Church Leaders Urge That Migrants Not Be Forgotten During Coronavirus Pandemic

Migrants and refugees are pictured on a large bronze statue in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sept. 29, 2019. The Vatican celebration of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2020 will be celebrated Sept. 27, the Vatican said, and the pope’s choice for a theme is: “Forced like Jesus Christ to flee.” (Photo: CNS)

By Christopher White, National Correspondent

NEW YORK — Catholic leaders across the globe are pleading that migrants and refugees not be forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic, insisting that it’s a public health issue affecting everyone – regardless of one’s legal status.

Across the world, Catholics have been on the front lines directly lobbying political leaders to ensure migrants receive access to healthcare, to leading field operations providing legal and medical assistance, and pioneering new forms of outreach and support through social media.

“There’s a real danger of thinking this as a migration issue and not a public health issue,” said Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) office.

Feasley told The Tablet that her office has three major concerns that they are hoping that the U.S. Congress responds to immediately: Access to healthcare for all, regardless of immigration status; suspension of the Trump administration’s plans to implement the public charge rule which would deter immigrants from seeking support they need; and the possibility of enforcement occurring at sensitive locations, such as hospitals, churches, and schools.

“Misinformation and fear mongering have and will make the problems worse and likely restrict access further,” Feasley said. “We urge the administration to clearly lay out that they will hopefully be repealing or at the least suspending the public charge rule at this time and to clearly communicate that no enforcement actions will occur around sensitive locations – especially hospitals and clinics.”

Last week, a coalition of Catholic agencies, including MRS, the Catholic Health Association, and Catholic Charities, sent a joint letter to the Department of Homeland Security outlining these concerns.

“As reflected in Catholic teachings, the right to life extends to life-saving protection and the right to seek safety and to care for one’s family,” they wrote. “During this global pandemic and national emergency, access to treatment and care for immigrants, including undocumented individuals, is critical to tracking and responding to the crisis. Removing barriers to testing and treatment not only saves lives but keeps all Americans safer.”

While Americans are still waiting for Congress to pass a relief package, Feasley said that these are measures that can be implemented by the administration now.

She also noted that she has spoken to a number of bishops who are concerned about this and have been reaching out to ICE field office directors to do what they can on a local level.

“The local is so important,” Feasley said, noting that congressional or administrative actions won’t provide a blanket solution to many of the needs on the ground.

Dylan Corbett of the HOPE Border Institute, which works in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, says that the  Trump administration has weaponized the panic created from the spread of the coronavirus to turn back asylum seeks trying to enter the U.S. from the southern border.

“They are using pandemic as an excuse to effect the controls that they’ve always wanted to implement, which is the end of asylum,” Corbett told The Tablet, who says that despite the unprecedented situation, the U.S. has the resources to help those in harm’s way.

“We do have the ability to marshal resources to aid those coming for asylum,” he said, arguing that the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced over 60,000 asylum seeks to wait in Mexico as their legal challenges play out, “continues to heap cruelty” on those in need of help.

“People have to realize that these policies are continuing to dehumanize people on other side of the border,” said Corbett, noting that many are living in dangerous situations and are in need of medical attention.

“The coronavirus is here in the region,” Corbett said, and “we’ve seen families who have been afraid to seek medical care.”

“We need to get ICE and border patrol to commit not to enforcement actions against nonviolent individuals,” he said pointing to past situations such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and Hurricane Sandy as precedent.

“Folks are spooked,” he said, but as a community organization, he said his staff is trying to work with local elected officials on matters big and small, from limiting the contagion in migrant shelters, which are often already overcrowded, to preventing price gouging, and making sure utility companies are not shutting off for those experiencing economic hardship.

While much of the world is in a quasi-lockdown mode in order to limit the spread of the virus, many Church leaders have noted that this presents a particular challenge to migrant populations.

On March 25, Auxiliary Bishop Paul McAleenan of the Diocese of Westminster issued a plea for the United Kingdom not to use this against migrants.

“Staying at home will lower one’s chances of infection. Therefore the requirement placed on some migrants and refugees to report at immigration centers or police stations should be suspended and those held in detention centers while their cases are explored should be released,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, across the globe, Catholic organizations have mobilized grassroots forces, often through ad hoc initiatives, to tend to those in need.

Throughout Asia, Caritas has been active in distributing masks and hand sanitizers and setting up street kiosks for vulnerable populations, including migrants and has provided temporary housing for migrant workers.

Meanwhile, in Calais, France – a popular point of convergence for migrants arriving in or departing from Europe – organizers of the group “People Not Walls” have been vocal about the risk of COVID-19 to migrants and the lack of facilities to care for them and contain the virus’ spread. Since the outbreak of the virus, they have actively petitioned the French government for further support.

Globally, the Jesuit Migration Network has started an online campaign demanding that shelters serving migrants, displaced persons, and refugees be provided with the necessary medical resources and calling for an immediate halt to deportations and all other judicial measures that put people at risk.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, who heads the Vatican’s department on migrants and refugees, told The Tablet that in this period of uncertainty, collaboration between churches, community groups, and the government is essential.

“We don’t fully understand what is happening. At times, the pain, helplessness, and fear are overwhelming. At others, everyone seems more attentive, less hurried, recognizing we’re in the same boat or, as Pope Francis would say, all brothers and sisters in our one and only common home,” said Cardinal Czerny.

“Public authorities deserve support in the difficult decisions they need to take. The Church’s parishes, communities, organizations and projects are redoubling their efforts to remember the excluded who can’t get basic services which, now, can be a matter of life and death,” he continued. “And people are learning to use social media to pray together, to care for one another, to hear God’s Word. It really is Lent!”

Corbett agreed – saying that he hopes that ultimately this pandemic leads to transformation of society in a way that shows solidarity with those on the margins.

“A crisis like this reveals the fragility of our society,” he said. “There are a lot of people at societies edges that live this fragility every day. This has revealed how precarious life is every day, not only for migrants but all of those on the margins.”

“Hopefully it can serve as a transformational moment in our country,” he said, “and provide an opportunity to rebuild our society much stronger for everyone.”

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