The new parish ministry empowering immigrant Catholics
Pastoral Migratoria is putting religious and civic agency into the hands of immigrants.
In a third-floor classroom of a Chicago urban Catholic school, about 25 adults gathered on a chilly October night to learn about Catholic social justice teaching and how to take steps to make it happen.
Some came straight from work in their employee uniforms. Others gulped down a hasty snack before class. All were immigrants to the United States and participating in Pastoral Migratoria, a leadership peer-to-peer empowerment ministry that is spreading across the country.
Pastoral Migratoria has developed over the past 11 years as a way to put agency back into the hands of immigrant Catholics who feel their worlds are becoming more dangerous and uncontrollable. The seven-class program, organized through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity’s Immigration Ministry, trains Hispanic and Polish lay leaders to help fellow immigrants in their parishes.
At this class, members discussed the dignity of human work and drew parallels with a new federal policy from the Social Security Administration that’s causing panic in immigrant communities.
“Who here has heard of ‘no-match’ letters?” asked Margarita Klein of Arise Chicago, a workers’ rights organization that partners with churches. Many hands shot into the air. One woman said her husband’s company received two letters.
No-match letters tell employers that employee Social Security records may have an error. According to Klein these mismatches include typographical errors, unreported name changes, or inaccurate or incomplete employer records.
In 2019 the Social Security Administration revived the no-match letter campaign, which had been discontinued in 2012 after multiple lawsuits. It sent out about half a million Employer Correction Request Notices in March and more than 230,000 in the fall. “These letters are completely unreasonable and sent to employers as an intimidation tactic,” says Klein. Many immigrant employees overreact and quit their jobs when employers ask them about the letters, even though the letters specifically say they are informational and do not require employers to take any action.
The Pastoral Migratoria group discussed how a suburban Chicago restaurant chain fired employees after owners received no-match letters. “If an employer fires someone because of a no-match letter, they can be prosecuted under federal and state laws,” Klein told the group. Arise Chicago had 600 inquiries after the first wave of no-match letters and has helped many employees return to their jobs after being inappropriately terminated. Some even received back pay.
The information was powerful for participant Maria Calvillo, whose family members and friends are worried about their jobs in a challenging economy. She was drawn to Pastoral Migratoria because the name of the ministry captured her imagination, she says.
Out of the ashes
Pastoral Migratoria began in 2008 when immigration reform failed to pass in the U.S. Senate in 2007 and it became apparent there would be no legislative reform in the near future, says Elena Segura, the senior coordinator for immigration at the Archdiocese of Chicago and the program’s national coordinator.
“The program grew out of the ashes of those hopes,” Segura says. The Chicago archdiocese planted the first seeds at a small Claretian parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the city’s southeast side. Priests were begging for help to meet the needs of immigrant parishioners in the face of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and employer exploitation. “We realized we needed to move from immigration as an issue to immigrants as people and how they could be the actors and agents of their own personal transformation,” Segura says.
The program was built on the “Listen, Learn, and Proclaim” (ver-juzgar-actuar) methodology. Based on a method used by European Catholics in the 1930s, it was rolled out in 2007 by a group of Latin American bishops in the small town of Aparecida, Brazil. Jesuit Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine who later became Pope Francis, is the methodology’s architect.
More than 200 Pastoral Migratoria agentes have been trained in 50 Chicago parishes. They look for needs in their own communities and bring in local resources and community partners to help.
“In Pastoral Migratoria I have learned to be aware of the injustices that affect our community, to offer a helping hand to our neighbors, and to share what God has given me,” says Ricardo Unzueta, a member of St. Paul Catholic Church in Chicago Heights, Illinois. “Faith without actions does not function.”
Pastoral Migratoria classes include Catholic social teaching on life and the dignity of the human person; family community and civic participation; civic rights and responsibilities; and care of the poor and vulnerable. Participants hear guest speakers from the Mexican consulate and local organizations for immigration rights, housing, substance abuse, financial literacy, workers’ rights, and education. The program also hosts a traveling film festival with documentaries on immigration issues.
Today, Pastoral Migratoria has helped more than 1,850 immigrants register to vote for the first time. Agentes have assisted their fellow parishioners to complete more than 1,000 citizenship exam forms.
But what makes the program different from those of other nongovernmental organizations are the specifically biblical connections to Catholic social teaching during each formation class. For example, during a class on the dignity of labor, participants began with a prayer asking for grace to help God in the creation of the world through the “work of our hands.”
“We look at the dignity of work,” says Miguel Salazar, senior coordinator for immigration for the program in Chicago. “Why has God blessed human work? Why is it meaningful? Why is it part of our vocation? How are we baptized to sanctify work? We also talk about what we are experiencing, what’s our personal journey, and what are the realities of migration. What does God say about my experience and what does it mean to me?”
The Chicago formation class members discussed St. Paul’s theory of the importance of human work and the apostle’s admonition that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10b). Then they heard from Klein about labor laws.
“Who knows how much the minimum wage is in Chicago?” Klein asked. The answers came back: “Thirteen dollars per hour.” But that wage is not the same in all parts of Illinois or even Cook County, much less the United States, the class learned. Some county municipalities have minimum wages as low as the state minimum wage of $8.25 (that minimum increased to $9.25 in January 2020). Indiana’s minimum wage is stuck at the federal minimum of $7.25.
Class members learned other surprising labor facts: A lunch break is not guaranteed under federal labor law, nor are paid vacation days (although if a company gives paid vacation days to some employees, it must offer them to all).
They learned that sick days are also not guaranteed under federal labor law, although some municipalities, Chicago included, have local laws requiring sick time after 360 hours of work. Participants asked about broken promises of bonuses, wage theft, and problems understanding unions. “I definitely feel more powerful after this class,” said one participant.
The immigrant journey
Maria Calvillo’s journey began in 1998, when she and her three children left Zacatecas, Mexico for Chicago. Her husband soon followed. The family had a fourth child born in the United States.
Life in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood was not all easy. In 2002 Calvillo found herself staring down the barrels of two handguns brandished by thieves robbing the clothing store where she worked. Calvillo stepped forward to help police with their investigation, even though she and her family had overstayed their tourist visas and they risked coming to the attention of immigration authorities.
A few years later her oldest son was frustrated and devastated when told by a high school counselor that he was not eligible for any type of college financial aid, because he had no proof of citizenship. He also did not qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that would have given him a temporary Social Security number.
Things improved for the family in 2012 when Calvillo heard about the U visa, a special category of visa set aside for victims of crimes and their immediate family members who help law enforcement officials. Because Calvillo helped with the robbery investigation, she was eligible and so were her husband and Mexico-born children. The children were then able to attend college and are now young adults with careers in the funeral industry and banking. “Being involved [in the robbery] was scary, but it turned out for the best,” Calvillo says. “It was always a dream that life for my children would be better in the United States. And our family has economically done better.”
Calvillo says her Catholic faith was strong when she left Mexico, but it’s stronger after life challenges in the United States. Her experience with Pastoral Migratoria has been special, because participants have shared their immigration stories in her class at St. Michael the Archangel Parish. She has heard how faith has helped her fellow classmates.
Not just for urban parishes
With recent federal crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri realized that federal immigration policies were pushing immigrant parishioners into crisis, says Leyden Rovelo-Krull, director of the diocese’s Hispanic ministry. Church leaders began looking for a program that would help parishioners on multiple levels.
“Chicago had the most robust response to the immigration crisis that we had come across,” she says. The diocese began the Pastoral Migratoria program in 2017.
Kansas City’s immigrant parishes include rural churches, where many immigrants work in the agricultural sector. This can make it hard to establish a relationship with a parish community. Yet the population of immigrants is booming in the area, and they have a strong tie to the Catholic faith.
“Many people come here with only the clothes on their backs and their faith,” says Rovelo-Krull.
Giving power to immigrants to understand their rights and responsibilities is one aspect of the program that intrigued the Kansas City church leaders. “It is extremely empowering for a person who is undocumented to be able to help others,” she says.
A ministry of accompaniment
In Maryland, Archbishop William E. Lori asked staff to find a program that would help the growing population of immigrants in and around Baltimore, says Lia Salinas, the archdiocese’s director of Hispanic ministries.
It was all part of a strategic plan developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to discern the most pressing needs of the regional churches.
The Latino population in Baltimore has tripled in size in the past 10 years. “We are asking ourselves what are the gifts of Hispanic Catholics and what are the challenges they face,” Salinas says.
When ICE raids were announced this past summer, they sent the immigrant community into panic mode. The archdiocese made official statements that the church stood with undocumented residents of the city. “Not here in Baltimore, not here right now, no, not this. . . . We’re going to defend our brothers, and when ICE is at the door, they’ve got to get through me first,” Father Bruce Lewandowski told TV reporters.
One desperate need is help with immigration court. Many Baltimore residents from El Salvador and Honduras are worried about the Trump administration’s threat to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for refugees from war-torn Central American countries. In October the sunset of the TPS program was delayed for one more year after a federal judge blocked the administration from abruptly ending protection for 300,000 immigrants.
“People were coming to their parishes and asking if there was anyone to accompany them to hearings,” Salinas says. “When people are going to be deported, if there is no one who can be there for accompaniment—one of their most basic needs—we’re failing as a church.”
The archdiocese sent three people to a training workshop in Chicago to bring Pastoral Migratoria to Baltimore, Salinas says. The program was introduced in several Baltimore parishes last year.
“It is meant to be a ministry led by other Latinos,” Salinas says. “Unless you have gone through the experiences, unless you know what others have gone through, it’s tough to open up. It’s important to build on the understanding of the culture and situation back in Latin America and why people are fleeing crime and economic turmoil.”
The future of the church
Pastoral Migratoria is drawing interest from parishes in Atlanta, New York City, Salt Lake City, and the California cities of Los Angeles, Stockton, and Fresno. Support to expand nationally has come from the Vincentian Congregation of the Mission Western Province, which chose the program as part of a parish-based immigrant leadership initiative. “Latinos are the future of the Catholic Church in the United States,” says Segura. “The church is in crisis now and immigrants are bringing that new hope again—from the ashes.”
Every region has unique characteristics and challenges, which is why the ver-juzgar-actuar methodology works to tailor the program to unique circumstances, says Segura. Participants respond with enthusiasm when given tools to help their fellow immigrants. “We all have a divine DNA we don’t realize that invites Catholics to be engaged with service, justice, and actions in our parish communities,” Segura says.
Interest has also been generated by the V Encuentro, a four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action in U.S. Hispanic Catholic parishes. “We have been doing this in Chicago for 11 years and suddenly we have interest nationally,” Segura says. “I have this image that God is pushing me from the back and the doors are opening and then I’m afraid, because the need is great. But the immigrant community is ready. Now we are making contact with these champion priests who can capture the vision and go, and God will provide the rest.”
Image: Victor Camarena