Today the Church in the United States is responding to the unprecedented levels of immigration from Africa through pastoral care and social and legal services to the recent immigrants. At every level of the Church -- national, diocesan, and parish levels -- efforts are being made to understand these newest immigrants and respond to their needs in ways that are respectful of their cultural heritage and responsive to their spiritual and social needs. Before describing these activities on behalf of African immigrants, it is useful to understand the historical context in which immigration to the United States has occurred and the Church’s involvement.
The United States: A Nation of Immigrants
Refugees fleeing religious and other forms of persecution founded the United States. Since the time of the pilgrim settlers in the 17th century, the U.S. has been populated largely through immigration. Today, nearly 12% of its population is foreign-born.
Unlike historical migration patterns, in which newcomers tended to settle in the major gateway cities, today’s immigrants settle in virtually all parts of the United States. Additionally, previous generations of immigrants to the United States arrived mainly, though not exclusively, from Europe, while the immigrants over the past several decades have come from all regions of the world. Therefore, a much more ethnically diverse immigrant population is dispersed much more broadly throughout the country.
To illustrate this point, over the past several years, the Church provided assistance to refugees from more than 70 different ethnicities as they were resettled in more than 200 communities throughout the United States.
Today’s immigration laws and policies provide for the admission of nearly one million immigrants to the United States each year. Many other immigrants either overstay their temporary visas or enter the United States without proper immigration documents. Though the events of September 11, 2001, impacted immigration to the U. S., the nation remains committed to immigration.
The Immigrant Church
The Catholic Church in the United States traces her roots to this immigrant experience. In 1800, there were 318,000 Catholics in the United States. At that time, Catholics represented 3% in the population. By 1900, through a major jump in immigration to the United States, the Catholic population had grown to just more than 12 million and comprised 16% of the U.S. population. In 1965, the Catholic population was nearly 46 million, and reached its peak as a proportion of the U.S. total population at 24%. Since the mid-1960’s, the Catholic population as a proportion of the total U.S. population began to decrease. For instance, in 1990, the number of Catholics in the U.S. was more than 55 million, but only represented 22% of the total U.S. population.
Because of this immigrant heritage, the Church in the U.S. has long been involved in helping immigrants as they take their first steps in a new land. The first national program, established in 1920 by the bishops in the U.S., was an office of immigration, which assisted newly arriving immigrants connect with pastoral care within their new communities.
Because of the size and rapidity of this growth in Catholics, many “national” parishes were created in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the immigrant population became more ethnically and linguistically diverse and the earlier immigrants began to migrate away from their initial parish communities, the local parishes have attempted to provide pastoral care to all immigrants, not just those from the ethnic groups that had earlier settled in the parish.
Today, approximately 300,000 Catholics immigrate to the United States each year.
The Church’s Commitment to Immigrants Today
Within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is a Committee on Migration. Through this Committee, and its associated office of Migration and Refugee Services, the bishops carry out a three-part mission: (1) support and facilitate pastoral care for newcomers and people on the move; (2) advocate responsive public policies affecting immigrants and refugees; and (3) coordinate national resettlement services for refugees and other forced migrants. A description of these activities, with reference to their implications for Africans, follows.
Public Policy Advocacy
The bishops are actively engaged in efforts designed to influence U.S. immigration-related policies and laws. The bishops regularly present formal testimony before the U.S. legislature and meet with officials in the executive branch in attempts to bring about laws and policies that reflect the rich tradition of welcome in the United States. Catholic Social Teaching and Scripture serve to guide the bishops in these interventions.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the political environment and immigrant and refugee admissions procedures have been altered, yet the bishops and other advocates have been able to maintain a commitment on the part of the U.S. government to immigration.
The U.S. Bishops’ Migration Committee has been particularly focused on Africa in recent years. Since 1996, this Committee has fielded six delegations to various parts of Africa to learn more about the refugees in the region in order that the Bishops might better advocate responses to their plight. This advocacy has resulted in a significant expansion in the granting of refugee status by and admissions to the United States for a number of African refugee groups, among whom have been particularly vulnerable refugees and those who had no prospects of returning to their homes or remaining in their countries of asylum.
Working through a network comprised of more than 100 resettlement programs in dioceses across the United States, the Bishops’ national office coordinates an array of resettlement-related services to refugees and other forced migrants, such as victims of human trafficking. In recent years, the Church in the United States has assisted thousands of refugees from more than 24 countries in Africa. Two years ago, several thousand Sudanese refugees, admitted as a direct result of the bishops’ advocacy efforts, were assisted in their transition to life in the United States. Currently, the Church is assisting a large group of refugees from Somalia.
Of particular concern to the U.S. bishops has been the plight of the young refugees who are in camps without their parents or guardians. Many thousands of these youth have been languishing in the deplorable camp conditions for a decade and longer without viable prospects of returning to their homes. The Bishops have sent staff with child welfare expertise from their dioceses and from their national office to work along side the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to conduct best interest assessments for these children. Those for whom resettlement to a third country is determined to be in their best interests will be assisted in their resettlement by the Church. The Church in the U.S. has an extensive network of child welfare programs geared toward refugees and other forced migrants.
Pastoral Care for Newcomers and People on the Move
Of course, the core activity of the Church is the provision of pastoral care. The presence of so many people of so many different cultures, ethnicities, languages, and religions in so many parts of the United States has challenged the Church. To help meet these challenges, in the 1980s the Bishops created an office at the national level, which encourages and supports the local Church’s welcome and pastoral response to newcomers and people on the move.
Within this Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees (PCMR), there is a ministry on behalf of African immigrants and refugees. This department helps inform the local dioceses about who the new African immigrants are and helps identify and disseminate liturgical, catechetical, and other materials in the newcomers’ native languages. It also has developed a cadre of leaders from among the various African groups whose responsibility is to ensure that the new immigrants have access to Mass and other events in their own language and cultural whenever possible.
Another important function of this office is to encourage and support the development of lay leadership from among the newcomer populations. A recent example of this activity involves the recent arrivals from Sudan. The PCMR office organized regional meetings throughout the United States in order to bring the Sudanese refugees together with diocesan leaders. These convenings served multiple purposes: (1) they enhanced the diocesan familiarity with these recent immigrants and strengthened the relationship between the dioceses and the Sudanese community; (2) they provided opportunities for the Sudanese to reestablish connections with one another and to develop new fraternal bonds to sustain them in their efforts at acclimating to a new land; and (3) began to develop lay leaders from among the Sudanese community in order that they might be a source of support for their compatriots.
These regional meetings culminated this past year in a national convening of about 200 of the Sudanese youth in Washington, D.C. At that time, the Sudanese further discussed ways to strengthen their bonds and enhance their skills as leaders within their community. They also met with members of the legislature to raise their voice on behalf of the Sudanese remaining in refugee camps in Africa and for peace in their home country. A highlight of the convening was the presence of Bishop Paride Taban of Sudan.
Perhaps the U.S. Bishops’ vision and commitment toward immigrants can best be summed up in a passage in a pastoral letter they issued in 2000, entitled Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity. In that letter, the Bishops state:
-- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- unity in diversity.
Prepared for Nigeria Conference entitled: Americans and Africans in Dialogue about Africa’s Promise, Needs, and Image. January 4-11, 2004
By Mark Franken, Executive Director, Migration and Refugee Services, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops