How Catholic Communities Are Crowdfunding Fairer Trials for Immigrants

With Jeff Sessions reportedly pressuring judges to deport immigrants, diocese across the country are gathering fee money for the legal representation that many undocumented people lack.
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An immigrant family from Honduras boards transport to an Immigrant Respite Center near McAllen, Texas.

An immigrant family from Honduras boards transport to an Immigrant Respite Center near McAllen, Texas.

Undocumented immigrants have found a familiar ally in their battle against a severe judicial system: the Catholic Church.

After widespread attention to the government's separation of immigrant families at the border sounded a call to arms—or alms—for many church members, Catholic communities across the United States are collecting the legal fees for undocumented immigrants facing a legal framework that many believe is poised to work against them.

"There was an emotional turning point during the coverage of the family separation. Many people were calling the archdiocese and saying, 'What can we as people of God do?'" says Isaac Cuevas, director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' Immigration and Public Affairs unit.

The church has long administered legal and other assistance to undocumented immigrants facing unprecedented challenges under the Trump administration. Amid ramped up immigration enforcement raids last year, for example, clergy in Los Angeles' historic Placita Church were busily preparing a guidebook for undocumented families explaining what legal recourse they had in the event of a raid, and how to designate a temporary guardian for children left behind in the U.S. in the aftermath of detentions and deportations.

What's happening of late, Catholic immigrant rights advocates say, is a swelling of support among churchgoers, eager to help immigrants get the fair trial they are guaranteed by the Constitution at a moment when advocates say the administration is pressuring immigration judges to expedite hundreds of deportations a year, with little apparent concern for resounding concerns over due process. And the result is an apparent success of fundraising, likely owing to the church's people power as the largest religious institution in the country.

Catholic Charities, a non-profit organization that works through a nationwide network to administer aid to those in need. Catholic Charities of Oregon has secured $500,000 from the Portland City Council and another $500,000 from the surrounding Multnomah County government to help undocumented immigrants with legal fees, Fox News reported Friday.

In Los Angeles, the Archdiocese and a local Catholic Charities branch have partnered in recent weeks to launch a campaign to earn money to offer legal support and other necessities to dozens of families who had previously been separated from their children at the border and now face immigration proceedings. In a short period of time, through electronic alms-giving on its website TheNextAmerica.org, Cuevas says the church has raised over $90,000 from concerned community members toward the legal costs and the cost of living of the 56 (and counting) formerly separated families who have arrived in Los Angeles.

There is no set goal for the Los Angeles Catholic community's ongoing collections for those immigrant families. Initially, 20 of the families separated from their children had arrived in Los Angeles in need of assistance; that number very rapidly rose to 56 families, Cuevas says.

The Los Angeles Times described the L.A. archdiocese's fundraiser as the clearest sign yet of the church's opposition to the Trump administration's immigration policy, but Cuevas insists that the focus is neither partisan politics nor the polemics raging across the country. For him, the church's work about upholding the basic rights of fellow humans.

"It's our responsibility as Catholics to help people that are in need. It's about human dignity first and foremost, not about the politics," he says.

The developments in L.A. and Oregon appear to be part of a trend nationwide of America's numerous Catholic communities responding to the dearth of opportunities for immigrants trying to remain in the U.S. to get a fair trial, says Martín Gauto, a senior attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network aid group.

"We're living in a time of an unprecedented attack on immigrant families, where it's more difficult for them to access to legal relief, more difficult for them to access representation," Gauto says. Church communities "are just trying to make sure they've got a fair shot to remain in the U.S. legally if that's what they want to do."

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"I think if Catholics can come together and agree that family separation is a bad thing because it's first inherently bad but also goes against so many fundamental tenets of their faith, if they can resource that anger and sadness and use that to mobilize their local archdiocese and Catholic Charities agency, that can be a very powerful thing," he says.

There are about 51 million Catholics in the U.S., making it the largest religious institution in the country, according to a Pew Research Center report published earlier this month.

Spurred by a bump in donations to religious and secular organizations helping immigrants following highly publicized reports of the separations in May, Gauto says it seems the church's nationwide presence is involved in a burgeoning push to make certain immigrants have proper access to the legal systems that will decide their fate.

The Trump administration has enacted several measures ostensibly aimed at slashing the country's growing backlog of immigration court cases that analysts say have jeopardized immigrants' constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process. Among these measures was a decision in April mandating that immigration judges had to close 700 cases per year with a low rate of appeal in order to receive a satisfactory performance review. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled to stop judge's use of administrative closures, in which judges refrain from ruling on an immigration case while the defendant makes formal applications for U.S. immigration status.

Last week, Sessions ruled again to restrict judges' ability to stop deportation proceedings. The sum of the gestures, analysts say, has been to essentially prevent judges from doing much beyond swiftly deporting hundreds of immigrants a year. Advocates on behalf of the judges have called to remove the immigration courts from the Department of Justice's supervision.

The odds are stacked against immigrants facing legal proceedings, not just because judges are facing pressures to deport. Gauto says that a great many immigrants have no legal representation, particularly those who have been detained by immigration authorities at facilities far from New York and L.A. where pro-bono attorneys could more easily gain access to clients in need. At the Otay Mesa Detention center in San Diego, as many as 80 percent of detainees have no legal representation, a senior staff attorney at the American Bar Association's Immigration Justice Project, Monika Langarica, told the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month.

What Catholic communities are doing, Gauto says, is offering immigrants support at a moment when it appears the odds are against them.

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