NEW YORK — The first in what is envisioned as a series of webinars took place Feb. 16 to discuss how faith-based organizations are working together to assist Haitian families seeking refuge and assistance in the United States.

Catholic Charities of New York, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are partnering in the effort.

One of the speakers on the webinar panel was Stephanie Delia, founder of the Haitian Legal Network, which is working with Catholic Charities of New York in its new Haitian Representation Project.

“As a Haitian attorney, my primary goal is always to find the truth, try to see if I could get as much information as possible, and then assess the information and figure out can I fit it into something,” she said, “and from there kind of assess how strong, how weak, but we want to kind of get your foot through the door or help crack the door open.”

Delia was joined on the panel by Maryann Tharappel, attorney in charge at Immigrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Community Services for the Archdiocese of New York; Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs with Migration and Refugee Services at the USCCB; and Vanessa Joseph, of CLINIC.

Joseph, who serves low-income residents in South Florida through the Archdiocese of Miami, said it is “really important to understand” what Haitians who come to the United States are “actually asking for when they’re asking for asylum.”

“A lot of Haitians have a tendency to come into the country and one of the first asks they have is: ‘I would like to apply for political asylum,'” she explained. “They’re not distinguishing between any of the other categories of asylum, they just know it to be called political asylum.”

“So I like to define what that actually means for them because, in reality, the asylum category they may wish to actually apply under has nothing to do with political opinion,” Joseph said.

Touching on Joseph’s remarks, Tharappel urged webinar participants to use available resources to adequately provide what refugees need if their own agencies cannot meet all their needs.

“This is an area where a lot of people with good intentions end up engaging in advice and counsel that is beyond the scope of what they are ethically able to provide to communities, and this comes from a place of wanting to help and not to hurt and that’s where the benefit of the wide network of (Catholic Charities) USA comes in,” she said.

“Please reach out to your network for assistance with navigating immigration legal services demands if you do not have on-site, in-house legal services,” Tharappel added.

Chester said it is important to inform Haitians about federal and state programs they’re eligible to receive and that their statuses may change in the future.

For example, if a Haitian couple has a baby in the United States, the child is a U.S. citizen and may be eligible for services not offered to the parents.

“It’s important to understand that these different statuses convey different kinds of eligibility,” she said. “There are some programs everyone is eligible for regardless of immigration status and you should also be familiar with that as well.”

Tharappel also stressed the importance of reaching out to parish communities.

“One of the biggest tools and tips I can give all of you is to reach out through your local connections,” she said, adding that she often asks for assistance from Father Levelt Germain, the Haitian-born pastor of the Church of St. Joseph and St. Boniface in the New York suburb of Spring Valley.

“Work with your parish networks,” she urged webinar participants. “The parish system is one of the first spaces of welcome for recently arriving immigrants. Many Haitians seek refuge and solace in the church, and so many of you have connections there.”

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Pietrafesa writes for Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York.