NEW YORK — Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alfonso Lara wants faithful Catholics to follow their donations to those it supports, reaching out to immigrant communities that still struggle to access necessary services and information.
“Our ministry should not only be supported [only with] treasure, but as well with our talent and with our prayer,” said Lara, the executive director of Centro San Juan Diego in the Archdiocese of Denver. “We don’t just want your money. We want you to come and see. We want you to get involved. We want you to pray with us.”
Centro San Juan Diego is a ministry of the archdiocese that works with the immigrant community through education, family support, integration, and leadership formation. It was one of 189 Catholic institutions that participated in a Center for Migration Studies survey — conducted December 14, 2020-February 5, 2021 — exploring the work of Catholic institutions during the Trump administration and COVID-19 pandemic.
The results of that survey were published in a CMS report, “The CRISIS Survey: The Catholic Church’s Work with Immigrants in the United States in a Period of Crisis,” earlier this month, which included recommendations for Catholic institutions coming out of the pandemic.
Lara made his comments about the role of everyday faithful Catholics in immigration advocacy last week during a webinar CMS hosted about the findings of the survey, and recommendations from the report.
One of the main findings of the survey was that the demand for Catholic institution’s services from the immigrant community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased. And those Catholic institutions responded with a number of new services, the survey found.
These included: financial assistance, COVID-19 testing, education, contact tracing, and quarantine services, mental health services, grief support and assistance with funeral expenses, and delivery of food and sanitation supplies for infected and other homebound persons.
Catholic institutions, like most businesses nationwide, also transitioned to a remote model through the height of the pandemic, though it was difficult for many immigrants to access remote services because of poor internet connections and limited computer access, according to the survey.
To combat that reality, Lara said Centro San Juan Diego offered training for students and volunteers to make sure they had a device that could connect to the internet and understood how to use Zoom. Another new service the organization offered was emergency call assistance to the immigrant community.
Monica Ruiz-Caraballo, the executive director of Casa San Jose — a Latino immigrant resource center in Pittsburgh —said during the webinar that her organization continues to pay for internet hotspots for families that struggle with internet access.
The organization also transitioned into a food pantry through the pandemic and raised over a million dollars to help immigrant families that didn’t qualify for stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, Caraballo said. Now, it’s operating as a COVID-19 vaccine clinic and testing site as well.
Along with internet struggles, both Lara and Caraballo identified a lack of information as the other major challenge their organizations faced through the pandemic and previous administration. Caraballo noted the efforts of auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, the Mexican, Peruvian, Guatemalan, and El Salvador consulates, and a group of lawyers in launching an information campaign.
“They were providing information for people to not be afraid. And what it means for them, particularly for undocumented people, to be here, to be safe, to stay in the country,” Lara said.
Caraballo put the onus on the federal government.
“The Latino population is very small here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need the information,” Caraballo said. “It took over a year for us to get even one thing in Spanish for our community.”
“I think that was a big failure actually of our government that didn’t give us what we needed because then people didn’t understand what COVID was and they weren’t taking it seriously and people were getting it at a higher rate in our community,” she continued.
Lara and Caraballo both added that they’re still struggling with vaccine hesitancy in their respective immigrant communities, which aligns with findings from the survey that respondents identified immigrants were “avoiding or delaying” seeking COVID-19 services out of fear of apprehension and deportation.
Now, as the country begins to move out of the pandemic, Don Kerwin, who authored the CMS report, wants Catholic institutions to be leaders in encouraging immigrants to get vaccinated because of their work through the pandemic and “the high esteem that they’re held in immigrant communities.
It’s one of the many post-COVID-19 recommendations Kerwin made for Catholic institutions, both in the report and speaking at the webinar. Others were continued advocacy for immigration reform at the federal level, developing plans to ensure immigrants can access their programs and ministries, including the new remote programs; and more collaboration between institutions.
What he spoke about most at the webinar, however, was the need for Catholics to work to get all Catholics on board with Catholic social teaching and the policy positions of the church on immigration.
“We need to stop talking about a united church on these issues when in fact there really isn’t and when you talk like that you kind of absolve yourself from responsibility from doing something about this problem,” Kerwin said. “Catholics not approaching their co-religionists and the stranger as human beings and treating them with human dignity and instead vilifying them and speaking of them negatively — that needs to be addressed because it’s a major problem for the church right now.”