Ana Gloria Rivas-Vazquez: Bienvenidos. Welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us for “Walking the Path with Migrants.” I’m Ana Gloria Rivas-Vazquez and I’ll be guiding our conversation today. I’m in the Charitable Giving division at Catholic Relief Services and I am based in Miami. CRS is the official humanitarian and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and we help Catholics in the U.S. answer the Gospel call to help the poor. We work in 114 countries around the world, helping out our most vulnerable sisters and brothers.
As many of you know CRS is working to address the root causes of migration and to assist those making difficult journeys in search of safety for themselves and their families. Our work is grounded in the belief that people should have the option to live in their own country and make a life for their loved ones there. But when that’s not possible, our Catholic faith compels us to protect and provide for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters wherever they are. We have three of my CRS colleagues joining us. Mary Hodem, our regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, who is based in Guatemala. Rosa Anaya in El Salvador, and Cecilia Suarez Trueba in Mexico.
We are also very happy to have with us Bishop Felipe Estévez, Bishop of Saint Augustine, Florida, and a member of our board of directors. Bishop Estévez, we’re delighted to have you with us, and I’d like to share with our guests a very special connection that you have to CRS, that dates back to before you were a board member. In 1961, Bishop Estévez came to the United States from Cuba as a 15-year-old unaccompanied minor and he was resettled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, by none other than Catholic Relief Services. So, Bishop you’ve had a special connection to us for a number of years.
We’re so blessed to have you with us today Bishop Estévez, and you’ve traveled with us to El Salvador and I know you’re going to share some reflections about your experiences there. But before that, would you please lead us in prayer?
Bishop Felipe Estévez: Thank you, Ana Gloria. Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we praise you for all of us are your children, regardless of race, nationalities, class or level of education. We give you thanks for Catholic Relief Services, in its outreach of compassion and human development. We pray especially for people on the move, migrants and refugees, our brothers and sisters. May we understand the human tragedy and learn to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them into our communities. May we open our hearts to work for communities who express solidarity and fraternity toward all. We ask these through Christ our Lord.
And, as Ana Gloria mentioned, I had at the beginning of the year the great blessing of visiting with the team of CRS El Salvador. We were taken to different projects that CRS is involved and one of them was to a farm where we met young entrepreneurs who CRS assists with providing funds so that they can initiate small enterprises, especially in improving farm practices from traditional methods of farming to more efficient and effective methods of farming. They could stay in their own communities and flourish within their own communities. The other project that we were taken was to a prison in El Salvador. And you and I know, all of us know, that prisons are not places of humanity and rehabilitation, regretfully. But there, CRS was able to penetrate the prison and provide a course of peacemaking to the prisoners.
We saw the curriculum of what they were teaching: conflict resolution, how to dialogue, how to have basic business skills. But not only were they being educated in these practical ways to integrate into society when they leave prison, but CRS was also working with the business community to provide jobs for those young people who would not need to join any violent groups but could become decent citizens working in their communities. I was so impressed by that project and by the effectiveness of that work. But in reality, migration and the root causes of migration is a most relevant issue for all of us.
Pope Francis is a model. The first trip he did was to signify his support to migrants on the move and when he came to Ciudad Juarez Mexico, what a wonderful … in February of 2016, that encounter that has remained unforgettable. Making a plea for more humane treatment of migrants. But I recently was reading his last encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, especially in Chapter Four—it’s all related to migration. I really invite you to go to that Chapter Four that is titled “Heart Open to the World.” And when I read the title I said, “This is CRS in essence: heart open to the world.”
To the theme of migration, the Holy Father tries to understand what is the causalities of migration is, and what it is truly the lives that are at stake. At times it’s fleeing from war, from persecution, from natural catastrophes, from human trafficking. And so we need a humane gaze of why people migrated. And the Pope, as you know, repeats again and again the policy of our Church regarding migration, which is to welcome the migrants, to protect them, to support them and to integrate them. Not assimilate them but integrate them into our communities.
And so the Holy Father, in this chapter four of Fratelli Tutti, affirms that creating concrete opportunities to live with dignity in the countries of origin is a priority. But at the same time, we need to respect the right to seek a better life elsewhere, is a human right to migrate. And we need to welcome and assist migrants to enable them to receive visas and to open corridors of welcoming to assure lodging and security and essential services. Indeed, promote family reunification, protect minors and guarantee religious freedom.
Mary Hodem: Greetings everyone and thank you so much Bishop Estévez. As Ana Gloria mentioned, I’m the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean region joining you from Guatemala City today.
CRS works in 21 countries in the region. We have approximately 600 staff and last year our programs reached more than 2 million people. As in many parts of the world our context completely changed in mid-March with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our teams quickly adapted programming to this new reality, continuing our programs and reaching participants in new and safe ways.
In the area of education, we emphasize support to primary schools to reduce hunger while improving literacy. In our youth program, we focus on young people and making sure they have opportunities for education, training and decent jobs. Within the area of peacebuilding, we focus on fostering healthy and resilient relationships with trauma healing, strengthening families and expanding a Catholic peace network. Within the social services and health area, we emphasize all children being supported within safe and nurturing families. In Central America, more than one million young people between the ages of 15 and 25 are out of school and unemployed. Insecurity in the region is stifling investment and economic growth, further limiting their job opportunities. These factors are pushing young people, already discouraged by lack of opportunity, to immigrate in record numbers.
The issue of migration and the ongoing migrant crisis remain critical and compelling for all of our work in the region. And I’m excited to introduce Rosa Anaya, CRS senior project officer in El Salvador, to share some of her personal experiences.
Rosa Anaya: Since October 2018, there’s been more than 13,000 people leaving Central America. Caravans of people literally walking to El Norte, for months only with what they can carry. It’s not about the American dream anymore—not when people understand the levels of discrimination, labor exploitation and denigrating conditions that they will have to face on their journey and when they get to U.S. soil.
Figures from the Honduran Consulate and Migration Observatory indicate that between the three countries of the Northern Triangle, the number of deportees in 2018 was close 200,000 people. And let me be clear: Migration is a right, but so is the right to stay. Central America shares many of the root causes of forced migration. For many of us, staying is not an option. For decades we’ve been forced to run away from our countries in order for us to survive.
Meet the Anaya family: This is a widow and her now fatherless children. Mother and father in this family never wanted to leave their country. In fact, they fought to make their home country a place for justice and equity would give all people the livelihoods they needed to make human development possible and migration an option. For this they were persecuted, their father was tortured, incarcerated and finally assassinated by the powers in the government. These children witnessed not only their father’s assassination as punishment for defending human rights, but lived persecution themselves and the attempt to also take their mother’s life.
So, they were forced to migrate. This is the story of my family, one that sadly is shared by so many people in Central America. Migration is part of nature’s dynamic. We humans migrate for all sorts of different reasons: political, economic, violence, even for love. But asylum is a right. We have to be able to seek refuge from persecution and it happens to be protected by international law. And above all, it exists because it’s human nature to help one another regardless of what side of the border you were born in.
I’ve experienced that. Back in the day, international solidarity groups started the sanctuary movement to help migrants, like my family, to find refuge and get back to their feet. People that were not able to look away knowing that we needed help. Any one of those families–that took us into their homes like we were their own, shared with us their most precious treasure, their own family, fed us not only delicious food but love, allowed us to trust humankind again–any one of those families could have said no and shut their door. They could have ignored us completely but didn’t.
You could ignore today’s children inside the border, but my hope is you will not. Remember, sanctuary does not only mean a safe please to be. What it means to be in sanctuary is to have the people like you do what humanity should be doing naturally, just like breathing.
For me, the work we do is a way to give back the privilege I had to another shot at life. I want to build sanctuary in my own country that includes hope of a livelihood to feed our families, a purpose when we become peace promoters in our own communities, an opportunity of a clean and beautiful environment. Mother Earth can provide for all, only if all are not so greedy. Like my parents, I want to make human development possible here at home and migration just another option in life. Thank you very much for listening to my story.
Now, let me present to you my dear colleague Cecilia Suarez. She is CRS country manager in Mexico. She will be sharing the wonderful work that she’s doing around these issues in her country.
Cecilia Suarez Trueba: Thank you, Rosa. And thank you for sharing with us your extraordinary testimony. Thank you as well to Bishop Estévez for helping us to understand our duties as Catholics. I’m going to talk to you about the current migration situation in Mexico and what CRS is doing. What is happening in Mexico migration corridors during COVID-19? Migration flows have reduced but they have not stopped. Closing borders are forcing people to take riskier routes, increasing migrants’ vulnerability. As shelters decide to close, floating or wandering populations in Mexico has increase—migrants are living in the streets. Longer stays in shelters puts sustainability at risk as community donations have reduced due to economic crisis. Migrants keeps being criminalized, especially the most vulnerable the among them: children, youth, women and the LGBTIQ+ group. The fear of the pandemic combined with the traditional or endemic fear towards the other is intensifying xenophobia.
Regional systems have been dysfunctional for many decades and COVID-19 has only exacerbated this dysfunctionality.
But what makes people stay? Quality of employment, better pay jobs, access to formal education, reducing discrimination, land tenure, the possibility to have social mobility, citizen participation, trust in local institutions, safer places to live, and increase of the social capital and existence of social networks. The closure of borders causes an increase in deportations and COVID-19 are increasing socioeconomic problems that will force people to leave their homes in order to find other ways to survive. As Mary and Rosa were sharing, in 2018 more than 200,000 migrants were sent back to their country of origin. Our countries are making very poor efforts to facilitate the process of reintegration. Forty percent of return migrants have a debt that was acquired to finance a migration cost. And our countries need to grow between 0.25% to 1% more every year to absorb all return migrants.
People are struggling with two epidemics: COVID-19 and violence.
CRS is working hard to build more opportunities for people to have the right to stay in their countries with their families. What can you do? You can help us urging the U.S. Congress to increase humanitarian and development funding to address the root causes of forced migration. You can help us urging the administration to give people the right for asylum in the U.S. You can help us urging the Congress and the administration to provide pathways to citizenship for 300,000 individuals from El Salvador and Honduras, holding temporary protected status.
We can work altogether following Pope Francis’ six recommended actions: Know in order to understand, be close in order to serve, to be reconciled we need to listen, to grow it is necessary to share, be involved in order to promote, cooperate in order to build. As Pope Francis said, “Migrants and refugees not only represent a problem to be solved, they are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.”
The migration flows have reduced but they have not stopped, and COVID-19 is exacerbating the economic crisis and the violence already existing in our countries. So, people are being forced to go elsewhere to find other ways to have access to food and cover their basic necessities. We need to really work very hard and quickly to improve the economic situation of the people in our countries in order to allow them to stay. If not, we will be seeing more and more people trying to flee and seek for opportunities elsewhere.
Ana Gloria: Thank you so much. I have a question now for Mary in Guatemala. Mary what do you foresee over the next several months with regard to the COVID pandemic in the region as a whole?
Mary Hodem: Thank you, Ana Gloria. Here in the region over the last month, we’ve seen the Latin American countries really open up in terms of the economy and some air travel. Which I think is a relief for people overall. However, we haven’t been seeing large declines in the number of COVID-19 cases. So, what we’ve decided in the region is that we will keep all of our program adaptations for the pandemic in place for the coming year. So, the way that we’re working—safely, very carefully, with communities—will remain. We expect that hunger will greatly increase in the coming year. We believe that the crises that have been outlined by both Rosa and Cecilia will also become much graver. So, we’re preparing our teams for an active year, they’re ready and we will maintain all of our COVID-19 precautions for the coming months. Thank you.
Ana Gloria Rivas-Vazquez: Thank you so much Mary.
I was thinking when Bishop Estévez was talking about Fratelli Tutti and he spoke about hearts open to the world. That’s what you all, you know, you make our work possible because your hearts are open to the world. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention a very special recent gift that we’ve received. We’re very pleased to have received a $500,000 gift from John A. and Susan Sobrato. And that gift will help thousands of migrants across Mexico and Central America find respite in safe shelters across the region.
So, whether you lift your voice to advocate for migrants or you make a gift to fund our work, we’re really grateful for your support.
Thank you once again to Bishop Estévez, to Mary, Rosa and to Cecilia for these wonderful presentations and reflections, and thank you to you for sharing your day with us. We look forward to more conversations with you about CRS and the work that we do with your help for our sisters and brothers around the world. Muchas gracias.