Christ the King Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, hosted a forum on Feb. 29 that offered insights on the plight of immigrants today and how parishioners can help them. During the presentation given by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington in the parish hall, they met a Salvadoran family who live with the constant fear of deportation and family separation. 

Elsy, her husband, and older daughter came to the United States from El Salvador 20 years ago and were able to live and work in the country under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), granted by the U.S. government.

However, their stability and dreams turned into a nightmare of anguish when they heard the news that the Department of Homeland Security recently announced the termination of the program, leaving about 300,000 immigrants from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, Nepal and Honduras, eligible for deportation.

“When we found out about the cancellation of TPS, it was very devastating for our whole family, especially for my daughter Maria. She has been living here her whole life, and we don’t know what will happen next,” said Elsy, who also has two U.S.-born children. 

Although a court ordered a preliminary injunction that granted those affected a temporary relief for one more year, their future as TPS recipients is uncertain.

Such a situation is causing the family much anxiety. 

“It’s scary. I feel like I’m always on a timer, time will run out. I try to stay positive, but sometimes it gets really hard, and I get anxiety,” said 21-year-old Maria, who is in college and wants to be a teacher. She was a one-year-old child when she came to the United States.

Hearing firsthand how U.S. immigration policies are affecting the lives of others, caught the attention of many.

“Nobody is touching the hearts of people regarding this problem,” said Tiziana Cogliati, a member of St. Elizabeth Parish in Rockville, Maryland. Moved by the family’s testimony, she encouraged those present to urge their parishes to facilitate encounters such as this one. 

The gathering’s purpose was to raise awareness about the different hardships immigrants face and provide practical ideas to welcome the stranger, particularly during Lent, a time to practice works of mercy.

“This event is an opportunity to help lay leaders from different parishes to hear the cry of the poor, the marginalized, to understand their predicament,” said Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski, the director of parish community organizing and advocacy for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Leaders also shared information about activities they do to help refugees, unaccompanied children, and other immigrants in crisis situations. Examples included organizing food drives and establishing welcoming groups that can assist them with tasks such as enrolling their children at schools, serving as translators or accompanying them to their immigration-related appointments.

Sister Judy Rojas, a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul who works with Catholic Charities’ parish community organizing and advocacy program, helps parish families in Maryland from St. Matthias the Apostle in Lanham, St. Mary’s in Landover Hills, and St. Ambrose in Cheverly, to welcome and accompany families of recent immigrants. She emphasized that encountering and accompaniment are very important.

“They have broken relationships with their families, friends, and society; they feel lonely and helpless. To offer them a human encounter, a welcoming that goes beyond offering them a pound of rice, is to give them back their sense of human dignity,” Sister Judy told the Catholic Standard. “They don’t have resources at the moment, but they have other riches that they can contribute.”

Margaret Forbin, a parishioner at Christ the King, has helped and welcomed immigrants in her home and is looking for ideas to continue helping.

“I want to find other ways to help people. I currently have three people who are seeking asylum living with me,” said Forbin. “I feel happy when I help someone and they succeed, because I too was an immigrant before, and I had to work hard to become a U.S. citizen, so I understand exactly how it feels.”

Another idea offered was to engage parishioners to connect by having Masses in other languages, offering English classes, organizing legal clinics, and backpack drives.

Some kids have been “in tears” when they received backpacks, because they had been carrying their books in plastic bags, said Jacqueline Rishty, Catholic Charities’ director of Immigration Legal Services. She explained that sometimes their caretakers have very limited funds and must prioritize.  

Catholics can also help by urging their elected officials to support initiatives that help immigrants and by making donations that help pay for immigration related fees. 

“We need to preach about it, we need to pray about it, and urge our elected officials to act according to the Gospel values with justice,” Father Orzechowski stressed, adding that treating immigrants with respect and human dignity is at the core of Catholic social teaching. 

“No politician can say that she or he is pro-life when that person supports policies that contribute to a frontal assault to the immigrant community or contributes to policies that tear families apart,” Father Orzechowski said.