Bishop meets with priests to discuss immigration

Father  Pedro  Garcia-Ramirez shares his concerns about immigration during a meeting with priests on March 14. (Photo by DeKarlos Blackmon)

By Christian R. González
Catholic Spirit Staff

Bishop Joe Vásquez gathered the priests of the diocese to discuss one of the country’s hot-button topics: immigration.
The March 14 meeting at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Austin was attended by about 30 priests from throughout the diocese. 
The 3-hour meeting included time for priests to share their concerns and ask questions. Catholic Charities of Central Texas also presented information they need to assist their parishioners.
“It was important to me to hear from our priests, to understand what parishioners are going through, to learn how parishes are responding and educate our priests on what the church can do to help,” Bishop Vásquez said. “There is a great deal of fear and confusion, particularly among the undocumented.”
Deacon Ron Walker, diocesan chancellor, guided the priests through the current state of affairs with pending legislation in the Texas Legislature and recent Executive Orders signed by President Donald Trump.
Bishop Vásquez summarized the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ stance on immigration saying that the current system is broken and needs comprehensive reform. Every nation has the right to protect its borders, he said, but the church also believes that refugees and immigrants who are suffering in their own native lands have the right to be able leave their country and seek a new beginning.
“Refugees and immigrants have every right to be treated with human dignity. Christ identifies himself personally as a stranger, an immigrant, a refugee,” Bishop Vásquez said. “As the pope has said very clearly, this is what he means by accompaniment. It means that you’re going to be with them through the whole process. The church will be with them all the way throughout.”
Bishop Vásquez shared his recent experience of when he met with two undocumented couples who were concerned they would be deported and separated from their children who are legal U.S. citizens. 
“They have a fear of going to work, shopping and going to Mass. There is genuine palpable fear,” Bishop Vásquez said. He also met with a refugee from Vietnam, who was moved by the bishop’s letter read at all Masses during the weekend of Feb. 4-5. The refugee thanked him and the church for sponsoring his family many years ago. 
Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia also attended the meeting and listened as priests shared their experiences. 
Priests reported as much as a 25 percent drop in Mass attendance in the days after raids were carried out by ICE in the Austin-metro area. The priests affirmed Bishop Vásquez’ assessment about the fear immigrants are feeling. One priest said his parishioners are not affected by the recent rule changes, but his congregation wanted to know how to help those who are. Another priest pointed out the idea of sending someone “back home to Mexico” is misleading because often there is nothing for them to go back to –– no house, no job, no family. Priests also said with rules and orders changing often in Washington it is hard to know how to counsel or help people, but ultimately they have learned what the people want is someone to listen to them and to understand their spiritual and emotional needs. 
“Encourage your people not to give up hope,” Bishop Garcia said to the priests. “Be with them. Pray with them. And as long as they know you walk with them and you’re listening to their stories, I think, when the day ends, they’ll appreciate that.”
Catholic Charities of Central Texas also gave a presentation to the priests to give them a basic understanding of immigration law. After that, the priests were given a “Know Your Rights” presentation similar to those given by the Texas Here to Stay Coalition and Catholic Charities. The priests were also given other resources to share with those in need.