By Dan Russo | Witness Editor
January 9, 2015
DUBUQUE — The wall-to-wall media coverage of the thousands of unaccompanied minors from South and Central America crossing the U.S. border this past summer may be a distant memory to some, but migration is an ever-present reality, around the world and right around the corner.
“We continue to learn of more unaccompanied minors here in our archdiocese,” said Tracy Morrison, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese. “Our total is right around 15 children that we are aware of living in our archdiocese. Our youngest one is 10 years old our oldest just turned 18. All of these children now are in need of legal services, which is the number one need we have for these children.”
The lengths some of the children went to be reunited with parents already living in eastern Iowa is astounding, according to Morrison. Many parents left their children with distant relatives to find a way to support them by working in the United States.
“One of the children traveled for nearly three months to reach Iowa,” she said. “This particular family had six children and their children were not with these parents. When I think about that as a parent myself; I think about the agony that these parents must live with every day…”
With the Catholic Church in the United States recently celebrating National Migration Week Jan. 4-10, a practice started by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) 25-years ago, many dioceses around the nation are taking time to reflect on the issue, particularly as it relates to children, refugees and victims of human trafficking.
“Any opportunities that we have to help reunite them as a family is what we want to do and that’s very much in line with the social teachings of our church,” said Morrison.
With President Obama’s executive actions on immigration set to impact an estimated 18,000 people in Iowa when they take effect later this year, non-profit organizations like Morrison’s that help immigrants are preparing for a possible spike in need for their services.
About 4,000 people in Iowa are eligible for the president’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, expected to begin in February 2015. About 14,000 are eligible for the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), expected to begin in May 2015, according to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute.
“The numbers we are anticipating are significant,” said Morrison. “We are in the process of preparing for that.”
Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese offers several different programs to help immigrants. Their refugee resettlement program is funded by grants from the U.S. State Department that are administered by the USCCB. The USCCB then subcontracts with local Catholic charities agencies to resettle refugees who legally enter the country in order to flee different types of persecution in their native lands.
Last year Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese resettled about 100 refugees, mostly from Iraq, Somalia and Burma. The agency spends 90 days assisting these clients.
“We help them secure housing, food, clothing, employment counseling — all the basic needs,” said Morrison.
Aside from the refugee program, Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese also helps immigrants with legal aid. The agency employs a specialist accredited with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to help people navigate the legal immigration system. The specialist is funded mainly through donations to the charity, with some nominal fees coming from the clients themselves.
Several months ago, parishes in the archdiocese held a special collection to aid the unaccompanied minors now living here. A large part of the funds are expected to go toward the minors’ legal costs.
“We’ve used some of the money to support these 15 children,” explained Morrison. “A majority of it is still being held in an account to see what their final expenses are going to be. They’re helping pay attorneys’ fees right now, clothing, food, rent, basic things like that, but we’re holding some of that back because the legal process can be very expensive for these families.”
With the anticipated increase in need for immigration legal services, Catholic Charities is planning to organize legal clinics around the archdiocese and is reaching out to lawyers in the area and other volunteers, especially bi-lingual people, who may be interested in assisting immigrants.
Morrison hopes this year’s celebration of National Migration Week will help raise awareness of the positive qualities immigrants bring to the archdiocese.
“Most people are not aware of the number of immigrants or refugees that are living in our communities,” she said. “I think we’re more aware in towns like Marshalltown, perhaps Cedar Rapids and Waterloo where there’s information and those individuals may be more present, but the fact is that immigrants and refugees are in almost every community in the archdiocese. This is an opportunity for us, as a church, to celebrate them and support them and let them know we care.”