Chicago area priests, young leaders get first-hand look at border

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Father Gary Graf (left) and Father Joseph Tito speak on July 12 to a young mother who fled her home in Honduras to escape members of organized crime who told her they would kidnap her 8-year-old daughter. She was staying at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas. Photo by Rich Kalonick, courtesy of Catholic Extension

Catholics have been on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border, a crisis that has lasted for years.

It cropped up in the news this spring when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy in which all adults crossing the border without permission would be criminally prosecuted, and any children traveling with them would be taken away.

While President Donald Trump’s administration later said it would detain families together rather than separate them, the crisis continues, with people released from detention centers in need of help. Some need a place to stay; others need assistance to make it to the homes of relatives already living in the United States.

Six pastors from the Archdiocese of Chicago got a first-hand look when they traveled the border between McAllen, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, with Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, July 11-13.

The trip was organized following the Archdiocese of Chicago priest convocation. It’s one of a series of trips that take priests from urban and suburban dioceses to the mission areas of the United States, where Catholic Extension works, said Joe Boland, vice president of mission for the Chicago-based organization.

A group of Latino young adults from the Archdiocese of Chicago was also in McAllen on an extension trip at the same time. Members of the Iskali youth group were part of an Extension pilot program to develop young leadership in the Latino Catholic community; they joined with a similar group from San Bernardino, California, for classes at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio and a visit to the border before splitting up, with the Chicago-area young people visiting migrant farmworkers in California while the California contingent visited migrant workers in western Michigan.

The priests visited churches built with the help of funding from Catholic Extension and projects supported by Catholic Extension, as well as a migrant shelter and medical center in Reynosa. The group included Father Gary Graf, pastor of San Jose Sanchez Del Río Parish; Father Robert Heinz, pastor of St. Norbert and Our Lady of the Brook Parish, Northbrook; Father Tom Hurley, Old St. Patrick’s Parish; Father Terry Keehan, Holy Family Parish, Inverness; Father Fred Pesek, Queen of the Rosary Parish, Elk Grove Village; and Father Joseph Tito, St. Nicholas Parish, Evanston.

Tito said he knows many people who have crossed the border from Mexico in the past. This time, he said, he was surprised to learn how violence is affecting small local communities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

“They really are forced to leave,” Tito said. “It’s not people who are picking up and deciding that it might be better somewhere else. They are running for their lives.” 

He was impressed by the work of women religious who are receiving asylum seekers when they are released from detention. 

“I had no idea how much great work was going on,” Tito said. “To see the church at work was just amazing.”  

Missionary Sister of Jesus Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, runs the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, offering people just released from detention a warm meal, a shower, clean clothes and a chance to rest before continuing on their way. Cardinal Cupich is helping raise funds for a new facility for the center through Catholic Extension, Boland said.

Stephanie Barrera, one of the young people in the leadership program, said she spent time working with an attorney at the respite center translating legal documents for people released from detention.

Barrera, 20, said she talked with a young woman who was 21 and traveling with her 3-year-old son.

“She talked about being kept in a truck for 36 hours, and her son getting sick and being denied medicine,” Barrera said.

Barrera came home with a profound appreciation for what her parents and other relatives went through when they crossed the border years ago, but a sense of disgust at the way the United States treats migrants, she said.

“We’re failing people who need our help,” said Barrera, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park. “They’re not criminals or rapists. Most of them aren’t coming here for themselves as much as for their children.”

Sister of Divine Providence Margaret Mertens works at La Posada Providencia, a long-term shelter in San Benito, Texas, for people seeking asylum. La Posada has received help from Extension’s family reunification fund.

It was at La Posada that the priests met a young woman and her 4-year-old son. They had journeyed from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico. They had won approval to pursue their application for asylum. The woman’s husband and the boy’s father — who had been separated them from his wife and child at the border and sent to a detention center in Tacoma, Washington — was still waiting for approval, despite being shot twice.

“She didn’t know if she should stay or go back to where they left an older daughter with relatives,” Tito said. “The sisters were telling her, ‘You have a home here.’ Not many people will say that.”

A sense of mission is what sets apart the religious groups working at the border, he said.

“Every day, their mission is right in front of them,” Tito said. “With Renew My Church, we’re trying to go from maintenance to mission, but it’s kind of hard to keep that sense of mission in front of you when you’re sitting in your office going through email.”

Pesek said he wanted to go to bear witness to the situation on the border, and he wants to inspire his parishioners to find ways to help the people who are seeking asylum.

“You cannot imagine what they have given through trying to get here,” he said, saying one young man who fled from Cuba through Central America had passed through 11 countries. “They come here with nothing.”

Pesek said many Americans get the wrong idea about who is trying to come to the United States.

“Many people have a perception that the people who are coming here are in the gangs and we don’t have room for them,” he said. “It’s almost like you forget your identity. We all came from somewhere else, and we are called to welcome the stranger.”


  • immigration
  • catholic extension

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