Multi-parish, lay-led initiative reaches out to immigrant community

Religious, clergy and laity pray during a meeting of Strangers No Longer, a grassroots effort to support local immigrants, at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Lincoln Park on July 16. Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Strangers No Longer allows concerned Catholics to band together in action

Allen Park — Heightened enforcement of immigration policies, including the separation of families and higher rates of arrests of undocumented individuals, have caused strong rebukes from the local Catholic community in recent months, including from Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron.

An executive order from U.S. President Donald Trump has since ended the separation of families — though many families have yet to be reunited — but without legislative reform, the future of immigration policy and the nation’s immigrant community is in flux.

With so much uncertainty, it’s unclear how much of an impact local parishioners can have. But that hasn’t stopped a dedicated group of laity and clergy from trying.

One year ago, priests and laity across the Archdiocese of Detroit formed a partnership called “Strangers No Longer,” a concept borrowed from the Archdiocese of Chicago’s parish-based “Circles of Peace.” The Detroit-based group’s name is borrowed from a 2003 U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter that laid out principles for reforming U.S. immigration policy.

“We wanted to be responsive to Pope Francis’ call to see what we can do for the least among us, the immigrants,” said Bill O’Brien, a member of Gesu Parish in Detroit and one of the coordinators of Strangers No Longer, which was formed Aug. 25, 2017.

At that initial meeting, O’Brien said, “we started to converse and had 120 people, three bishops and 12 priests who came, showing there is a real hunger for leadership and activity.”

Since then, Strangers No Longer has grown to include representatives from 18 parishes and religious communities across the Archdiocese of Detroit. Parishes form “Circles of Support,” everyday parishioners who gather to discuss how they can care for the local immigrant community both within and outside their parish.

“We have parishes that are 80 percent immigrant, and we have parishes who are 95 percent non-immigrant,” O’Brien said. “So the Circles of Support do different things at different parishes. For instance, at Ste. Anne de Detroit, there are a lot of people in the area who are afraid, who have been separated from their families, and need a place to talk, share, heal and meet people who will let them know what their rights are.

“At a place like St. Regis in Bloomfield Hills, the Circle is working to invite immigrants to talk to parishioners about why they left their country,” O’Brien continued. “At Gesu two weeks ago, we brought in an immigration lawyer to talk about the history of immigration and why things are so different now versus when our grandparents or great-grandparents came to this country.”

Strangers No Longer works with lawyers in the community who provide free or low-cost legal services for immigrants who aren’t afforded the right to a public defender.

Kevin Piecuch, a member of St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish in Detroit, is an attorney and executive director of the Southwest Detroit Immigration and Refugee Center, one of the largest providers of free and low-cost legal services to immigrants in Detroit.

Piecuch said there has been an uptick in recent cases of immigrants being arrested and deported for comparatively lesser offenses.

In prior years, deportations were focused on those who committed violent crimes, such as theft, rape or murder, Piecuch said, whereas “now, persons who were previously deported, that’s a felony, so they get sent straight back.”

Piecuch said many of his clients are first sent to a county jail, before officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement take them into custody and place them in a federally designated facility, often well outside Metro Detroit.

“During many of my cases at the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit, the judge is looking at my client through a video monitor. He’s up in Chippewa or St. Clair, and he’s in an orange jumpsuit, and looks like a prisoner. They have no one to vouch for them, and in 80 percent of deportation cases, there is no counsel present. Judges have to follow the law, but nobody is speaking on the immigrant’s behalf.”

Piecuch says having community members, such as parishioners and clergy, write letters of recommendations for immigrants picked up by authorities goes a long way toward granting asylum until the detained person gets an in-person hearing or bond granted.

During a July 16 meeting of Strangers No Longer at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Lincoln Park, parishioners across the archdiocese traded stories and shared tactics for helping immigrants in their own backyards, as well as offering education resources to help the community better understand the plight of migrants and refugees fleeing violence in Central America.

Fr. Tom Florek, SJ, of the Jesuit community at the University of Detroit Mercy, advised attendees on the practical things parishioners can do to help, including driving immigrants without a driver’s license to hearings, write letters to judges vouching for their contributions to the community or just being a listening voice.

“Judges can see when the people who have fled these violent countries are contributing to the community,” Fr. Florek said. “We had one case in which a man who was attempting for 25 years to get residency, renewing his visa annually, was stopped for a broken light on the back of his car. They handcuffed him, transported him from Detroit to Sault Ste. Marie, and he had a video hearing before the judge. So we organized a file for the judge, thick with letters from priests, community members and friends, testifying to the man’s character.

“When the judge found out what this man meant to the community, he was granted bond,” Fr. Florek said. “That’s what we can do: make judges aware that these people aren’t dangerous, they don’t have felonies; they are living honest, good lives, and that makes a difference.”

Above letters and support, Fr. Florek said the biggest thing parishioners can do is to spread information, especially about the violent situations that force people to flee their homelands for the United States, and about what it means to treat everyone with justice, regardless of their legal standing.

“We are finding, not 100 percent, but people are listening,” Fr. Florek said. “We want to get to the heart of the matter. We are trying to get people out of the mindset of legalism; we want to take the Gospel approach to these situations. We’re not here to condemn or condone people who break the law by coming here, but to treat all with respect, listening and discerning what it means to bring mercy to all.”