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World Day for Migrants and Refugees

January 18 is the World Day for Migrants and Refugees. The article below first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Heart magazine, but remains as timely today as it was four years ago.

The Movement of Peoples

By Alette Latorre, RSCJ

Back in the summer of 2008, at the General Chapter of the Society of the Sacred Heart held in Lima, Peru, one of the five priorities discerned by the religious in attendance was titled Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) in Solidarity with Those Who Are Most Vulnerable. The JPIC priority was intended to address global issues of immigration and human trafficking, as well as a sustainable environment.

As an immigration attorney since 1985, Frances Tobin, RSCJ, practiced law in Houston and San Diego for more than two decades, working in not-for-profit agencies; she now lives in the Menlo area where she monitors current immigration and trafficking issues such as the Dream Act. She said: “In my practice I dealt with people who fled to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Russia and parts of Africa. Not all were granted asylum, but all were traumatized by what had happened to them in their own country. As a nation, we do have a right to say who will enter our country; at the same time, as citizens and Christians, we have an obligation to be both compassionate and just. Creating a well-functioning legal immigration system will mean less pressure on employers to hire unauthorized workers – and less hardship for future American citizens who value this country as we do.”

Alette Latorre, a Colombian RSCJ, has lived and ministered in Tucson for the past five years. Her perspective on these issues is face-to-face. 

Prayer for those who migrateMore than twenty years of involvement with refugees and internally displaced people around the world gives me tremendous insight into what I call the Movement of Peoples, in today’s world. Our generation could be called the age of migration: more than 200 million people have had to leave their place of birth, their culture, and their values, because of poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, armed conflicts, natural disasters, and other manifestations of violence. In approximate terms, thirty to forty million of those are undocumented; twenty-seven million, internally displaced in their own countries; and ten million, refugees.

Who knows how many are victims of trafficking? Today’s slavery. I can give some numbers, but I am sure there are more victims. But whether the numbers say 200 million or five, what I see are real faces, real names, and real situations – and I find in them the pierced Heart of Jesus.

Nzigira, who witnessed the rape and killing of his wife and children in Rwanda; Raul, who was tortured in Chile; Carlos and his family hiding from paramilitaries in Colombia; the Martinez family running from a burning house in El Salvador; Maria and her small daughter who died in the desert of southern Arizona; Julia, who was finally able to escape from her treatment as a servant (slave) for a family in Wisconsin; the Perez family, divided because of the law in Arizona that forces deportation back to Mexico…

Children are exceptionally vulnerable, easily taken advantage of, exploited, and abused; this is particularly true when they are undocumented and unaccompanied in a foreign country. The death of a child in the desert strikes my heart very deeply! My involvement with human rights groups includes Migrant Trail: Walk for Life – a group that walks from Sasabe, Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona, remembering those who died in the desert.

I feel that Arizona is ground zero for the country’s broken immigration policies. At the borders, in the congregations, schools, workplaces, and service programs, you see the human consequences of inadequate systems. Border communities struggle to accommodate newcomers; families suffer long periods of separation; undocumented workers are cheated out of wages and housing.

All persons have the right to find in their own countries the opportunities to live in dignity and provide for their families; but they also have the right to migrate when there is no other way to support their families or live free of fear for their lives.

The great majority of persons who have entered the country without documentation are not criminals, but the new immigration law makes them criminals by their presence. Most newcomers do not uproot their lives casually: they leave because of gross poverty, war, human rights violations, natural disasters and economic upheaval. They seek to escape conditions that offend their dignity. They come to work to support or join their families and to live in safety.

I see many immigrants who work in professional and highly skilled jobs, while others perform the often thankless, yet necessary, work that serves the common good and benefits us all. They pick crops, sew clothes, prepare food, clean hotel rooms, wait on tables, mow lawns, build homes, protect offices, drive taxis and care for children, the elderly and the ill.

Every year, a small number of refugees and asylees are welcomed by the U.S. government to resettle in the country and rebuild lives that have been destroyed by war and persecution. One resettlement program is offered by Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Tucson, as part of the Migration and Refugee Service, where I have been volunteering. We welcome refugees upon arrival, provide assistance with their immediate needs, and support them during their first three months with housing, food, health, employment search, and social services referrals. A comprehensive plan is developed to help guide individuals and families towards self-sufficiency and independence, to help them successfully transition to life in the United States.

Are these realities saying something to all of us, women and men of the heart? Can each of us do something? As a family, as a group, as an organization, can we hear the cries of our suffering world as Sophie and Philippine did in their time? Their vision and mission gave them the strength to overcome so many obstacles as educators and missionaries, and their passion for the Heart of Christ guided their lives. As an RSCJ, I want to be open, attentive, and aware of Christ’s presence in the heart of the suffering world.

In September, 2010, the U.S. Provincial Team sent a letter to the President and members of Congress urging immigration reform.

Among the many RSCJ in the United States-Canada Province who have served or are serving people on the move are Maureen Chicoine, in San Bernardino, California; Marianna Torrano, at Soboba in San Jacinto, California; Georgie Logan in Miami; Trudy Considine in San Diego; Irene Cullen and Mary Jane Sullivan in Boston; Imma De Stefanis in Mexico; and Judy Garson in New York City.

For Pope Francis' message on this day, visit the Vatican website