ATLANTA — Catholic advocates in the United States have been taking their long experience of working with immigrants to the next level by showing how people coming into the country are an asset and a positive influence on the community.
Frances McBrayer used to be able to focus on ensuring that refugees had an apartment to live in. The weary travelers were picked up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and had jobs lined up helping to integrate families who had spent years in desolate camps into the Atlanta community.
Her work would accompany families of refugees fleeing oppression on their first steps in America.
Now, the longtime staff member at Catholic Charities Atlanta has worked for the past few years with a dozen coalition partners to be a public voice for these newcomers. Now the job includes organizing photo opportunities at the Georgia Statehouse where former refugees pose with politicians and state leaders to talk about how they contribute to the community.
“Advocacy has become a requirement for the environment we are in,” said McBrayer, who leads Catholic Charities Atlanta’s refugee resettlement program and is the new chairwoman of the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies, a 14-member Georgia organization.
“We have always really done the direct service work without talking about it too much,” she said. “A large part of what we are doing now is trying to demonstrate how much work is being done, how much refugees are contributing to our state (economically, socially and culturally), and how many people are involved in and supportive of the effort.”
Lawyers and advocates with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC, talked at the nonprofit’s national convening in Atlanta about how their work has pivoted from behind the scenes, filing legal documents in court, to being a louder voice for immigrants in an unwelcoming political environment.
Some 500 lawyers and advocates for immigrants met May 24-26 for the event under the theme “A Welcoming America for All.”
The conference took place in a changed national landscape. Since taking office in January, President Donald Trump has signed executive orders temporarily banning immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries and set stricter illegal immigration enforcement standards with a robust deportation policy. His travel ban has been stopped by the lower court from taking effect, and will soon be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that between Jan. 22 and April 29, its agents arrested more than 41,000 individuals on alleged immigration violations. That is a nearly 38 percent increase in arrests made during the same period of the Obama administration in 2016.
“There is fear for the immigrant community,” said Jeanne Atkinson, CLINIC’s executive director. People are anxious, she said, but advocates are not deterred.
“By and large, they are mission-driven. The mission doesn’t change regardless of the administration, what’s happening in Congress. That level of focus keeps people going,” she said.
During two days of panel discussions and updates on immigration law, panelists acknowledged the need to make allies, sometimes with people who don’t always share the same point of view.
Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange, California, chairman of CLINIC’s board of directors, said the election’s aftermath angered some who care about immigrant rights, but now is the time to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
“We have to move beyond outrage,” he said.
Instead, Vann suggested advocates organize forums and discussions for unauthorized immigrants to help them make plans in case they are arrested.
“You can stay in outrage, but you aren’t really helping anybody,” he said.
A workshop focused on building coalitions within the Catholic community and with other groups drew some two dozen people.
Allies can be people who don’t share the same religious beliefs but the same values, panelists said. Others talked about setting up meetings with federal immigration officials to learn more about them and mend fences.
Sister Mary Ellen Burns told of a parish near New Haven, Connecticut, St. Rose of Lima Church, where people from other faiths surround the church when Hispanic Catholics worship to watch for federal immigration officers.
“It’s a nice sign for our parishioners, having our back,” she said. She is a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation.
Vann recalled how at a parish where he was installing a pastor, one of the readings was in Spanish. Someone in the congregation said aloud the readings needed to be in English. The man was booed and the new pastor began to speak in German to show his immigrant roots, said the bishop.
Esther Valdes, a San Diego immigration attorney, said she wants to empower the law-abiding immigrants, not the 7 percent of undocumented people with criminal backgrounds. A Trump supporter, Valdes believes the administration is enforcing the law.
As an attorney, Valdes said she is “pro-immigrant and pro-law.” Her practice is “focused on due process that every human being is entitled to,” she said. She has organized workshops for parents who are unauthorized immigrants to have the key documents for their school-age American children if they are deported.
In a workshop titled “Answering Fear With Faith and Facts,” advocates urged the audience to recall the story of America.
Immigrants and refugees are “part of our DNA as a country,” said Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration Studies of New York.
Pope Francis and the Gospel are the counterarguments to those who would exclude people, he said. While the politicians talk about immigrants as “unworthy of attention, a rival, someone who should be bent to our will,” the pope describes migrants as “a gift, a source of revitalization,” people who open “vistas for a new humanity,” said Kerwin.