Breaking Down Barriers and Welcoming the Stranger: 2019 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference

Mike Nicholson
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Breaking Down Barriers and Welcoming the Stranger: 2019 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference

On March 12 and 13, 2019, 181 representatives of Catholic immigrant-serving organizations from around the country convened at Santa Clara University School of Law to take part in the Center for Migration Studies’s (CMS’s) annual Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference. The conference highlighted the tireless and groundbreaking work that Catholic institutions and programs are undertaking to serve immigrants and create welcoming communities. It highlighted successful practices for serving immigrants and created opportunities for participants to share ideas and address common challenges. It also examined how changing US immigration policies are affecting Catholic institutions and those they serve. Conference participants emphasized the importance of building bridges between immigrant communities and the native-born, and addressed the needs of immigrants’ US-born children.

Catholic Institutional Initiatives to Foster Immigrant Integration While Serving the US-Born Children of Immigrants

The conference’s first session described several Catholic initiatives that serve the US born children of immigrants. Panelists stressed the need to design services and ministries that resonate with and empower second- and third-generation immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds.

First, Dr. Veronica Alonzo, Associate Superintendent of Operations for the Diocese of Dallas, described numerous initiatives undertaken by Catholic parishes in schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. For example, several Catholic schools have instituted after-school listening and discussion programs for students with immigrant backgrounds. These schools have instituted English-as-second-language (ESL) classes and expanded ESL resources in libraries. They also reached out to immigrant parents – through calls and home visits – sometimes with interpretation – to facilitate parents’ involvement in school life. They have also recruited volunteers to translate school and parish announcements for immigrant families.

Dallas-area Catholic schools are also taking steps to promote students’ understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees. Some schools have expanded their reading lists to include works written by immigrants. Some have also instituted service-learning programs. For example, one school organized a program bringing students and refugee mothers together. Another organized a two-day training session that brought members of the school community together to promote intercultural awareness.

David Perry, President of the Cristo Rey School in Sacramento, described how Cristo Rey schools, which are Catholic schools specializing in educating the children from low-income immigrant families, are helping to lift young immigrants and children of immigrants out of poverty. Students undertake a unique work-study curriculum and accrue a year of work experience by the time of graduation. The Cristo Rey model has been highly successful nationwide. Thirty-four percent of Cristo Rey alumni have gone on to earn a Bachelor’s degree, as compared to 12 percent of students from similar backgrounds nationwide. There are currently 35 Cristo Rey schools across the country, and the program hopes to build another 50 within the next 10 years.

Dr. Patty Jiménez, founder of and communications coordinator for the Fifth National Encuentro, and Rev. Simon Kim, Director of Intercultural Initiatives at Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology, emphasized the need for Catholic institutions to address diversity within immigrant communities and to better serve the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Jiménez noted that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has embraced a holistic approach to Hispanic ministry which emphasizes consultation and intercultural communication. The USCCB hopes to improve outcomes for young Latinos not only through personalized tutoring, mentorship, and pastoral care, but also by helping their parents to understand the educational system. Both Rev. Kim and Dr. Jiménez also emphasized the importance of celebrating diversity within the Church and designing services and ministries that resonate with, and empower, second- and third-generation immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds.

Parish-Based Models to Welcome, Engage, and Mobilize Immigrants

The conference’s second session lifted up parish-based models that welcome, engage, and mobilize immigrants. The session’s participants emphasized the importance of creating spaces for immigrants to share their stories as a step towards building solidarity in parish communities.

Rev. Jon Pedigo, director of advocacy and community engagement for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, opened the session by describing Grupo Solidaridad, an innovative program that aims to build community among Catholics through storytelling and conversation. The Grupo Solidaridad brings together Catholics from diverse racial, immigration, and ethnic backgrounds and invites them to share their stories and ideas. Each meeting starts with Gospel readings in English and Spanish and continues with bilingual small-group discussions fostering intercultural awareness and exchange. Members of the Grupo Solidaridad have also sought to promote immigrants’ civic inclusion and organized a drive to register first-generation Latino voters in California’s Central Valley. Moreover, they accompany immigrants to immigration check-ins and to courts.

Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, pastor of St. Mark’s Parish in El Paso, Texas, described his parish’s unique efforts to minister to vulnerable migrants in detention centers and migrant shelters, many of whom are from Central America. Through its “RICO Ministry,” St. Mark’s parish invites immigrants held in El Paso’s detention center to celebrate Mass and participate in community meals that feature foods from their homelands. St. Mark’s also organizes special celebrations on important Central American feast days. In addition to its “RICO Ministry,” volunteers from St. Mark’s donate food and clothing to immigrants at shelters and accompany them to bus stations and airports. Volunteers also organize immigration workshops that enable migrants to share their stories.

Finally, Isaac Cuevas, director of immigration and public affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, mentioned that many Catholics have not been exposed to immigrants. He stressed the need to teach Catholics about immigrants and hold them accountable for supporting immigrants.

Religious Orders, Congregations, and Communities on the Frontlines of Immigrant Protection, Service, and Incorporation

The third session highlighted religious communities’ pivotal role in supporting and protecting immigrants. Religious communities are not only supporting migrants directly by providing shelter, education, and pastoral support, but are also empowering non-immigrants to work for migrants and marginalized groups.

The session’s first speaker was Rev. Pat Murphy, executive director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, a large migrant shelter supported by the Scalabrinian Missionary Order. Fr. Murphy described the Casa del Migrante’s efforts to create mini-immersion experiences for US students and create internship programs that expose students to the challenges faced by deportees and migrants in transit to the United States. He also highlighted the work of CESFOM (Centro Scalabrini para la Formación de Migrantes), the Scalabrinian Missionaries’ new center in Tijuana. With the support of community volunteers, CESFOM offers courses in Spanish, English, computer skills, religious formation, long-distance parenting, and Tijuana history to migrants staying at the Casa del Migrante. In the near future, Fr. Murphy hopes to add trade skills such as plumbing to CESFOM’s course offerings.

Next, Sr. Pietrina Raccuglia, president of the Cabrini Mission Foundation, described the work of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In conjunction with UNANIMA, a non-profit organization, the Sisters operate three centers in New York that provide assistance to immigrants. Through these, the Sisters provide immigrants with legal services and emotional support. Until December 2017, the Sisters also operated a shelter in New York. This shelter housed unaccompanied minors until December 2015, when it was converted into a shelter for trafficked women. In the near future, the Sisters hope to repurpose the center to accommodate children separated from their families at the border. They also operate a shelter in Rome for vulnerable immigrants. Finally, they have introduced social justice requirements into the core curriculum of their order’s university, Cabrini University, and encourage their students and faculty to “live their Catholicity” through social activism.

Carolyn Trumble, Mission Educator-Promoter for Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, described the ministries of the Maryknoll Sisters, Fathers, and Brothers. The Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers organize educational trips to the border as well as South America that introduce participants to the challenges faced by migrants and the conditions that create migratory pressures. Through the Discover Your Neighbor Program, they provide professional and spiritual development programs that train young people to work for migrants and other marginalized groups across the globe. They also advocate at the United Nations and the US Congress on behalf of migrants. In El Paso, Texas, the Maryknoll Sisters and Maryknoll lay missionaries volunteer at migrant shelters and provide immigrants with legal support.

Finally, Robert Lasalle-Klein summarized the activities of Oakland Catholic Worker. Oakland Catholic Worker was founded in 1986 to provide temporary shelter for Salvadoran migrants. Currently, it houses 12 families a year and distributes food to 1,200 families per month in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Responses to Immigrant Defense, Empowerment, and Integration

The fourth session concerned Catholic legal responses to the Trump administration’s enforcement policies. Session participants emphasized the need to build a Catholic identity and response to immigrant enforcement that supersedes personal political identities. They also described services their organizations provide to migrants.

Kevin Appleby, CMS’s senior director of international migration policy, urged Catholics to be strategic in their immigration advocacy. He emphasized the need for a Catholic solution to migration that will enable migrants to support their families in dignity without leaving their homelands. He also stressed the need for a nuanced discussion of the ethics of enforcement that emphasizes upholding immigrants’ dignity and rights.

Paz Padilla, associate director of immigration and citizenship for Catholic Charities Diocese of Monterey, noted that her organization provides immigrants with free consultations and help submitting documentation. In collaboration with the diocese, it also organizes “Know Your Rights” presentations and helps migrants develop emergency plans in case family members are deported.

Linda Hartke, former president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), stressed that granting immigrants space to share their personal stories and experiences. When non-immigrants hear immigrants’ stories, they often can connect them to episodes from their families’ own history. Hartke also stressed the need for people of faith to latch onto shared religious values rather than partisan differences.

Kat Doyle, director of justice and peace ministries of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, noted that, in order to change peoples’ hearts and minds on immigration, it is necessary to meet people “where they are” and encourage them to think about immigration through a Catholic lens.

St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, led by executive director Blase Bova, offers immigrants job training, emergency shelter in times of need, meal delivery, and five hot meals a day in its dining room. It has also offered English classes, computer classes, and craft courses.

Fostering Empathy and Mutual Dialogue

The first day of the conference concluded with the Fr. Lydio F. Tomasi, C.S., annual lecture. The 2019 lecture was delivered by Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, pastor of St. Mark’s Parish in El Paso, Texas. Msgr. Bañuelas’s lecture called upon Catholics to put themselves in migrants’ shoes and leave their comfort zones in order to resist the current administration’s policies. He emphasized that support for border walls stems from “inner walls” that engender divisions instead of creating solidarity. Finally, he called upon Catholics to strive to create empathy for migrants within their communities, stressing that they should “do more” and “be more.”

The second day of the conference opened with a keynote address by Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco. Echoing the previous day’s panels, Archbishop Cordileone’s address emphasized the importance of encounters that humanize immigrants. He affirmed the Vatican’s commitment to welcome, protect, and integrate migrants. He also stressed the need for a distinct Catholic vision of integration that acknowledges and values migrants’ cultural heritage and fosters mutual dialogue and learning. Moreover, he described several Catholic initiatives that advance these goals. The Global “Share the Journey” Campaign, for example, brings Catholics together to walk in prayer and support of immigrants. Second, the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s CARE (Catholic Accompaniment and Reflection Experience) program provides migrants with spiritual support and accompaniment to immigrant appointments and helps their children enroll in school. Third, the Archdiocese of Chicago has pioneered a leadership formation program designed to empower Latino lay leaders to advocate for immigrants’ rights and integration. Finally, 20 parish-based POWR (Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees) programs across the country seek to welcome refugees and educate parishioners about the challenges they face. Archbishop Cordileone also praised the USCCB’s efforts to protect Dreamers, undocumented immigrants that arrived in the United States as minors. The USCCB organized a Call-In-Day resulting in 40,000 calls urging Congress to protect Dreamers, and several Bishops have testified before Congress on their behalf.

New Ministries and New Models in Response to Changing Immigration Policies

The fifth panel examined how Catholic institutions are creating new initiatives to respond to current policies and discourse. The panelists described numerous Catholic initiatives providing legal, logistical, and spiritual support to thousands of migrants across the United States and in Mexico.

First, Luis Guerra, strategic capacity officer at Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), described CLINIC’s joint efforts with Al Otro Lado, a non-profit organization, to provide legal services to asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. CLINIC and Al Otro Lado run legal workshops every day and have carried out 2,300 individual consultations over the more than 100 days leading up to the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference. CLINIC and Al Otro Lado have helped immigrants from 45 countries – including Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Guatemala – prepare for US “credible fear” interviews, a prerequisite for gaining asylum. The organizations rely on the services of over 1,300 volunteers. Guerra also noted that the growing presence of immigrants who speak only indigenous languages as well as increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors in Tijuana have made it difficult for CLINIC and Al Otro Lado to effectively serve their clients. Moreover, Guerra emphasized the difficulty of establishing trust between legal service providers and their clients.

Sr. Denise LaRock of the Daughters of Charity described the activities of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio, Texas. The Coalition, founded in 2014, consists of 240 volunteers who accompany families released from immigrant detention centers to bus stations and airports in San Antonio. They provide each family with a backpack containing food and information aimed to help them arrive at their final destination safely. Volunteers provide overnight hospitality to migrants in transit. The Coalition’s accompaniment programs are impressive in scale. Over the first three months of 2019, volunteers accompanied 4,000 families to San Antonio’s bus station. In 2018, volunteers accompanied over 14,000 families to the San Antonio airport. In addition, the Interfaith Welcome Coalition organizes monthly meetings that bring together volunteers and community organizations working with immigrants. It also has worked with RAICES, a legal services non-profit, to provide pro bono legal assistance to immigrants detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Program director Miriam Noriega summarized the work of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. The Interfaith Movement consists of members of over 100 diverse faith congregations seeking to challenge anti-immigrant narratives. It operates a rapid response hotline through which callers can report immigration enforcement activities.  It also helps migrants find physical sanctuary, provides accompaniment to immigrants with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or court appointments, and organizes interfaith prayer vigils at detention centers and ICE building.

Khanh Duy Russo, director of strategic partnerships and performance at the San Jose Mayor’s Office and a former refugee, stressed the need for local governments to cultivate welcoming environments and build trust with immigrant communities. He also stressed the need to help immigrants understand and access services offered by local governments.

Manuel Santamaria, vice president of community impact at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), discussed his organization’s efforts to connect immigrant legal services providers to one another, its support of mental health services for legal service providers, and its investment in a rapid response hotline for immigrants.

Leya Speasmaker, integration program manager for CLINIC’s Center for Citizenship and Immigrant Communities, emphasized that immigrant-serving organizations should seek feedback from immigrants and integrate them into their decision-making structures. To this end, CLINIC is in the process of conducting a number of surveys. The first asks immigrants about their integration experiences and the challenges they are facing. The second asks CLINIC’s 360 member agencies to describe the challenges they face in supporting immigrants.

Re-Imagining the Role of Catholic Institutions in the Midst of a Changing US Refugee Program

The sixth panel examined how Catholic institutions are welcoming and assisting refugees and immigrants in a context of decreasing refugee admissions. As refugee admissions decline, many Catholic institutions are turning their attention to other vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors and undocumented immigrants.

In that vein, Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston, noted that her organization had only resettled 20 refugees as of mid-March 2019, a significant decline relative to previous years. In 2018, Catholic Charities Boston partnered with parishes to resettle refugees and offered employment services and educational support for refugee children. As refugee admissions have declined, it is increasingly redirecting its work towards unaccompanied minors. It has organized focus groups to better understand their needs and it offers educational support through its “Safe Passages” program. In addition, it offers legal orientation presentations to caregivers of unaccompanied children in Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) removal proceedings.

Diana Otero, program director of immigration services at Catholic Charities of Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo Counties, also reported a shift towards serving unaccompanied minors. She noted that many unaccompanied minors have difficulties enrolling in school and finding appropriate legal services. To better support them, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has partnered with SVCF to pair unaccompanied minors with mentors and establish a leadership academy.

Finally, Christopher Martinez, chief program officer of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, reported that, as refugee admissions have declined, his organization has turned its attention to special immigrant visa holders, undocumented immigrants, and unaccompanied minors. Catholic Charities of the East Bay offers integration, mental health support, and social programming for Afghan refugees. Additionally, since 2015, it has provided legal services for unaccompanied minors. Finally, it partners with Oakland Catholic Worker to provide temporary housing to migrants in need.

Next Steps in Major Catholic Processes and Campaigns Related to Immigrant Communities

The third panel of day two discussed possible next steps in Catholic campaigns related to immigrants and immigrant communities. Participants challenged Catholics to move beyond simple awareness of the challenges migrants face and embrace activism on their behalf.

Abraham Joven, director of advocacy and justice for immigrants at the Diocese of San Bernardino, began by describing how his diocese is supporting immigrants. First, the diocese organizes an annual migrant Mass and invites migrants to participate as lectors and ministers. Second, it partners with benefactors to raise money bond money for detained immigrants.

Kimberly Mazyck, senior manager of engagement and educational outreach for Catholic Charities USA, summarized Catholic Charities’ advocacy activities. She emphasized that Catholic Charities draws from the personal experiences and stories of its clients to teach policymakers and the public about challenges faced by immigrants. Catholic Charities staff regularly visits Members of Congress to share their work and advocate for humane immigration policies. In addition, Catholic Charities sends weekly policy updates to thousands of listserv subscribers and encourages them to submit comments on proposed federal immigration regulations. Recently, Catholic Charities’ efforts have focused on proposed rules to change the eligibility requirements for food stamps (SNAP) and on the public charge ground of inadmissibility.[1]

Kristin Witte of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) described her organization’s “Be Unafraid” marketing campaign. This campaign seeks to promote awareness of refugees’ experiences through photos and video interviews. In addition to posting these materials on its website, CRS seeks to raise interest in refugees by placing photos of refugees on trucks stationed in four major cities. Witte noted that media coverage of this traveling exhibition reached over 25 million people nationwide. She challenged Catholics to put aside their fears and advocate on migrants’ behalf.

Finally, David Corrales, program coordinator for the pastoral care of migrants in USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, noted that, through its Encuentro process, the USCCB has identified over 20,000 new emerging Hispanic leaders and created 30 new pastoral positions for Hispanic Ministry. In this way, the USCCB is taking steps to strengthen Latinos’ role in the Church.

Promoting Youth Leadership in Catholic Institutions and Advocacy

The conference’s final panel described how Catholic youth leaders are working within Catholic institutions to serve immigrants and their families. The panel explored how Catholic schools, dioceses, and ministries are fostering young peoples’ involvement in social justice ministries and fostering understanding of challenges faced by immigrants.

Aditi Chatradhi, a student at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, described the “Mitty Advocacy Project,” a student organization which brings its members together to research bills, write policy proposals, and meet with lawmakers in Sacramento and in Washington, DC. The Mitty Advocacy Project has also organized soccer games between refugee students and Mitty High School students to promote awareness and camaraderie.

Brenda Noriega, young adults ministry coordinator at the Diocese of San Bernardino, noted that many young people in her diocese volunteer in a diocesan refugee center. This center provides refugees with food, clothes, and transportation assistance. The diocese also organizes an annual youth advocacy day which has inspired many young people to engage more actively on immigration issues. Recently, for example, youth advocacy day participants organized a community forum on immigration with California Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes.

Young people are also learning about immigration through immersion programs. Crystal Catalan, global solidarity coordinator of the Diocese of San Jose and assistant director of community involvement at Presentation High School in San Jose, noted that Presentation organizes immersion trips and “encounters” with local refugee and immigrant communities. Anahi Mejia, an intern at the Catholic Charities of the East Bay, mentioned that California State University East Bay’s Catholic ministry program organized a student immersion trip to Douglas, Arizona. Student participants attended immigration court sessions in Tucson, Arizona and crossed the border to visit a women’s co-op in Mexico. Finally, the Mitty Advocacy Project organized a student trip to Watsonville, California, to introduce students to the challenges faced by migrant farmworkers.

When asked how to strengthen young peoples’ involvement in Catholic institutions and advocacy, Daniel Diaz, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Augustine Catholic Church in South San Francisco, stressed the importance of engaging with young peoples’ families and understanding their backgrounds. He also highlighted the importance of integrating religion into young peoples’ interests and passions. Tamara Alvarado, executive director of the Leo M. Shortino Family Foundation, emphasized the importance of creating physical spaces for young people to gather and empowering young people to build leadership skills by leading other young people.


The 2019 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference brought together Church and community leaders from around the country. Among others, participants included lay diocesan and parish leaders, members of religious congregations, staff from Catholic Charities and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and Catholic student and youth leaders. The conference highlighted many successful models of service to immigrants and their families at the school, parish, and community levels, as well as innovative efforts to promote understanding between immigrants and non-immigrants. Conference participants are adapting to the challenges posed by the Trump Administration’s policies in a thoughtful and vigorous way—ministering and advocating on behalf of detained families, supporting unaccompanied minors, and providing spiritual support and accompaniment for undocumented immigrants in a context of increased enforcement. Their mobilization and advocacy in support of these vulnerable migrants provide examples of how to “welcome the stranger” and break down “walls” between immigrants and non-immigrants.

Conference participants also offered several suggestions to increase the effectiveness of Catholic immigrant-serving institutions. First, many participants emphasized that immigrant-serving organizations should recognize the diversity within immigrant communities. In particular, they should support second- and third-generation immigrants by providing them with educational and pastoral support and facilitating immigrant parents’ involvement in schools. Second, participants stressed that immigrant-serving institutions should actively consult immigrants and incorporate immigrants into their decision-making processes. Third, participants strongly emphasized the importance of building bridges between immigrants and non-immigrants and the power of appealing to shared human experiences. Catholic institutions should create spaces for migrants and non-immigrants to meet, encourage immigrants to share their stories, and help immigrants and non-immigrants find common ground. Finally, participants stressed that Catholics should set aside their fears and stand up more aggressively and courageously for immigrants’ rights.