Sister Gabriela Ramírez, MGSpS, is the Director of Hispanic Catholic Social Services (or “La Casita” as it’s known to community members) in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. In “normal times,” La Casita provides low-cost immigration legal services, language assistance, adult education, and religious formation. Since the start of the pandemic, La Casita has shifted many of its regular services to remote platforms and sent food boxes to community members. Sr. Gabriela has also been instrumental in making COVID-19 testing available to immigrants at local parishes.
Emma Winters: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s Communications Coordinator. This is the second episode of a series, “Accompanying Immigrants in the COVID-19 Era: How Catholic Ministries Are Transforming Successful Programs.” In this episode, you will hear Kevin Appleby speak with Sister Gabriela Ramírez. She is the Director of the Guadalupan Multicultural Services in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama — or “La Casita” as it’s known to community members. Since the start of the pandemic, La Casita has shifted many of its regular services to remote platforms. Sr. Gabriela has also been collaborating with local health officials and other Catholic leaders to keep immigrant families safe.
Kevin Appleby: Welcome to the podcast and thank you for being willing to talk to us about your work and that of your agency. For our listeners, can you explain what your agency is doing for immigrants, has done in the past, and some of the things that you’ve done during this COVID-19 crisis where immigrants are particularly vulnerable?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Thank you for the invitation. We are working with migrants but especially with Hispanic people in the northern part of Alabama, the diocese of Birmingham. We have been providing services at La Casita, which is our nickname. Everybody knows that it’s a safe place there. We provide services.
We have an immigration program. It has been approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals. We provide counseling and education for adults. We have English as a Second Language. We have citizenship classes. We have a program called “Plaza Comunitaria,” which is an adult education program for Hispanic people who didn’t have the opportunity to finish their education in their country. We provide literacy and primary and secondary studies. We work as a team with the Mexican consulate in Atlanta and with the public education in Mexico, so at the end they have an official certificate (showing) that they accomplished their education here in this country. When they go back to their country of origin, they have the proper documents. We are doing this to elevate their quality of life. Also, we provide food, clothes, and financial aid to pay their utilities, rent, and bills in emergencies, like this one, COVID-19. We provide services in translations and interpretations. We help them fill out applications for Medicaid, food stamps, child support, all those kinds of services.
Kevin Appleby: So, just a clarification, La Casita, is that the name of the service center that immigrants come to?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Well, it is a nickname, La Casita. The official name is Guadalupan Multicultural Services. La casita in Spanish means “a small house.” We want to provide a safe and welcoming environment for people from different cultures to meet and obtain information, education, and available services. That’s why we call it La Casita. Everybody knows us like that.
Kevin Appleby: You made reference to the current pandemic that we are all facing, could you talk a bit about what are some of the challenges immigrants face during this pandemic? What has La Casita been doing to respond to some of those challenges that immigrants have right now?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Well, there are a lot of challenges. One of them is the lack of education. Some schools are providing classes through the internet, but most of the Hispanic families don’t have internet. The language barrier is another thing, the lack of money, and public transportation are also big challenges here in Alabama. Also, they don’t know the US system and their human rights, so they suffer from cultural shock. When they arrive in this country, they get depressed, and they get homesick. They are carrying with them those difficulties. They are afraid to be deported. They are not experiencing freedom. Some women are suffering domestic violence.
Most of them work in construction, poultry plants, landscaping, kitchens, restaurants, and cleaning houses, hotels, and offices. Sometimes they experience labor abuse. Now because of the Coronavirus, they are losing their jobs, and they need to feed their families. [Some of them are still working but] some without the proper protective equipment. They are afraid to seek health services because they are afraid to be deported, even when they are symptomatic. It makes this population very vulnerable.They are facing financial hardship. They cannot pay their utilities or rent. They are not able to receive government support during this pandemic time. It’s very sad, but the Hispanic people that work in poultry plants are dying because they are more exposed to massive contagions. We are very sad to see how they are dying in the northern part of Alabama, where they have chicken plants.
Kevin Appleby: So in terms of the health care, have you attempted to find a way to get them tested or for those who are sick, get them treatment, or has that been difficult to do in the community?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Well, what we have been doing is working as a team with other agencies, health agencies, government agencies, and other parishes in the diocese. We have been providing drive-through tests at the parish level, so they are not afraid to [get tested]. We are providing that, working together as a team with those entities. We also formed what we call “rapid response teams,” in each region of northern Alabama. We named volunteers as coordinators to be [the main] contact in the area. Their job is to connect those people in need with the resources available. We have been working as a team, and it has been a great success.
Kevin Appleby: That is terrific.
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Working with a food bank in Alabama, we were able to provide food boxes to 5,000 families in different areas in Alabama. We have been able to travel and deliver them either to houses or at the parish level. Up until now, we have been able to help. We also received a grant from Catholic Charities USA to help the people who are victims of this pandemic time. We are paying their power bills, the rent, providing food, or medical expenses.
Kevin Appleby: That’s great. Just delve a bit more into your local situation. What is it like in terms of the community? Is the community supportive or do you get resistance to your work? Is it a challenge? You know, you are in the Deep South, which — and I don’t want to generalize — traditionally has not been as welcoming to the immigrants as other parts of the country. That’s not to say, there are not a lot of great Alabamans who support your work. At least from an outsider’s perspective, the politics of Alabama may not lend itself to supporting immigrants. Has that been a challenge for you, or have you found that Alabamans are actually very supportive of your work?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: It is very sad, but we are not receiving enough support, especially financial support, because some people believe that we are helping, they call them “illegal people,” and they don’t want to make donations to help these people. For me, this is discrimination.
Kevin Appleby: But do some help?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Some of them, yes. Catholic people, Christian people, but in comparison with other agencies who are helping other [vulnerable groups], they have more.
Kevin Appleby: Those political currents are everywhere across the country, not just in the South. I’m actually from the South myself. I just was interested in how the community was partnering with you there.
What do you think needs to happen on a policy level to help immigrants? The Catholic bishops of course have always supported immigration reform, bringing immigrants out of the shadows, providing them full rights of citizenship, if they earn it. Do you think that’s what we need to move towards? Are there other things that could be worked for, for the advocates out there, who want to change the law? What would you say would be your priority in that?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: As far as the immigration policy goes, the current system is far too restrictive. We need more options for those individuals who are already here in the United States to be able to obtain lawful status. That will allow them to better provide for their families. Currently, those workers with temporary authorizations are having a difficult time changing jobs or finding a job. They cannot support their families. For us, non-governmental agencies, it is very hard to provide for those needs, so it’s overwhelming for us.
We need more living wages. This is necessary to give immigrants dignity and justice, and a path to citizenship, especially for those who are already here. We need policies that include the whole family. The ones who are already here, even without their parents, they need to find a way to feel at home here because it is their country. I am especially talking about DREAMers, too. They grew up here, and they need a place to feel at home.
Kevin Appleby: Great. That’s helpful. Are there any other comments you want to make about your work or about the current situation in terms of the COVID pandemic, which is presenting us with a lot of challenges?
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: I believe this pandemic time has been painful, but it is also a time for grace because I have seen how many people now are living in solidarity. We are pulling our resources together to help those in need. And when I think of Jesus’s miracle about the multiplication of the loaves, what Jesus did was just to ask them to share what they had. They just shared it, and he multiplied whatever they brought. So I have been witnessing now how people are sharing more. On the other hand, I have seen families who are receiving those services in a spirit of thanksgiving and gratefulness. We are giving them hope that this is a temporary difficulty, but together in unity, I believe we can move forward and we can overcome any challenges.
We can continue our mission, but we need your support. We need to see ourselves as brothers and sisters. It does not matter our color, our language, our status. We are all children of God, and we need to see each other just as family.
Kevin Appleby: Lovely remarks. Sr. Gabriela Ramírez, thank you so much for being with us and for your great work that you’re performing in Alabama and God bless your efforts.
Sr. Gabriela Ramírez: Thank you for the opportunity. God bless you, too.
Emma Winters: If you want to learn more about the Guadalupan Multicultural Services, please visit: hcsslacasita.org/.
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Guadalupan Multicultural Services of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, otherwise known as “La Casita,” has provided a range of services to immigrants in northern Alabama for years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, La Casita has worked to adjust their services as the needs of the community change.