The mission of the Scalabrinian order is to accompany people on the move. In the COVID-19 era, it is harder than ever to live out that mission. In this episode, we hear from Rev. José Juan Cervantes González, c.s., a Scalabrini priest who runs the Casa Scalabrini – Centro de Pastoral Migratoria in Guadalajara, Mexico. He is working to get the permission of the Mexican government to reopen the organization’s shelter and has stepped up advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants during the pandemic. We’ll also hear from Rev. Peter Ciallella, a Scalabrini priest by training who has settled in the Diocese of Hamilton in Canada. He has found new ways to reach out to migrant farmworkers during the pandemic, and like Rev. José Juan, he has become a stronger advocate since the start of the pandemic. Despite the challenges of this moment, Rev. José Juan and Rev. Peter are finding new ways to strengthen their ministries and cooperating with health officials to ensure safety.
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 first 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 Fr. José Juan Cervantes González, c.s., a Scalabrini priest who runs the Casa Scalabrini – Centro de Pastoral Migratoria in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Fr. Peter Ciallella, a Scalabrini priest by training who has settled in the Diocese of Hamilton in Canada. Both Fr. José Juan and Fr. Peter have stepped up their advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants during the pandemic.
First, we will hear from Fr. Peter, who has an active ministry with migrant farmworkers but is reaching out in different ways because of the pandemic.
Kevin Appleby: Father, welcome to the podcast.
Fr. Peter Ciallella: Thank you, Kevin. My pleasure to be here.
Kevin: Could you give us an overview of your ministry to farmworkers in the area around Blessed Sacrament?
Fr. Peter: Yes, I arrived at Blessed Sacrament back in 2017. Just to give our listeners an idea, I’m in the southwestern part of Ontario. It’s about 100 kilometers west of the city of Toronto, so I’m in a rural area. I found out right away that farming is a big industry in this area and that there were a number of migrant workers. We began our ministry by simply hosting a monthly mass with about… 30 to 40, even up to 80 people — depending on the season. Aside from the religious service, we also provided the migrant workers the opportunity to use the WiFi at our parish center because a number of them do not have access to Wi-Fi, which is important because they use that for social media. A number of the parishioners and volunteers always offer the migrant workers a nice meal afterwards. That’s what the model of our ministry has been up until this year.
Kevin: Of course, we live in challenging times. We have a global pandemic that’s impacting everyone. Could you share with us how you and the parish community and the surrounding community have responded to the challenges farmworkers are facing during this pandemic?
Fr. Peter: Yes, that’s been one of our limitations this year. Of course, we couldn’t have our regular gatherings, so I’ve been trying to stay in touch with them through other means, on social media, principally WhatsApp. I’ve also attempted to meet needs as they arise.
For example, in the month of June, I found out that about 200 of [the migrant workers] had been exposed to the virus. All were at this one particular farm, Scotland Farm, which is about 30 miles south of my parish. A number of them were going to be housed (in quarantine) at a hotel in Branford. Branford is just about 10 miles away from here. We came up with the idea of providing gift bags. We thought, what better way to show our appreciation? We started with simple items: toiletries, masks, granola bars, things that we could provide with the limitations COVID.
From that, spun this initiative of just trying to reach out to them in any way we can. Sometimes we’ll get requests for luggage or work clothes. One of the challenges we are also facing, aside from the fact that we don’t have ongoing contact with them, is that a number of them are actually not allowed to leave the farm premises as they were in the past. Usually, they were allowed to go out once or twice a week on Friday afternoon, Thursday afternoon to go to the stores, to cash their checks. Now, many of them are limited from leaving the farm premise.
Kevin: The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus among the farmworkers indicates some of the conditions under which they work. Could you talk a little bit about that — both the conditions previous to the pandemic and how those conditions have adversely impacted the farmer workers?
Fr. Peter: Yes, so the living conditions among the farmworkers vary very much. On the smaller farms, they tend to be housed in a smaller house or a trailer. That may be shared among five or six people. On the larger farms, like Scotland Farm, they are housed in what are called “bunkhouses” [because the living quarters are comprised of bunk beds]. They’re compartmentalized in these large building facilities, and they’re subdivided into maybe four or five quarters. Each quarter consists of about three or four bunk beds, double [people sleeping] top and bottom. Then, they share the common space, space for their eating, and the washroom, and the shower facilities are shared by all of them. You could have 60 to 80 men in one large bunkhouse facility. It’s very small. The conditions were not ideal pre-COVID, and they’re definitely not ideal during the pandemic. It exposes the weakness in that. Just like some of our long-term care centers were not adequately prepared to deal with the pandemic, it’s the same with these bunkhouses. They’re small spaces, congregate living, and it exposes the migrant workers.
I should also add: those who have been infected were infected in Canada. They didn’t bring the virus from Mexico or Jamaica (or other home countries). They were exposed to it here, through community spread.
Kevin: That’s an important point. Thank you, Father. What the pandemic has exposed, even more so about the farmworkers is the injustice that they face on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis — in terms of their wages and their working conditions. Your support of them has gone beyond just providing gift bags and spiritual support and other material support. You have been an advocate on their behalf. Could you talk a little bit about your advocacy efforts and the efforts of the Canadian Bishops with regard to the farmworkers? How has the pandemic increased that advocacy over the past month or so?
Fr. Peter: Sure, so it happened because of this situation at Scotland Farms, near Simcoe, Ontario. We developed a relationship with the local health officer, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai. He alerted me to an ongoing political discussion within the county about the mandatory isolation or quarantine. Dr. Shanker had instructed and mandated that when the men had to be quarantined, either because they just arrived and had to fulfill the 14-day quarantine requirement or if they were infected but not so sick that needed to be hospitalized, he mandated that, in these bunkhouses, there should be no more than three residents. That started this big uproar among the larger farmers—industrial farms that employ 200, 300, 500 workers in a single farming community. There was a lot of pushback because the owners thought that was restrictive in terms of cost. They always would say, “No, it’s not about cost. It’s about food security.” It’s about cost.
Dr. Shanker asked for our support, and I talked to [Bishop Ronald Peter Fabbro of the London Diocese and Bishop Douglas Crosby of the Hamilton Diocese]. Both said, yes, we definitely have to support Dr. Shanker. We wrote a letter to the Health Board taking the position that Dr. Shanker’s position was valid. There needs to be proper quarantine and isolation. Now, I know it’s a very local issue and very a local matter, but our fear was that this could have consequences. If this particular county in Norfolk decided that three was too restrictive, then that would lead to the other counties saying, “Oh yeah, well if they can allow 5, 6 or 7, then we should be allowed the same number.”
It is the job of the farmer to carry out the mandate. I know of one farm, for example, where the 14-day quarantine was not happening. One of the workers reached out to me. I said, “Oh, you’ve just arrived, so you’re in your quarantine.” He said, “No, I arrived a few days ago and [the farm owner] told me that I had to go and start working.” Luckily, I was able to make a call to the local health authority, and they came and instructed the owner [on proper quarantine measures]. It really falls to the owners. The farmers call the shots, and I think we need more government inspection and supervision. This is one of the areas that we’ve been trying to be advocates and say, “You need to properly isolate.” Of course the long-term advocacy is a question of better living conditions and a way to allow for a pathway to residency. Right now, these farmer workers — mostly men — do not have a right to any kind of residency status, like a green card. They’re contracted year after year, they serve their eight months. Some have a different contract where they can stay a year or longer, but it does not guarantee them [permanent] residency.
Kevin: This local debate about the health and safety of the migrant farmworkers has seemed to generate a national discussion in Canada about the treatment of farmworkers. You had an op-ed in the Toronto Star recently highlighting some of the injustices faced by the farmworkers. Are you hopeful that the Canadian Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the national leadership will look at this issue more in-depth and enact a path to citizenship for the farmworkers in Canada?
Fr. Peter: I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic. There’s so much on the table with the pandemic. You have the school issues, the long-term care facilities. I am a little optimistic that it has entered the national discourse, but I do know that there’s a lot of things on the agenda. Why did this become prominent? Well, we had three deaths here in Ontario, and that created a bit of a stir. People reacted at the moment. One of the workers was on the Scotland Group, and it brought the discussion to the forefront. My fear is that, like anything: A tragedy happens, there’s the initial reaction. There’s a commitment from the government, but then there’s little follow-up in the long run.
Kevin: We have the same challenges in the United States. Aside from your advocacy and your provision of basic needs assistance to the farmworkers, you have provided pastoral services to them over the years. You’ve been particularly supportive during this crisis. You mentioned that the three of the farmworkers have died. Could you talk a little bit about your pastoral ministry to farmworkers during this pandemic?
Fr. Peter: It’s been challenging because we don’t have the usual contact with the farmworkers. Remember, when we enter premises [of a farm], it’s private property. One colleague said she was making the rounds, trying to bring some groceries, and food items. One day she made an extra visit to the farm. For some reason, it bothered the farmer or the administration. They said, “You know what? Thank you, but no thank you. You’re not allowed on our property.” It’s very delicate work. While I try to be a strong advocate, I know that I have to also walk that fine line. I’m not so concerned that I’m going to upset a farmer. My worry is that I’ll be cut off from the farmworkers. So I try to do it all in a very respectful way, on a case-by-case basis. For example, I took a group of them shopping. They were able to leave the farm premises. So I [took them to our St. Vincent de Paul store] and then we went to do some food shopping. Another farm, they are not allowed to leave, so once in a while, they’ll give myself or my volunteers their wishlist. Even though the farm supposedly takes care of everything, sometimes there’s a language barrier, and they don’t get the items they require.
Kevin: Any final comments for the listeners?
Fr. Peter: Just be aware. We in North America are blessed with produce that comes to our tables. Think about: How did that apple or that peach or that produce come to my table? Who were the people involved in the hours of labor and sweat? What is the cost? Here, they are earning the minimum wage, which is about 14 Canadian dollars and about 12 US dollars an hour. Think about showing gratitude and being grateful for the work and the hard sweat and the labor that went into it, so that we can have access to [food that is relatively inexpensive].
Kevin: Yes, we say in the United States that we can’t eat breakfast without eating something that an agricultural worker has touched.
Fr. Peter: Exactly. I hope that people just become more aware of the farm-working community and the struggles. Also, I do want to add, I’m not only ministering to farmworkers strictly, but I do have farmers, owners [in my community], and there are a number of them that are just fantastic. They treat their workers with a lot of care and dignity. I knew one family, and last year they were helping one of their workers who was having cardiological issues. They were driving him to the city on many occasions so that he could get the necessary care. There are a few [farmer owners] that really stand out and do treat these workers as they should be treated.
Kevin: Fr. Peter Ciallella, thank you for your work, and thank you for joining the Center for Migration Studies podcast.
Fr. Peter: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure. God Bless.
Emma Winters: If you want to keep up with Fr. Peter’s ministry you can find out more at blessedsacramentburford.ca.
In the next part of the episode, we’ll hear from Fr. José Juan Cervantes González. He runs the Casa Scalabrini – Centro de Pastoral Migratoria in Guadalajara, Mexico. His organization had to close its shelter during the pandemic, but he is working to get permission from the Mexican government to reopen. Innovating is nothing new for the Scalabrinians in Guadalajara. In a moment, you’ll hear Fr. José Juan describe how the Scalabrinians’ initiatives have developed in recent years to meet the changing needs of migrants.
Kevin: Welcome, Father, to the podcast.
Fr. José Juan: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: We wanted to talk to you today about first, your ministry to the migrants, but also the challenges you have faced in serving them during this COVID-19 pandemic, which of course has been a challenge for all of us. Why don’t you first give us a sense of your ministry to the migrants, the services you provide, and your interaction with migrants on a daily basis?
Fr. José Juan: The Scalabrinians in Guadalajara, we started our missionary presence in the early 1980s. We have more or less 35 years in Guadalajara. But in the past, we were very much focused on the formation program, as Guadalajara was a place that used to be sending migrants. It was not a place receiving migrants or where the migrants were very visible. In 2010, La masacre de San Fernando de Tamaulipas (The Tamaulipas Fernando Massacre) happened here in Mexico. That forced [people] to seek other roots, for migration, for the Central American migrants. Guadalajara became the central point of this route.
Fr. José Juan: And at that time, the seminary was very much focusing on the formation program, but the same seminary started asking, what can we do for the migrants? What are we going to do in this new reality that the city is facing? Actually, many of the migrants used to be seen in the street asking for money in order to continue their travel to the border. Then, we started different initiatives. We used to offer a meal for these migrants who were waiting for the train to continue their ride. But at the beginning, we said, “We cannot do something very ostentatious, we need to think of something more integral.”
At the same time, there were many organizations starting to make initiatives. [There were already two shelters]. There was one shelter run by students, and the other shelter was made by a diocesan priest. We were saying, “The shelters are already done. We don’t need to do another shelter. But what is missing in the attention to the migrants here in the city?” We discovered that there was not a place for people that [needed] special care. People that were sick or maybe they were persecuted. They cannot be in another shelter; they have to be in a small and secure place. So at the beginning, we started thinking about building a shelter for a few people in order to protect them from abuse. At the same time, we started speaking about migration and producing graphic materials for raising consciousness about migration. We started doing another kind of work that not only focused on sheltering people, but also focused on advocacy and raising consciousness about the new reality in the city.
Kevin: Sounds like you come a long way. Let’s go to 2020, right before the pandemic started, how many migrants did you serve a day or did you have residing in the shelter?
Fr. José Juan: As we started opening the shelter in 2016, the office of migration of the government, the federal office of migration, asked for a place for the deportees. They didn’t have families living in Guadalajara or a place to stay. The situation was very different from the migrants coming from Central America because they had different needs. The deportees from the States needed reintegration into society, like looking for a job and a longer time to stay in the house in order to get a job and get settled in a new house. So we started trying to set up programs for the deportees. It was very interesting because the main population we started to receive were deportees from the States.
Also, many of them cannot speak Spanish, and here in the house at least we have one or two persons who were able to communicate with them in English. Then, in 2019, they started the deportation to the interior of Mexico but arriving in Guadalajara. Now, there are two weekly flights coming from Arizona straight to Guadalajara. Many of [the deportees] return to their places (of origin). There are some people coming [with] no family or who don’t know what to do. They need more time to ask for money for some needs that are not the normal ones. We have a post in the airport where we receive the migrants. We offer them our services and many of them arrive at our house. The interesting thing is from December to March of 2020, I received 100 migrants. In the other years, we have received 50 migrants (per year). In only three months, we received 100 migrants.
Kevin: So these flights started prior to the pandemic but have continued through the pandemic?
Fr. José Juan: They were suspended from March to June, and then they started again in June.
Kevin: Tell us about the most recents flights. How many migrants come to your shelter from each flight and what have you done to prepare to protect the migrants from the COVID-19 virus?
Fr. José Juan: At the moment we are closed. We are not receiving people. But I am preparing. I hope to start receiving people very soon because many of these people are being forced to go back to their cities without even knowing if their families will receive them. They are arriving at the airport, and from the airport they take a bus to a place near their cities. They are just sent to nearby places.
Kevin: When do you expect to receive the first group of migrants from the United States that may be impacted by the virus?
Fr. José Juan: I hope next month.
Fr. José Juan: I am preparing to do two different settings. A setting for the people that are free of COVID, and a setting for the people that have to be isolated. So I am now in this process of preparing the place.
Kevin: How many [migrants] do you expect to receive a week once you start receiving?
Fr. José Juan: More or less, we are expecting about five percent of the people on each flight will come to the house. I am thinking about seven or eight persons each time the flight arrives.
Kevin: So about 15 per week?
Fr. José Juan: Yes. What I do is, many of them stay some days here. They ask for money [to get to] their families. Most of them either go back to the border or they go back to their cities. There is a group of people that don’t want to continue the experience, and they ask for help finding a job here in Guadalajara. We help them to find a job.
Kevin: And how long are they allowed to stay at the shelter?
Fr. José Juan: For as long as they need. Some of the people stay only three, four days. Others will stay one month, two months in order to get a job and to be able to rent a house.
Kevin: And you said you’re creating an isolation part of the shelter for those who may be infected. What will you do if a migrant gets very sick and needs hospital care? Do you have a plan for that?
Fr. José Juan: That’s the point. I’m not receiving people yet because I’m trying to get a covenant with the government, to ask them to take care of the migrants who are sick.
Kevin: How is that going? Difficult, huh?
Fr. José Juan: It’s difficult because the resources are very stretched, but there is goodwill. The person in charge is a very nice person, and she’s trying to do her best in order to help us. But we know that we cannot close our doors forever. Our vocation is to help people. Our vocation is to accompany people to make their decisions in life. We cannot stop this life, but we continue and we have to adapt to the new reality.
This will be more difficult. We have to be more careful, but we are training the personnel of the shelter in order to receive the people. Now that we are not able to directly serve the migrants, we are focusing our efforts on trying to raise consciousness. I’m working on our website. I’m also working on publications. It’s mainly in Spanish.
Kevin: Do you want to comment on the US and Mexican migration policies that lead to this, you know, the deportations from the United States, where some of the migrants might already have the virus?
Fr. José Juan: At this moment, there are eight flights coming to the interior of Mexico. Most of these people are caught crossing the border, so they are called ‘rejections.’ Many of them are sent to Guadalajara, and then in two days or three days will be again at the border. Because they already paid the pollero (human smuggler). They cannot lose [the payment] because it is very high. Now, people are paying up to $6,000 to cross. I have even heard of stories of people paying $10,000 in order to cross.
Many of the people that are being deported now, they do not have COVID because they have not been confined in detention centers. The problem is when they start sending people from the detention centers, and they are starting to mix during the flights. For example, they sent 90 persons coming from the border and 40 from the detention centers. That is the problem. They are already mixing people. Sometimes they don’t tell you, who comes from one part and who comes from the other. You have to ask the person. They have to screen them. So it is difficult.
Kevin: Any final words, Father, you want to share with the listeners about what’s happening during the pandemic and the plight of persons on the move, migrants, that come to Guadalajara?
Fr. José Juan: Something that has happened, maybe not in Guadalajara, but in other places, is that Mexico also deported many migrants to Central America when their borders were already closed. In many of the cases, the borders were closed and the people were just left at the border, abandoned there. I think it was very irresponsible the way that part of the government handled the situation. At the same time, the reaction of civil society was very interesting.
Society was able to give a hand to the people even if the shelter was closed. People continued helping in one way or another. The solidarity of the church and the organizations of civil society is always there. We are trying to do our best in order to continue helping people.
Kevin: Father José Juan, thank you for joining our podcast today and God bless you and your work.
Emma: If you want to learn more about Casa Scalabrini, please visit: https://www.migrantes.com.mx/.
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