Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed LangloisMichi Caldwell tells her grueling story of immigration.
                          Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Michi Caldwell tells her grueling story of immigration.
Being an immigrant in the United States is no free ride.

Those who leave their homelands to come to the U.S. often risk their lives. Many spend their savings to be ushered by unscrupulous guides. Immigrants pay taxes, but do not qualify for welfare. Those who seek legalization spend years navigating a legal thicket second in complexity only to the U.S. tax code.

Michi Caldwell, a native of the Philippines, was narrowing in on permanent residency in the U.S. at age 20. But busy immigration workers delayed her appointments and when she turned 21, officials sent her back to the Philippines. Removed from her family, she was forced to start over. It took 11 years of applying and waiting before she could return and become a citizen.

"The hardship of navigating the immigration system makes it difficult for families who have to be separated," said Caldwell, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland.

"You have to first fit into one of the laws that exist before you even begin this lengthy, lengthy process," said Sarah McClain, an attorney with Catholic Charities who helps immigrants in the legal system.

Immigrants with relatives who are citizens or permanent residents have an advantage. But there is still a lot of proving to do. Depending on their country of origin, the required records can be next to impossible to collect. Abused women and human trafficking victims also have special opportunities to immigrate.

President Obama last summer put in place an administrative rule that halts deportations for many young people who were brought into the country illegally as children. Youths in school or who have a diploma or GED or who served in the military are eligible for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals rule. In Oregon, an estimated 22,000 young people qualify. These applications, which cost hundreds of dollars to file, are now the chief work being done at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services.

Today's immigrants come to the United States for the same reasons our ancestors made the journey: war, famine and work, says Beth Poteet of the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement.

Recent immigrants to Oregon include the widow of an Afghan man who collaborated with U.S. troops and was murdered. Not long ago, a Serbian widow brought her large family to Portland. Hundreds have fled terror in Somalia.

Cecilia Baricevic, a Catholic Charities worker who has served incoming refugees for decades, says the arrivals are most interested in establishing independence via education and work. Baricevic has helped settle more than 20,000 refugees in Oregon, going back to the Cuban crisis, Southeast Asia, central Africa and recently the Middle East. In 2011, almost 1,000 refugees arrived in the state. Only one in 100 displaced people around the world get resettled. Most are stuck in camps for years.   

"It's dangerous to be a refugee," Baricevic says. "Someone has to believe your story."

Shane Young, another Catholic Charities refugee worker, helps families find affordable apartments. Case workers make sure children go to school and adults get job training. It's a shock to enter a new culture and a busy urban district where shopping and transportation is utterly unfamiliar.

"Two new refugees came from a village where they had never had to cross a street," Young reported. "They got off the MAX and didn't know what to do."

Children who can't speak English or who don't have the latest fashions get bullied. Many seek acceptance by joining gangs.

Some adults must satisfy themselves with unfamiliar work. A former member of the Sierra Leone presidential cabinet is now a Portland security guard. An Iraqi engineer now drives a cab.

"We are called to open our hearts to and provide hospitality to those in need," says Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Life, Justice and Peace. "As people of faith, we should be persuaded not by a cost-benefit analysis, not by what's in it for me, but by what our faith calls us to do."

Cato says church teaching calls Catholics to enter into compassionate relationships with migrants. Biblical justice, he explained, is "legal justice plus mercy."

The church does not condone undocumented immigration, Cato said, but it does serve all people in need.

"We don't care how they came into the country," Cato says. "We care that they are human."