Catholic Charities meeting links immigration reform, Katrina victims

By Mary Moore and J.D. Long-Garcia
Catholic News Service

PHOENIX (CNS) -- Immigration reform issues and the problems facing immigrants who survived Hurricane Katrina were linked during the Catholic Charities USA annual meeting in Phoenix.

"These are not separate issues. They are very much entwined with one another," Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said Sept. 17.

Organizers revamped the Sept. 15-18 conference to include discussion of the problems caused by the natural disaster on the Gulf Coast.

The participants also approved floor recommendations that the U.S. government include immigrants in federal disaster aid programs regardless of their legal status and assure victims lacking legal residency that they would not be deported if they apply for aid.

"We wanted to make sure that the plight of the undocumented as disaster victims didn't go unheeded," Candy Hill, Catholic Charities senior vice president for social policy, told Catholic News Service.

Another recommendation requested that immigrants from the disaster area whose cases are pending before immigration courts be granted lengthy grace periods to get their paperwork in order given that many have had to relocate and have lost important documents needed to process their cases.

"We don't check people's driver's license, we don't check people's passports. If someone is in need at our doorstep, we take care" of that person, said Father Snyder.

Several immigrants who did not give their full names offered firsthand accounts of the effect Katrina has had on them.

Cesar, a 36-year-old illegal immigrant, left his family behind in Sinaloa, Mexico, to look for work. He said it's too early to tell whether the hurricane will affect his life, but he believes it will.

"There might be a problem with the price of gas. The higher the price, the less we're paid," he said.

Martin, an immigrant from Sonora, Mexico, said Katrina hasn't changed his life much.

"Some days there's work, some days there isn't. Some days you're paid well, some days you aren't," he said.

The scheduled topic of the meeting was promoting the U.S. bishops' vision for immigration reform.

The bishops seek reform that emphasizes family unity, Father Snyder said.

"At this point in time, the process of having families reunited takes three, five, sometimes 12 years," Father Snyder said. "If we're saying family values is a priority in this country, why do we in fact force people to live apart for so long?"

In the 2003 joint pastoral letter "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope," the U.S. and Mexican bishops called for a program to legalize many of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.

"No one is advocating that there should be some kind of amnesty, but there should be a pathway to citizenship," Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson said during his address Sept. 17.

"We need in our immigration policy a worker program (not indentured servitude) -- some kind of family unity possibilities without long delays," he said.

"They aren't terrorists. They aren't criminals. They're not people with ill intent," he said of immigrants.

Mario, who is in the U.S. illegally from Sinaloa, Mexico, said he looks for work, even on Sundays. He has been here for two months and sends money back to his four children and his wife.

"If there's work in Mexico, you get $5 a day," he said. "When there's no work here, then I'll go back."

Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, gave the keynote speech Sept. 18. He emphasized the need to recognize the context, the spirituality and what he called the theology of migration.

This theology recognizes the immigrant as a "prototype of what it means to be human," he said, referring to the journey people are on until they reach home in heaven.

Marginalizing immigrants should be foreign to Catholics, Father Groody said.

"If there's anything alien to the Catholic mind-set, it is seeing people as different than we are," he said.

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Contributing to this story was Agostino Bono in Washington.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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