to change,” he said. “This is when people are no longer seen as a category.”