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Beyond law reform: Helping immigrants integrate into church and society
Catholic News Service photo
Elena Segura, director of the Office for Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education for the Archdiocese of Chicago, hugs Celina Hernandes during a 2013 Mass of Thanksgiving. Segura runs a multilayered program to aid immigrants as they integrate into U.S . society, one of many such Catholic-run efforts across the country. 
Catholic News Service photo
Elena Segura, director of the Office for Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education for the Archdiocese of Chicago, hugs Celina Hernandes during a 2013 Mass of Thanksgiving. Segura runs a multilayered program to aid immigrants as they integrate into U.S . society, one of many such Catholic-run efforts across the country. 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Regardless of the success or timing of immigration reform efforts, American society and the Catholic Church in particular should be thinking about how to do a better job of helping immigrants to integrate -- the underlying philosophy of a Washington conference in late February.

Models of things already happening in Catholic institutions to help integrate immigrants were described:

-- The Virginia diocese that provides "godmothers" to shepherd Hispanic families into Catholic schools.

-- The Chicago university with an undergrad student body made up of 40 percent Latinos, many of them without legal immigration status.

-- The California medical center that collaborated with Hmong shamans to help heal patients' spirits along with their bodies.

Convened by the Center for Migration Studies, a 50-year-old Catholic think tank, the Feb. 24 public conference brought together academics, social service providers, policy advisers and activists. They talked about what's already happening, what's missing, what challenges arise when people have complicated immigration status and how integration considerations are different depending upon the culture of the immigrants.

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, explained in opening the conference that the impetus for the project when it was launched a year ago was to help define the church's role, in light of what looked like the probable passage in Congress of comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Although the Senate passed such a bill last summer, the House leadership shows little inclination to take up any bill that might move the process along.

In the meantime, Kerwin said, it became apparent that the larger goal of the project should simply be to make immigrant integration a priority for the Catholic Church at all levels and in all institutions,  regardless of the newcomers' immigration status.

"It's a potential win-win for the Catholic Church," said Kerwin, noting that immigrants "aren't just needy," requiring special services and accommodations. They bring skills and ambition, optimism and, in many cases, well-developed religious faith, he continued.

Nearly two dozen speakers through the day framed the integration issue through various perspectives.

Jesuit Father Thomas Greene, secretary for Social and International Ministries of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, offered 10 observations, among them: "There's no one model of integration."

Integration efforts should include laity, clergy and religious men and women; take patience and persistence, as well as money; and need to take in many parts of life, including parishes, schools, colleges and other institutions, said Father Greene.

Other speakers talked about labor unions and national parishes -- two systems that historically helped immigrants find a niche in the United States.

While these days there are few new parishes dedicated to the needs of people from one country, Sister Anna Nguyen, a Sister of Christian Charity, said a welcome like her family received to a parish in York, Pa., in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam, paved the way to a four-decade-long commitment to that church.

St. Rose of Lima Parish still is home to the Nguyen family and a base for a Vietnamese Catholic community that drew 750 people to the most recent major gathering of the group, said Sister Anna, who works as assistant director for Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs for the Secretariat on Cultural Diversity in the Church for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Father J. Cletus Kiley, a Chicago priest who is director immigration policy for the UNITE HERE labor union, said that as in past generations, some unions are again focused on helping immigrants become a part of U.S. society. More than 80 priests around the country have recently received training in how to work with immigrant and low-income people through labor unions, he said.

Father Kiley said part of his work is helping educate a generation of bishops and priests who grew up without an understanding of the church's 130-year history of involvement with labor unions and Catholic social teaching on the subject.

"Even within the church anti-union voices are more acceptable," he said.

The way immigrants integrated into the culture of the United States 50, 100 or 150 years ago often began with the local church.

As the center of a community's social and educational activities, as well as the place where newcomers found religious and language commonality, integration wasn't so much a thought-out goal as the byproduct of parishes providing what their people needed. The priests and nuns who ran the church and the school likely as not were immigrants themselves, part of the waves of Irish, Germans, Eastern Europeans and Italians who came by the hundreds of thousands a year through the early part of the 20th century.

Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, said in the 1950s, about 90 percent of Catholics in the U.S. had European origins. Today, 40-45 percent of all U.S. Catholics and more than half of Catholics under age 18 are Hispanic.

"We are in the midst of a major transition of what it means to be Catholic," he said. Ospino recently completed work on a major national study of Catholic parishes and how they minister to Hispanics. Results will be released in the spring.

Some of the forthcoming data holds clues for how the church might approach integration-minded ministry.

For one thing, "the vast majority of Hispanics are second, third or fourth generation Americans," he said. "Sixty percent of all Latinos were born here and raised here," said Ospino. Yet the current ministry approach typically seems based on the presumption that all Hispanics are immigrants, he said.

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