Two Scalabrini Priests Assist Vulnerable Groups during COVID-19 Pandemic
Credit: Rev. Jose Juan Cervantes / Casa Scalabrini-Centro Pastoral Migratoria in Guadalajara, Mexico

Two Scalabrini Priests Assist Vulnerable Groups during COVID-19 Pandemic

Two Scalabrini priests located at opposite ends of North America have worked to support vulnerable groups during the COVID pandemic.

Father Jose Juan Cervantes of Guadalajara, Mexico, and Father Peter Ciallella of Burford, Ontario, have worked overtime to assist migrants in their communities who are at risk during the pandemic, supporting them with housing, basic needs assistance, and advocacy.

Helping Migrants Deported from the United States

Fr. Cervantes, who operates the Casa Scalabrini-Centro Pastoral Migratoria center in Guadalajara, is preparing for the arrival of migrants deported from the United States to Mexico, some of whom have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus in US detention centers.   He operates the shelter on a shoestring budget, accepting in-kind and monetary donations, and receives help from volunteers.

While the shelter normally serves migrants coming north from Central America and other parts of Mexico, strict enforcement at the southern border of Mexico has limited the flow of migrants north.  The shelter still keeps its doors open for migrants migrating from Central America, but the number has fallen in the past year.

At the same time, the United States has proceeded with the deportation of migrants who arrive at the US-Mexico border, despite the risks posed by the pandemic.  Citing health concerns, the US has systematically deported migrants seeking asylum in the United States to Mexico or Central America, without giving them an opportunity to make their protection claims.

“The US and Mexican governments are cooperating to deport migrants from the US to undisclosed locations in Mexico,” Fr. Cervantes said.  “We do not know they are coming until they get here.”  Eight flights per week arrive in four cities in Mexico—Guadalajara, Mexico City, Villahermosa, and Morelia.  Two flights per week of 130 migrants arrive in each city. Fr. Cervantes estimates that his shelter will house about 15 deported Mexican migrants per week from the United States, beginning in August or early September.  Many of them will be far from their homes and will not have access to basic needs or health-care.  Some who have been detained in US detention centers might be infected with COVID-19.

In preparation for the new arrivals, Fr. Cervantes has set up isolation rooms in the shelter to quarantine migrants who test positive for the virus.  He also has arranged for medical care from an on-call doctor and established a relationship with a local hospital to accept patients from the shelter.

The returned migrants come from other parts of Mexico or from Latin America.  According to Fr. Cervantes, they are allowed to remain at Casa Scalabrini until they are well enough and ready to return to their homes either in other parts of Mexico or points farther south. As smugglers usually give migrants three attempts to cross the border, many, according to Fr. Cervantes, attempt to return to the US-Mexico border.

The shelter provides them a bed and meals, as well as counseling and health-care. “The US dumps them here and the Mexican government does little to assist them,” Fr. Cervantes said.  “Without our help, some of their lives would be in jeopardy.”

Protecting Farmworkers in Canada

Fr. Ciallella, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament and St. Anthony Daniel Catholic churches in Burford, Ontario, has ministered to the farmworker community in the area for several years.  He is a diocesan priest in the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, but received his training as a Scalabrini missionary.

Fr. Ciallella relies on parish and community volunteers to help provide support to the local farmworker community.  He is able to purchase basic necessities for the workers through local donations, both in-kind and monetary.  In May, he worked with the local community to provide 500 gift bags to farmworkers; the packages included toiletries, hand sanitizer, masks, and disinfectant, among other items.  He also delivered clothes to the farmworkers and used bikes for their children.

The farmworkers work at several large farms in the Burford area but are sheltered in small and crowded bunkhouses with showers and toilets shared by 60-80 farmworkers.  Many are forced to work without masks or protective gear, while those who test positive for the virus but are asymptomatic must continue to work. On one farm, over 200 migrant agricultural workers tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 1,000 farmworkers having tested positive for the virus in Ontario province.

“The conditions under which these vulnerable people live and work are substandard and can lead to the spread of the virus,” Fr. Ciallella said.  “They deserve to be protected and cared for, not ignored.”

Fr. Ciallella and others have advocated on behalf of the farmworkers for better housing and working conditions, particularly during the pandemic. In fact, the conditions in which the farmworkers live and work, plus health-care and immigration policy toward them, have become the subject of debate in the Canadian parliament and press, in part because of Fr. Ciallella’s efforts.

Fr. Ciallella and the Canadian bishops have supported a 14-day quarantine and mandatory testing for migrant workers, plus health-care coverage equal to other Canadians.  They also have petitioned the Canadian government to provide a pathway to citizenship for the farmworkers.

Fr. Ciallella also has advocated for farmworkers who are quarantined because of the virus to receive their full pay of $14 per hour for 30 hours a week. Three farmworkers, including Juan Lopez Chapparo, have died from the virus. Fr. Ciallella celebrated the funeral for Mr. Chapparo and set up a Go Fund Me page for the family.

In a recent opinion piece in the Toronto Star, Fr. Ciallella called upon all Canadians to help farmworkers: “It is up to us to protect our Migrant Agricultural Worker (MAW) neighbors.  Find ways to be hospitable to all our neighbors, including those whose humanity some of our politicians deny, endangering their lives.”

Work of the Scalabrinis

Fr. Cervantes and Fr. Ciallella are two of 800 Scalabrini priests worldwide who assist migrants and provide them care, both prior to and during the pandemic.  Many of their stories and ways to support them can be found at www.simn-global.org.