NEW HAVEN — The Archdiocese of Hartford’s efforts to aid migrants and refugees have received a $4,000 boost in the form of a grant to a ministry that helps them work and live in the United States.
Lynn M. Campbell, executive director of the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry, and Archbishop Leonard P Blair presented a $4,000 grant to Sister Mary Ellen Burns, director of Apostle Immigrant Services (AIS), at a gathering on Dec. 5 at the AIS office on Saltonstall Avenue in Fair Haven. The presentation was made on behalf of Catholic Relief Services and the annual Operation Rice Bowl collection.
Founded in 2008 by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, AIS offers legal assistance to immigrants who are trying to navigate the complex immigration system. The core of its work revolves around resolving visa issues that risk breaking families apart or prevent individuals who are stuck abroad from reuniting with families already in the United States. Many of the clients come from war-torn countries or nations with oppressive governments.
Campbell said that while 75 percent of funds raised from the annual Lenten collection go to overseas programs, the remaining 25 percent is distributed to parishes and programs in the archdiocese that address the issue of poverty. She noted that AIS was chosen because in keeping with the global solidarity message of CRS, it supports the critical needs of migrants and refugees who have settled in the United States.
Prior to the ceremony, Sister Mary Ellen, an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, introduced men and women from Liberia, Guinea, Mexico and El Salvador who told their stories of coming to the United States and being helped by AIS to gain permanent residency, improve their language skills and unite with their families.
“The work you do is outstanding,” said Alhaji Umarr Kromah, who fled from rebels in Liberia, and eventually received his U.S. citizenship in 2011 after reconnecting with his family.
“I sincerely mean that,” he said. “Sometimes I become emotional; but you’ve not seen some of the things that I’ve had to pass through.”
Glenda, a young wife and mother who came from El Salvador at the age of 8 and who asked that her full name not be used, praised Sister Mary Ellen and AIS for helping her obtain her green card and work under temporary protected status. She noted that federal agencies will determine in the coming weeks whether some 300,000 immigrants from 10 nations will be allowed to stay in this country under the temporary status given to people who fled to the U.S. from hurricanes and other disasters.
Another woman, who came from Mexico 20 years ago and unwittingly let her visa expire, said that she works two jobs and turns to AIS to boost her language skills.
“Here is a lady who works two jobs and pays her taxes,” argued Mr. Kromah. “How can you say that she should [be deported]?”
Erika Vergara, who works with Apostles Immigrant Services, talked about her work with undocumented young people who emigrated to the United States as children and who receive protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy. The program was threatened last September when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration was rescinding DACA, which impacts the lives of 700,000 people.
Archbishop Blair noted that the bishops of Connecticut issued a statement last month asking the state's congressional delegation to back legislation that will ensure continuation of the program. According to the statement, the DACA program assists approximately 8,000 undocumented young people in Connecticut who were brought to the United States as children and who will have no voice in their future without it.
“It’s difficult to understand where our country is coming from, since so many of our citizens are immigrants themselves,” said Archbishop Blair, who talked about his own mother who came from Poland and was able to receive assistance from the government.
“Now there are so many complexities that it’s just become so unreasonable,” he said about U.S. immigration policy. “They don’t seem to be able to agree on anything.”
The stories offered by AIS clients highlighted a new two-year initiative launched by Pope Francis in September called “Share the Journey,” which was created to bring awareness to the plight of migrants and refugees.
AIS began under the direction of Sister Mary Ellen, who worked for 19 years as a legal services lawyer in New York City. The ministry helps immigrants in the greater New Haven area achieve citizenship, gain work authorization, unite with family members, become legal residents and improve educational skills.
She estimated that in nine years, the ministry of four staff members plus volunteers has helped more than 2,000 clients from 90 countries, including 475 people last year alone; and has emerged as a program recognized the U.S. Department of Justice.
AIS is a continuation of the work of the Sacred Heart sisters who came to New Haven from Italy in 1906 during a great wave of European immigration to serve other newly arrived Italians. Their efforts continue a century later by helping recent immigrants find stability in Greater New Haven.