This article is written by Fr. Gregory Semeniuk, C.M. who attended the Vincentian Family Gathering in early June.
On the weekend of June 9-11, the Vincentian Family hosted an important meeting on “Welcoming the Stranger.” It took place in the Double Tree Hotel, near the San Antonio Airport. There were over 200 members of the Vincentian Family represented.
All draw from the trunk of our charism to serve and evangelize the poor, and in this instance the immigrant to the United States. Most notable about the gathering was the number of the branches which were represented, for example, the Sisters of Charity, Nazareth, Sisters of Charity, New York, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, The Society of St. Vincent of US and Canada, Vincentian parishes, and three Lay Vincentian Missionary Groups. Our houses of formation were likewise represented, namely, DePaul Novitiate and Vincentian Theologate of Manayunk. The Vincentian Family Office were among the presenters, as were lawyers, religious, and theologians. At the close of the meeting, Sr. DJ recognized the numerous young adults at the event, university students, campus ministers, graduates from Niagara University, N.Y., St. John’s University, N.Y., University of St. Mary’s in Leavenworth, KA, and DePaul University, Chicago.
Two recent immigrants to the United States, Yessenia Vasquez and Johannes Bahta, shared powerful testimonies about their struggle to enter the United States and remain here. Yessenia spoke about the grinding poverty and abusive childhood that marked her life in Guatemala. She longed to be free from her anguish. She prayed that God would help her to realize the dream for a better life. She ran away from home and joined in the perilous trek through Mexico. She jumped the “bestia” train north. At 15 years old, she crossed the border into the U.S.A. Undocumented, she was put into detention. The turning point for Yessenia came when a Sister of Charity argued her asylum case and won. Later, a local community of Sisters of Charity welcomed Yessenia to live with the overcrowded and the rations were inadequate. With time she was registered in high school, documented, and later trained and employed as an administrator of medical records in a doctor’s office.
In addition, Johannes, an Eritrean, and former asylum seeker spoke of his ordeal at the US Mexican border. At the Mexican border, he surrendered himself to the US immigration authorities with the expectation that his asylum case would be heard. To his dismay, he was detained and treated as criminal. He recounted a delousing, at which time the detainees stripped and were hosed down by a guard. Although housed and fed, the conditions were difficult. Prior to his release, he volunteered to assist another asylum seeker who did not know English. He interpreted for an Ethiopian Amaharic speaker. He was also able to assist a visiting lawyer, filling out forms, interpreting, and learning about the asylum petition and process.
Johannes spent several months in detention. During that time he asked God why was he put there? He discerned God’s will however in the ordeal. God showed him what the asylum seekers experienced in order to prepare him to serve those in detention. Today Johannes advocates for asylum seekers in South Texas.
One of the most troubling aspects of the current challenge to welcoming the stranger concerned the rise of detentions of non-criminal immigrants and business of for-profit detention centers. The recent executive orders, signed by President Trump, empower I.C.E., Immigration Customs Enforcement, to broaden deportations to include non-criminals. In effect, the administration has criminalized a large segment of the undocumented. Further, the immoral business of for profit detention centers deliberately lobbies for more detainees. Any increase in detentions potentially adds shareholder value. Backed by paid lobbyists, the for-profit business benefits from the present policies that support mass detention and deportation of the undocumented. The executive orders have had quite negative impact on families and children.
Often those detained are fathers or mother of documented citizen children. Three things may happen after parents are deported: children are left with relatives; they are returned to their parents’ country of origin, or they become charges of the state.
In a word, the executive orders are painfully felt by the most vulnerable member of the US society. The toxic combination of increased detentions and for profit detention centers contribute to what many judge to be a regrettable new period of American history. The current negative action against the undocumented and those related to them are compared to the Japanese internment camps set up during World War II. While legal, the recent executive orders are immoral. Soon the US Bishops will meet for their biannual gathering. Immigration is on their agenda. Ms. Ashley Feasley, Esq. of the USCCB Office of Immigration hoped that episcopal leadership would empower a positive response to this injustice.
Below are some resources for more information. How will you welcome the stranger you encounter? Let us know in the comments below.
- Catholic Principles of Migration (also available in Spanish)
- 10 Things You Can Do to Accompany Undocumented Immigrants (I think this is really important in your community given some of the discussion around hosting or “sanctuary”. This gives tangible things you can do to help people that are not hosting.)
- KYR highlight video and also the Connecting to Your Community Videos available here