The CRISIS Survey: The Catholic Church’s Work with Immigrants in the United States in a Period of Crisis

Donald Kerwin and Daniela Alulema
Center for Migration Studies

The CRISIS Survey: The Catholic Church’s Work with Immigrants in the United States in a Period of Crisis


Over the last five years, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) has conducted four surveys of Catholic immigrant-serving institutions, programs, and ministries in the United States. These surveys identify the multi-faceted needs of immigrants and refugees, and examine the successes and challenges of Catholic institutions in responding to them. CMS administered its most recent survey, the Catholic Refugee and Immigrant Service Integration Survey (the “CRISIS Survey”) from December 14, 2020 through February 5, 2021. This survey explored the work of Catholic institutions during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CRISIS Survey documents the reach, diversity, and productivity of Catholic institutions that work with immigrants and refugees during a pandemic that has particularly devastated their communities and an administration whose policies and rhetoric made their work far more difficult. At a time of rampant “Catholic decline” narratives, the survey also documents the reach, vitality, and relevance of Catholic immigrant-serving institutions. It identifies the obstacles encountered by immigrants in accessing Catholic programs and ministries – both organizational (funding, staffing, and siting) and exogenous (federal policies, the pandemic, and community opposition). It underscores the threat posed by US immigration policies to immigrants and to the work of Catholic institutions.

Survey respondents reported that they offered new services during this period, such as:

  • Financial assistance for families, particularly those at risk of losing housing or utilities.
  • COVID-19 testing, education, contact tracing, and quarantine services.
  • Mental health services.
  • Grief support and assistance with funeral expenses.
  • Delivery of food and sanitation supplies for infected and other homebound persons.
  • Voter registration and Census promotion activities.

Virtually all respondents provided services remotely during the pandemic. Many reported on difficulties faced by immigrants in accessing their services, due to poor internet connections, limited computer access, and lack of communications technology and training. Respondents identified several factors that negatively affected immigrants’ access to their services pre-pandemic. As in previous CMS surveys, these factors included lack of immigration status, negative community attitudes toward immigrants, fear of apprehension (particularly after traffic stops) and deportation, public transportation deficiencies, stigma over receipt of mental health services, and identification requirements to access public benefits. Respondents also reported on obstacles in working with immigrants during the pandemic. These included the pandemic itself, limited funding, demand that outpaced resources, government restrictions on relief and benefit eligibility, and (particularly for students) living arrangements, work, and family caretaking responsibilities.

Respondents overwhelmingly believed that immigration enforcement, tied to fear of deportation, very negatively or somewhat negatively affected participation in their services and programs. In Catholic terms, they reported that nativist immigration policies, rhetoric, and media sources interfere with their practice of discipleship. One respondent stated, “Fear of ICE and round-ups, locally in our state and nationally, along with negative immigration rhetoric from the out-going president have made our clients very fearful to access services they rightly qualify for.” A healthcare provider reported that immigrants were “avoiding or delaying seeking treatment for COVID-19 for fear of apprehension and/or deportation.” Many said that enforcement partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and states and localities made immigrants fearful of reporting crimes or accessing government facilities. One said potential sponsors feared coming forward to reunify with children. Respondents also cited as problems delays in family reunification, barriers to asylum-seekers entering the United States, decreased refugee admissions, and the Trump administration’s rule on the public charge ground of inadmissibility.

The report recommends that Catholic institutions take stock of the creative new programs, skills and capacities that they have developed during the pandemic and build on them. It also recommends that scholars and researchers prioritize independent, person-centered research that critically analyzes the work of Catholic immigrant-serving institutions. Such research would ask whether these institutions are putting “the person at the center, in his or her many aspects” and honoring the “fundamental equality” of every person (Francis 2019). It would draw on the perspectives of immigrants served by Catholic institutions to examine the degree to which these institutions advance the rights, participation, and wellbeing of immigrants and their families in US society. It would also analyze how Catholic institutions work with each other – within Arch/dioceses, regionally, nationally, and across these realms – in response to the cross-cutting needs
of immigrants.

The report recommends that Catholic institutions develop programmatic plans to ensure that immigrants can return to or can continue to access their programs and ministries as the pandemic subsides. These plans will need to combine communication strategies, financial support, and services such as transportation and childcare. In addition, Catholic institutions should make it a high priority to ensure that immigrants can access the infrastructure, platforms, and training that will allow them to access virtual services. They should also develop strategies to engage Catholics who do not understand, who ignore, or who work at cross-purposes to Catholic teaching and policy positions in this area. Finally, they should redouble their work with the administration and Congress to reform US immigration laws, and with states and localities to promote welcoming and inclusive communities.


Author Names

Donald Kerwin and Daniela Alulema

Date of Publication July 8, 2021
DOI 10.14240/cmsrpt0721