PROSPECT HEIGHTS — About a year ago, Jesuit Refugee Services/USA staff at the U.S.-Mexico border realized something about many migrants’ journeys: They needed as much help settling into their final destinations as they did when they first entered the country.
This week, the organization launched a new initiative to respond to that need and expand its migration response to the interior United States. The “Migrant Accompaniment Network” is a group of nationwide volunteers who help migrants assimilate in their new communities once they arrive.
The initiative comes amid an ongoing immigration crisis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that there were more than 2.2 million migrant encounters nationwide between October 2021 and July 2022, and specifically more than 1.9 million migrant encounters at the southern border. Both figures well exceed the respective totals for Fiscal Year 2021 by more than 200,000.
In recent months, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused migrants to Democrat-led cities — Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago — as a rebuke of President Joe Biden’s border policies. The move has led to a constant war of words between the cities’ mayors and Abbott as the affected municipalities struggle to respond and the federal government has been largely unresponsive.
The actions, or lack thereof, of elected officials are part of the reason the new initiative is crucial, Joan Rosenhauer, the executive director of JRS/USA, told The Tablet.
“If officials are not providing that support but are arguing about what we should be doing for these asylum seekers, then it’s so important for volunteers who do want to make sure that they represent a welcoming community to step up and provide the simple kind of support efforts that make a huge difference for people who are new to a community and are feeling quite lost,” Rosenhauer said.
How the Migrant Accompaniment Network works is people can sign up to volunteer through JRS/USA, and then they’ll go through a background check, an onboarding, and an orientation process. From there, the organization will connect the volunteers with migrants that arrive in their city. The role of the volunteer, Rosenhauer said, is to be a “local supporter, to give [the migrant] a friend there, so to speak.”
That can include helping migrants with things like opening a bank account, enrolling their children in school, making sure they get signed up for local health care services that they are entitled to, helping them identify English language classes, and helping migrants stay on top of their court dates and understanding the steps of the legal process.
“It’s really things that anybody can do, and volunteers can spend a little bit of their time, or much more of their time, depending on what they are able to do and can take on some or many of those roles, but they’re all needed,” Rosenhauer said, adding, however, that volunteers aren’t professionals in terms of providing legal or counseling services to the migrants.
Before the launch this week, there was already a version of the initiative in place where people, who JRS/USA was familiar with through other Jesuit or Catholic organizations, worked as volunteers and responded to referrals from those working at the border. They currently have 97 volunteers that work across 29 cities.
For the new enhanced version of the initiative, JRS/USA partnered with the Ignatian Solidarity Network and the Kino Border Initiative, along with other existing partners in Central America who help with referrals if they know someone that just entered the country.
Christopher Kerr, the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, said the Migrant Accompaniment Network follows Pope Francis’s consistent call for Christians to welcome the migrant.
“The Migrant Accompaniment Network was developed out of an acknowledgment that the needs of migrants in our hemisphere are tremendous and growing,” Kerr told The Tablet in a statement. “The realities of violence, insecurity, government repression, economic poverty, and climate change are all causing people to seek refuge and opportunities to lead fully flourishing lives in the United States.”
Rosenhauer echoed the sentiment, saying that the network is “rooted in the very heart of our understanding of how our lives will be judged according to Scripture, which is whether we welcome the stranger and care for those in need.”