Catholic Leaders Unite in Grassroots Effort to Help Migrants During Pandemic

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By Christopher White, National Correspondent

NEW YORK — A number of prominent Catholic leaders have joined grassroots organizations from Central America, Mexico, and the United States in releasing a five-point action plan to protect migrants and refugees during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Released on April 15 in an effort spearheaded by the Hope Border Institute and Faith in Action, the joint statement says it is aimed to promote both preventative and protection strategies.

“This pandemic is a public health crisis that brings home how interconnected we are,” they wrote. “It is our collective responsibility to act rapidly and in solidarity.”

The five-step plan calls for the “rapid, safe and orderly” release of as many asylum seekers and migrants currently in detention; significant new measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus in refugee camps, migrant shelters and detention centers; equitable access to testing and emergency care; a guaranteed right to asylum; and a call for “immediate and large-scale” investments for public health systems, food, and income support for vulnerable families.

Catholic signatories to the statement include Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini Imeri of Huehuetenango in Guatemala, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis, Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, and Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas.

Other Catholic organizations that have signed on are Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Labor Network, Faith in Public Life, Ignatian Solidarity Network, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, and Pax Christi. They were joined by a number of interfaith leaders, representing nearly 50 organizations.

“We call for an international solidarity that promotes the economic recovery of the countries of the region and as well as the human and integral development of the most vulnerable families and communities,” write the signatories, with a focus on the root causes of poverty, violence and corruption that force people to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

The joint statement comes at a time when the health and safety of migrants and refugees are facing extreme risks, with public health officials warning that detention facilities could become a hotbed for the spread of the virus.

Earlier this week the health minister of Guatemala said that the United States has deported “many” COVID-19 positive migrants to the country heightening fears that such practices could continue the spread of the virus during a critical time in which countries around the globe are taking forceful measures to stop its spread.

“Even before the pandemic immigrants in detention were forced to endure unsafe conditions, and now this crisis requires an urgent humanitarian response,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, which signed on to the statement.

“Catholics and other people of faith are speaking out for the common good and public health. The goal is to hold those in power accountable for this injustice and demand policy changes that will protect the health and human dignity of migrants and their families,” he told The Tablet.

Last month, Dylan Corbett of the HOPE Border Institute, criticized the Trump administration’s decision to close the southern border to asylum seekers, arguing that the administration has weaponized the panic created from the spread of the coronavirus to turn back asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S.

“They are using pandemic as an excuse to effect the controls that they’ve always wanted to implement, which is the end of asylum,” he told The Tablet.

Jennifer Poidatz, vice president of Catholic Relief Services’s humanitarian response department, which also signed the statement, said that their teams are working to design triage centers for health facilities and temporary centers for isolation.

“Given the conditions so many men, women and children find themselves in after being displaced from their homes could mean this virus spreading like wildfire through shelters and camps, claiming many more lives and putting many more at risk,” Poidatz said in a statement, also highlighting that in places such as Mexico and El Salvador, some migrant shelters have closed forcing new arrivals to be homeless and even heightening their vulnerabilities.

“For refugees living in a camp, the congested environment and limited access to hygiene items like clean water and soap can make it difficult to follow the guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19,” she continued. “Hygiene supplies, clear information and social distancing practices are critical in camp environments. The ability to isolate and care for those who are sick is also essential during this crisis.”

“People living in precarious situations are at greater risk for disease in normal times and need even more protection now,” Poidatz warned.