Faith-Based Organizations Helping Haitians Seeking Refuge, Assistance

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The first of an envisioned series of webinars was held Feb. 16 to discuss how faith-based organizations are working together to assist Haitian families seeking refuge and assistance in the United States.

Catholic Charities of New York, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are partnering in the effort.

“As a Haitian attorney, my primary goal is always to find the truth, try to see if I could get as much information as possible, and then assess the information and figure out can I fit it into something, and from there kind of assess how strong, how weak, but we want to kind of get your foot through the door or help crack the door open,” said Stephanie Delia, founder of The Haitian Legal Network, which is partnering with Catholic Charities of New York in its new Haitian Representation Project.

Ms. Delia was joined on the panel by Maryann Tharappel, attorney in charge at Immigrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Community Services for the Archdiocese of New York; Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs at United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services; and Vanessa Joseph, Catholic Legal Services Inc.

Ms. Joseph, who serves low-income residents in South Florida through the Archdiocese of Miami, discussed Haitians who are coming to the United States seeking asylum.

“It’s really important to understand what they’re actually asking for when they’re asking for asylum,” she said. “A lot of Haitians have a tendency to come into the country and one of the first asks they have is: I would like to apply for political asylum. They’re not distinguishing between any of the other categories of asylum, they just know it to be called political asylum. So I like to define what that actually means for them because, in reality, the asylum category they may wish to actually apply under has nothing to do with political opinion.” 

Ms. Tharappel touched on Ms. Joseph’s remarks about the unlawful practice of immigration law and urged participants to use available resources.

“This is an area where a lot of people with good intentions end up engaging in advice and counsel that is beyond the scope of what they are ethically able to provide to communities, and this comes from a place of wanting to help and not to hurt and that’s where the benefit of the wide network of (Catholic Charities) USA comes in,” she said. “Please reach out to your network for assistance with navigating immigration legal services demands if you do not have on-site, in-house legal services.” 

Ms. Chester said it is important to inform Haitians about federal and state programs they’re eligible to receive and that their statuses may change in the future. For example, if a Haitian couple has a baby in the United States, the child is a U.S. citizen and may be eligible for services not offered to the parents.

“It’s important to understand that these different statuses convey different kinds of eligibility,” she said. “There are some programs everyone is eligible for regardless of immigration status and you should also be familiar with that as well.”

Ms. Tharappel stressed the importance of reaching out into parish communities and said she’ll ask for assistance from Father Levelt Germain, pastor of St. Joseph and St. Boniface parish in Spring Valley, who is Haitian-born.

“One of the biggest tools and tips I can give all of you is to reach out through your local connections,” she said. “Work with your parish networks, the parish system is one of the first spaces of welcome for recently arriving immigrants. Many Haitians seek refuge and solace in the Church, and so many of you have connections there.”

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