California Catholics Respond to “Humanitarian Crisis”

Some parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino are serving as temporary way stations for women and children fleeing violence and drug cartels in Central America; Catholic Charities in several dioceses are working to provide assistance and services to asylum seekers; and diocesan staffs are arranging pastoral care for the unaccompanied children being housed at retired military bases.

The large number of women and children arriving at the U.S. border has only recently received national media attention but the situation has been developing for years. (See 2013 Bishop Report – Rise in Violence Is Major Reason Children Are Fleeing.)

Most are “crossing” in Texas and surrendering to authorities. But the influx has forced Federal officials to improvise and they have asked faith-based and other non-profit agencies for assistance.

In their statement, the California Bishops emphasize our “responsibility as a Church of compassion to come to [the] aid [of fleeing migrants] and help provide them with the practical and pastoral support they so need.”

St. Joseph’s Parish in Fontana, California, became the first to accept the refugees on Thursday, when nearly 50 mothers and their children began temporary stays at an unused convent. They will remain for no more than 72 hours.

Parishioners, under the guidance of local Catholic Charities personnel, will help the refugees arrange travel to the homes of relatives or others in the United States until an immigration court can decide  whether to grant them asylum or not.

Children travelling by themselves, however, are not released pending a hearing. They must appear before an immigration judge and, under a 2008 law, they are also provided with counsel.

The law - known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act after a British politician and activist who helped outlaw slavery in the United Kingdom - passed by a bipartisan voice vote in Congress and was signed by President Bush in the waning days of his administration.

The measure is designed to combat potential human trafficking but was not designed for this number of unaccompanied children. It exempts children from Mexico -- who are immediately deported and bused back to Mexico without appearing before a judge -- and it specifically excludes an attempt to escape from “extreme poverty” as a reason to enter the United States without papers.

Unaccompanied children are being held in centers operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). One of the facilities is a former U.S. Navy base in Port Hueneme, near Ventura, California. Nearly 600 teens are being held there.

Archbishop José Gomez, of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is working to arrange pastoral care for the children – many of whom are frightened and lonely.

“These are times in our Church and in our nation that call for all of us to set aside our political differences to serve our brothers and sisters in need,” said the Archbishop in his weekly column.

“No matter how they got here, no matter how frustrated we are with our government, we can’t forget that these are children of God who are also just kids. No different than our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews and cousins.”

(You can read his entire column, A Time for Tenderness and Hospitality here.)

Representatives of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles – which provides extensive services for immigrants, migrants and refugees around the nation – were allowed to visit the base earlier this week and found conditions adequate. A delegation from the California Legislature also visited the base earlier in the week.

Related Content

  • USCCB’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program works to ensure the best interests of the children in its program. Read more about it here.
  • Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles, offers personal reflections in Don’t Blame the Children at the Border.
  • Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of USCCB’s Committee on Migration, reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to migrant children at the opening remarks of the National Migration Conference in Washington this week. Read what more he had to say here.
  • More about Catholic Charities agencies in California can be found at their website.
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