After a protracted and divisive presidential campaign, now, more than ever, we urgently need to build bridges that enable us to move forward together as a people. As the nation’s Catholics observed National Migration Week (Jan. 8-14), it is particularly important for us to come together in assuring our immigrant sisters and brothers that we journey with them, side by side.
One very tangible way the church works on behalf of immigrants is through its network of nonprofit immigration legal services. In agencies such as Catholic Charities Orange County, low-income immigrants have the opportunity to obtain quality legal assistance at an affordable price. Often that legal help is available because of non-attorneys who are trained to represent people in immigration cases.
Catholic lay leader Jeff Hamilton, for example, has been trained through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., or CLINIC. Hamilton is a recently retired bank vice president and a board member of Catholic Charities Orange County. After taking CLINIC courses, followed by months of supervised volunteer work with Catholic Charities, Hamilton was approved as a representative in the program known as Recognition and Accreditation of Non-Attorney Representatives, under the Department of Justice.
Hamilton explained that not long ago he had been wrestling with church teaching on immigration. He believes that listening to and meeting with “dreamers” from local parishes helped him let go of his conflicted opinions about immigrants and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Today he has put his CLINIC training to use with both Catholic Charities and local parish teams, which help to bring about a personal encounter with families and individuals who seek to rectify their legal status so they can live without fear.
Here in the Diocese of Orange, which has one of the nation’s largest immigrant populations, Catholic Charities provides a wide range of immigration and refugee services. This includes everything from help becoming a citizen and filing various types of forms, to obtaining work authorization or determining whether someone is eligible for some kind of legal immigration status.
Some of our efforts are in collaboration with neighboring dioceses. For instance, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino have sponsored large regional Masses for immigrants, as well as summits on immigration. Advocates have helped train parish teams to engage in advocacy and support. That has included supporting legislation allowing drivers licenses for people who are undocumented, assisting young adults who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and launching a campaign to encourage and assist the more than 1 million legal permanent residents in our region to become U.S. citizens.
CLINIC’s west coast office in Oakland has worked closely with our collaborative to train dozens of accredited representatives throughout Southern California to represent immigrants in legal matters. These advocates are a key resource for both our parish teams and Catholic Charities immigration programs.
However, not all those advocates can see their clients’ cases through to the end. Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of CLINIC, reports that only 10 percent of current representatives under this program have the full accreditation needed to represent clients in immigration court. Given proposals to end DACA, to immediately begin to deport upwards of three million people, and to fast-track deportation of unaccompanied minors, doubling the number of fully accredited representatives would strongly bolster our efforts to provide due process for immigrants.
At a gathering on the campus of Christ Cathedral three years ago, I prayed with the more than 3,000 participants for just and compassionate immigration reform. These words are as necessary today as they were then. “Let us go in love and courage, praying that the love of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — may be poured out on all here in our country these days to guide all in the government to come to right and just positions, where families may be united and that talents, work and good will of all may, wherever we come from, continue the history of building and strengthening our country.”
Bishop Kevin W. Vann heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and is chairman of the board of directors of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.