In the current clamor of national politics, immigrants and refugees are often categorically vilified, their human dignity and personal stories lost amidst political posturing. Yet Pope Francis reminds us to “encounter Jesus in those who are poor, rejected, or refugees. Do not let fear get in the way of welcoming our neighbour in need.”
In my work with Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services Department, I am fortunate to encounter immigrants and refugees on a daily basis. I strive to help them overcome the barrage of obstacles that make it difficult to navigate our increasingly broken immigration system.
The person seated in my office may be a refugee from Somalia trying to bring his wife and children from a refugee camp in Kenya, a teenager from Guatemala fleeing violence and abuse, a U.S. citizen originally from Mexico who would like her adult married son to join her here, or a Haitian woman hoping to escape the grinding poverty of her home country. Opportunities are few. The Somali refugee has been waiting four years for his family to be approved; the Guatemalan teenager has protected status but will not receive permanent residence for three years; the son of the U.S. citizen will have to wait 23 years to be able to immigrate; and the Haitian woman has no options. Yet, for some, with patience and long-suffering, there is hope.
Maria came to the United States in 2004, fleeing the gang violence and poverty of El Salvador. She left behind her 4-year-old daughter, Juana, hoping to establish a safer life in the U.S. In 2007, she was living with a man who brutally abused her, and in fear for her life, she gathered the courage to call the police. Based on this abuse, she was able to apply for a temporary visa, which would later lead to permanent residence. Filled with hope, she included Juana, still in El Salvador, in her application. But although Juana’s application was approved, she needed a passport to be able to travel to the U.S. Juana’s father would not sign the forms for her passport, and so she had to remain in El Salvador. Finally, this year, Juana turned 18 and was able to apply for a passport on her own. Now, after 14 years of separation, mother and daughter are reunited.
Let us take a step back from the negative political rhetoric to reflect on Jesus’ example of justice and compassion for the least and most vulnerable. Then may we take a step forward as we actively welcome the stranger and resist fear.
Kathy Howe-Kerr works in Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services Department as an accredited representative, approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals.