Diocesan News

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Aids ‘Terrified’ Immigrants in Neighborhood

An activist tapes an immigration notice to a pole in Brooklyn. (Photo: CNS/Eduardo Munoz, Reuters)

by Allyson Escobar and Tim Harfmann

Families of immigrants in Brooklyn and Queens are living in fear in light of the Trump administration’s threat of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids last weekend.

The enforcement action, which were reportedly going to take place in nine cities across the country, including in New York, largely failed to materialize. There were no reported arrests in New York City.

Still, “absolutely terrified” was how Father John McKenna, C.Ss.R., a priest at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Sunset Park, described the growing tension in his parish, which has a large Hispanic population.

On July 14, Good Samaritan Sunday, Father McKenna received text messages from a local woman whose sister was visited by ICE agents.

“All the people in the apartment house just called each other and said, ‘Don’t open up! Don’t open up,” Father McKenna said.

Father Ruskin Piedra, who runs the parish’s Juan Neumann Center, which provides legal services to immigrants in Sunset Park, shared a similar story. He met with those targeted by ICE.

“They raise their voice, ‘Open this door!’ and so on. What happened in one of the buildings is that the outside door was open. They couldn’t get through the second door. That’s where the shouting started,” Father Piedra said.

“Makes no difference what their situation is, they have rights, by law, in the United States,” said Father James Gilmour, C.Ss.R., pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

While protecting their identities, the Brooklyn priests didn’t have much information about exactly who these families are, saying that the individuals’ immigration status doesn’t matter.

“We don’t ask if you’re Catholic, non-Catholic, registered … You’re a human being, you’re in need, and that’s the way we see people,” Father Piedra said. “The law may not see you as a child of God. That’s the first thing we do.”

Catholic leaders continue to vow to protect and defend the undocumented.

They also urged priests and the community to be vigilant and act, as Congress tries to work out a comprehensive plan for national security and immigration reform.

“Enforcement actions like those anticipated this week by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] agency separate families, cause the unacceptable suffering of thousands of children and their parents, and create widespread panic in our communities,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of Houston-Galveston, said in a statement on July 16. “I condemn such an approach, which has created a climate of fear in our parishes and communities across the country. I recently wrote the president asking him to reconsider this action.” 

Responding to a “climate of fear” created by the ICE’s enforcement actions [and the Trump administration’s new rule limiting asylum], Cardinal DiNardo continued: “A stated intent of these actions is to deter Central Americans fleeing for their lives from seeking refuge in the United States. This is both misguided and untenable.  It is contrary to American and Christian values to attempt to prevent people from migrating here when they are fleeing to save their lives and to find safety for their families.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, wrote in a blog post: “It troubles me that today in too many places hate and malice are directed against immigrants and refugees — in both words and actions. As a pastor, I pray that understanding, respect and love might grow in dealing with newcomers to our land. I am proud of the welcoming that our parishes, schools, charitable, and health care ministries have and do provide.”

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, O.P., president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, added that ongoing threats of deportation and family separation “are causing anxiety and fear within the vulnerable communities our agencies serve, endangering immigrant rights and safety.”

“Most significant is the lasting psychological damage family separation inflicts upon children. Such cruel behavior will impact children for the rest of their lives,” Sister Markham told Catholic News Service.

“Our Catholic Charities agencies stand committed to providing legal and humanitarian assistance for our immigrant brothers and sisters. We support the pursuit of legal immigration but recognize that all immigrants, regardless of status, must be treated with basic human dignity and respect.”