Catholic Charities Examines Immigration Issues On Easter Week Trip to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala

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What a disciplined student didn’t say during a sewing class is what spoke to the executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities as he and a delegation observed, close up, lives in three Central American nations on a five-day mission trip the week after Easter.

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan recalled visiting the sewing class in Honduras and observing one young woman, about 17 or 18 years old, at a sewing machine “who looked up for about half a second and then went back to keep working on her pattern so that she could develop her skills so that she would get a good job,” he told CNY May 1 at the Catholic Charities office at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.

“I watched her throughout the entire visit. She looked up that one time and she went back to work.” He later approached her and she told him, “‘I have to learn this. This is what I need to do in order to improve.’

“That,” Msgr. Sullivan said, “was really, really impressive to me.”

Msgr. Sullivan was part of a delegation to the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador April 22-26 that included New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Also representing Catholic Charities were Luz Tavarez, director of government and community relations, and Fanny Gomez, social media specialist, communications and marketing. The mission included coordination with Catholic Relief Services.

What makes the delegation a much greater resource for their colleagues and others, Msgr. Sullivan said, is the diversity of people they met.

“We spoke with families whose people had migrated and who disappeared,” and may be dead. “We met with farmers who are no longer able to support themselves because of the volatility of coffee prices—world coffee market and because of the drying up and the droughts caused by climate change. We met with Church leaders,” including Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, “to understand the perspective of the Church in those situations.”

They also met with factory workers, union leaders, people from the United States embassy and from the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights. They visited three migration centers, one of which is run by the Scalabrini community, where those on migration received respite and help on their way. Another stop, Msgr. Sullivan said, was the migration center run by the Salvadoran government “that was a reception center for the hundreds of returnees from the United States every day.” They also visited a Scalabrini migration center that had on site government officials who registered people and offered additional services to people upon their return.

Msgr. Sullivan said he had a heightened awareness “that this is an American problem. It’s not the problem of the United States, it is not the problem of the Northern Triangle. It is a crisis of the Americas—North America, Central America, South America.”

“We do have a migration crisis in the Americas. Where I think there has been a lack of focus and a lack of understanding is that when we look at the United States-Mexican border, what we are seeing is the symptom of the crisis. The problems are very much in the countries where we visited.”

Although symptoms must be addressed, the underlying causes must also be examined, otherwise the symptoms will resurface, Msgr. Sullivan said.

“Unless you deal with the three issues of economic development, of violence extortion and government integrity, you will not be able to make the type of impact needed on the current migration crisis.

“What we need is a passion to solve it and a perseverance to stay with it for years,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“What every single person told us, is that what organizations like Catholic Relief Services are doing, what other NGOs are doing, what the USAID assistance is doing, is actually making an impact.”

What resonated with Ms. Tavarez was “how hopeful people were” in all three countries. “We heard a lot of stories and…yet they seemed to still have the energy to continue the fight.”

What also was telling, Ms. Tavarez said, “is that these people don’t necessarily want to migrate to the United States. For many, there is just no alternative because there’s a serious issue of violence, and the economy isn’t as strong as it could be, so they’re just faced with a tough decision.”

Ms. Gomez valued the vantage point being on the scene added to her social media work. “It’s very, very different when you’re on the ground and you see the faces of these people while they’re talking, and how they elevate or diminish the sounds of their voice while they hit certain key points in their story,” she said.

Msgr. Sullivan celebrated Mass for the delegates on the fifth day of Easter and the sixth day of Passover in San Salvador, El Salvador, at the Chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, where St. Oscar Romero was assassinated in March of 1980 while offering Mass. “There’s no better story than the story of Easter to highlight how the darkest of situations—the death of Jesus on Good Friday—can be transformed into new life,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“I would say it was grace-filled that we were able to make the trip at that time.”

Back in the United States, the delegation has “already reached out to people in New York City, people in New York state, people in the federal government,” he said, “to share what we’ve learned.”

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