Cardinal Tobin and Dreamers reflect on their immigrant roots during Feb. 5 Dahlgren Dialogue
Feb. 8, 2018
US & World
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, joined Dreamers on a panel during a Feb. 5 Dahlgren Dialogue at Georgetown University, titled “Sharing the Journey with Immigrants and Refugees.”
For Cardinal Tobin, the issue of immigration is personal in many ways. He recalled how he grew up in Detroit, in a neighborhood surrounded by immigrants who spoke different languages and ate different food, and his home parish now has Masses in English, Spanish, and in Arabic. He knew people from his neighborhood who had been deported and killed upon their return to El Salvador, he said.
His own family roots come from County Kerry, in Ireland, and he grew up with a strong connection to that country – recalling how his grandmother spoke English, but always prayed in the Irish Gaelic language, because “she wasn’t quite sure that God understood English.”
Whenever his dad and uncles offered to pay for his grandma to go back to visit Ireland, she would always say, “All I knew there was poverty. You go back.”
During a media briefing prior to the dialogue, Cardinal Tobin said it was important for Catholics in America to remember, “Those are our roots.” In political cartoons in the late 19th century, around the time that many Catholic immigrants were coming to the United States, “We were the ones who were portrayed as apes and drunkards,” he said.
“One of the parishioners I have in Newark is rather tall and she’s quite green. People usually associate her with New York, but she really belongs to New Jersey,” said Cardinal Tobin, explaining that she is the Statue of Liberty. “It’s a constant reminder to everyone in my archdiocese of our shared experience being immigrants.”
Cardinal Tobin also noted that the Catholic Church has always recognized both the right of people to emigrate, and the right for countries to control their borders with justice and charity.
In 2015, in the wake of terror attacks in Belgium and Paris, then-Governor Mike Pence declared a ban on Syrian immigrants in Indiana. At the time, then-Archbishop Tobin led the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and the Catholic Charities in his archdiocese was in the middle of resettling a refugee family, and he asked for a meeting with Gov. Pence to discuss his decision.
To personalize the issue, he brought along an Iraqi immigrant to share his story, as well as the director of his archdiocese’s Catholic Charities and the director of the refugee resettlement program there. They explained that they felt it was a part of their mission as a Catholic community to help people find a home who were fleeing from violence.
Gov. Pence asked him to pray about it, so Cardinal Tobin did what he asked and about four days later called him and told him that he hadn’t changed his mind. Later, a federal appeals court blocked the governor’s proposed resettlement restrictions.
More recently, Cardinal Tobin joined ministers from other faiths in accompanying a 59-year-old immigrant to a deportation hearing, “Just to be with him and pray for him and pray for a softening of hearts,” he said. Following the hearing, he got a stay of one year, and will have rehearing in March.
“I think what can paralyze us”– in the face of government restrictions on immigration and refugee resettlement that seem to be steamrolling ahead, is “that you lose the sight of an individual act of kindness,” said Cardinal Tobin. “It matters to this fellow, to this family.”
In the midst of such heated debate about immigration, Cardinal Tobin said he thinks it is very important is to put a face on immigrants.
“If we recognize the humanity of a person, we find it much more difficult to treat them inhumanely,” he said.
Mizraim Belman Guerrero, a sophomore at Georgetown University, and Habon Ali, a senior at the school, helped to do that, as they shared their stories of coming to the United States as minors.
Guerrero came to the United States from Mexico when he was four years old. His dad had already been working in the country for a couple of years, and Guerrero recalled that one time when he came back to visit, “I didn’t know who he was.”
His parents decided that they didn’t want their family to be separated like that, so in 2003 he crossed the border with his mom and older brother. They grew up in Austin, Texas, and “at first, I didn’t realize what it meant to be undocumented,” Guerrero said.
That changed in 2011, when his dad was detained after being pulled over because a coworker of his wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He was in a detention center for about a month.
“Again, I was growing up without a father,” Guerrero said.
When he was in high school, Guerrero started to get involved with an immigrant rights organization, because, “I knew what happened to my family was really difficult for us… and I didn’t want people to end up in similar situations as mine,” he said.
Guerrero said he cried when he got his acceptance letter to the university, which was his top choice.
“Coming from a small town, where my parents didn’t finish high school…It’s been a truly astonishing pleasure to share the experience I’ve had at Georgetown with my parents and with my grandparents, letting them know their sacrifices have been worth it,” Guerrero said.
By the time he reaches his senior year, Guerrero doesn’t know if he will still be allowed to remain in the country, as his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permit is set to expire in August of that year.
“I can’t plan for a future with my degree because I really just don’t know what it is going to be like,” he said. “I don’t know if going back to Austin my parents will be detained.”
Ali was born in Kenya and grew up with her mom, who never went to school, but who did anything possible to make sure Ali and her sister were able to have that opportunity.
“Before we got to the United States, we had that American Dream,” she said. “But when we came here we realized there is no social safety net for immigrants and refugees alike.”
For a year and a half they were living in other’s people’s houses, eventually becoming homeless and living in a shelter.
“In our eyes, we came from poverty to poverty,” she said. “Seeing my mom go through that was one of the hardest things as a 9-year-old.”
But in the midst of everything, Ali said she was inspired by “seeing her courage and her strength and her faith in God to be able to come to a country where she is already not valued as a Muslim woman, even when there is a stigma against her, to strive and work against that.”
Ali recalled how her mom would always tell her, “The only thing that anyone cannot take away from you from you is your education. That is the one thing that will save you and will save us.”
Now working on both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Georgetown, Ali said in the midst of the immigration debate, “there needs to be a dialogue with the communities that are impacted.”
“Not just for photo ops, where you just have an immigrant next to you…but really engaging with them on a grassroots level,” she said.
On a similar note, Guerrero said leaders needed to “stop looking for the perfect immigrant story.”
“The immigrant experience is very broad, very complex, and while we are fortunate enough to have immigrants that cure diseases…there are a lot of immigrants that are like my mom that are here, are hardworking, who don’t go to school, aren’t going to be the ones on the front page discovering something brand new…but her life and her experience are just as valuable, and she deserves human dignity just like any of those immigrants,” said Guerrero.
As Congress tries to find a way to reach a deal on immigration, there are many policy proposals that would protect young immigrants in exchange for policies that may harm their parents or other immigrants, such as abandoning family-based immigration and switching to a merit-based immigration system.
“If we are going to sign off on a bill, we better understand what is really being exchanged,” said Cardinal Tobin. “I fully support a clean DACA bill. I think any sort of tit for tat for this one is very dangerous.”
Cardinal Tobin noted that in looking at budget proposals, it is not Border Patrol that is being expanded, but rather it is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which only works on the interior of the country, and often enforces deportations.
“I think we some draw some lines in the sand,” he said. “It is not being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. But we would be giving away some essential hope for human beings.”
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