NEW YORK — St. Francis of Assisi Parish held a free public forum on immigration Nov. 2. The three-hour program provided not only information and support for immigrants, but also launched the West 31st Street parish’s newest ministry, the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.
“Stand Up for Immigrants” began with introductions by Andrew Reitz, OFM, pastor of St. Francis, and Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM.
“I’m very glad that St. Francis Parish is moving forward to help our immigrant sisters and brothers,” said Andrew. “I am happy that Julian Jagudilla, OFM,has spearheaded this project of organizing the migrant center, which is an important one. I think our new holy father, Pope Francis, is supporting us in our desire to welcome all people.”
John greeted attendees “on behalf of the hundreds of friars on the East Coast. Through our many ministries, we welcome people,” he said. “The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are symbols of freedom. We Franciscans feel that it is important that the same opportunity as was given to our ancestors be given to all people.”
During the Saturday afternoon forum, three immigration attorneys provided an overview of the state of the U.S. immigration system, an update on the efforts of Congress to pass an immigration reform law, and a proposal for what Julian, the event’s organizer and the Migrant Center’s director, calls “genuine immigration reform.” It is estimated that roughly 11.7 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States, according to Julian.
In addition, several immigrants offered their personal stories of struggle and spoke of their desire to remain in the United States, sharing their experiences with more than 100 attendees who represented a variety of backgrounds.
At the close of the forum, leaders from 24 religious and non-profit organizations signed “a statement of support for our immigrant/migrant brothers and sisters,” according to Julian. It was sent to government officials and politicians to make them aware of the urgent need for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“The forum offered insights into the lives of those who have suffered and been abused as a result of their status here in the USA,” said Andrew. “The number of visas and the way they are given to various countries stands out as something that needs immediate attention. More forums like this are needed and will be held in the future.”
This event was the first organized by the new Migrant Center, a ministry that aims to provide pastoral care and to advocate for protecting the rights of immigrants. It is a revised version of the parish’s St. Francis Immigration Center, founded by Brian Jordan, OFM, that operated for nearly 15 years. The services of the center have been expanded to better solve the needs of refugees and immigrants who seek assistance beyond regularizing their status.
“This is a timely initiative as the government is deciding whether or not we will have a new bill: a comprehensive immigration reform,” said Julian, a native of the Philippines. “Our goals were to create an awareness of the plight of our immigrant/migrant brothers and sisters and to rally support for them.”
Holding this forum was Julian’s idea. “When I became director of the center four months ago, it was still referred to as the Immigration Center,” he said. “I saw the needs of the immigrants and migrants as more than just getting regularized here. The needs are various, hence, I changed the name into the Migrant Center at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. The public forum had a dual purpose. To launch the center and to promote awareness of the need to be in solidarity with our immigrant/migrant brothers and sisters.”
Andrew said that “because of the location of the church and the people that we attract from different countries, it is a fitting place to have a migrant center. The new set-up has many volunteers trained in paperwork that can be of assistance to migrants’ questions,” he said. “It also has a part-time immigration lawyer who works with clients and oversees the volunteers. The mission statements of both HNP and St. Francis Parish speak of welcoming and working with migrants.”
Julian agreed that the mission of the center fits with the goals and charism of the Province. “The Migrant Center puts the parish at the front and center of the Provincial initiative to reach out and minister to the poor and the alienated. In terms of partnership in ministry, many people in the parish are involved. For me personally, it is walking with our sisters and brothers, the immigrants and migrants, being in solidarity with them, and encountering and welcoming Christ in them.”
A photo of Julian at the podium appeared in an article titled “Migrant Center Launched in New York City” that appeared Nov. 9 in Inquirer Global Nation. Other photos of the event can be found on the Migrant Center’s Facebook page.
The Migrant Center is organizing a variety of events and programs including ESL (English as a second language) classes, a medical clinic, a women’s support group, a monthly immigration clinic, a series of presentations on immigration and a 40-hour immigration course. Julian said he welcomes volunteers to help with the organization’s many initiatives.
National Reform Efforts
As this ministry gets off the ground, ministries and friars around the Province have been working to urge lawmakers to reform the country’s immigration laws. Last week, many participated in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national call-in day to support immigration reform.
Earlier this month, friars from the OFM provinces of the United States gathered outside the office of Speaker John Boehner in Cincinnati to present a letter urging the government to reform its laws. Information was posted on the English-speaking Conference’s blog in a post titled “Justice and Peace Leaders Lobby Speaker Boehner on Immigration Reform.”
In October, friars and their partners-in-ministry joined roughly 20,000 people in Washington to rally for immigration reform.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province. Photos were provided by Octavio Duran, OFM.