As thousands of Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse enter the United States seeking asylum, local Catholic churches are providing them food and clothing and helping them navigate government services.
In February, March and April, the Catholic Charities office in New York City saw about one or two people a week. In June, the numbers steadily increased, until one day in late June there were 14 in a single day, followed by 29 the next.
“And then from there, it began to escalate, to where we were seeing maybe 50 people in a day. And there were days when we saw over a hundred,” said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, in a telephone interview with the Register.
Many came with immigration papers carrying the Catholic Charities office address in Manhattan, unbeknownst to Catholic Charities officials, who weren’t ready for them and could not handle all of their needs.
Archdiocesan Catholic Charities employees were transferred from other offices to help deal with the migrants, and some employees rescheduled vacations to help. They interviewed the migrants, gave them food, clothes and a $50 gift card, and directed them to city government services. (More recently, the city has set up a migrant intake center elsewhere in Manhattan; Catholic Charities has a presence there, including Spanish-speaking immigration lawyers.)
To get from Venezuela to the United States by land requires going through Colombia and a dangerous 66-mile stretch of jungle and rivers with no roads on the Colombia-Panama border called the Darién Gap — and then through at least five Central American countries and Mexico, with dangers from gangs and drug cartels.
“So these are people who really went through traumatic experiences. The first thing we did was say, ‘You’re welcome here. We’re going to try to figure this out,’” Msgr. Sullivan said. “And treated them with dignity and respect.”
Two parishes in Manhattan have run food pantries on certain weekends, assisted by Catholic Charities, he said.
The vast majority of the migrants want to work, he said. More than 100 of the newly arrived asylum-seekers have showed up at day-laborer hiring sites in the Bronx and in Yonkers, he added.
“Overwhelmingly, those who we interviewed made a common request: ‘Can you find me a job?’” Msgr. Sullivan said.
The Legal and Political Context
In August, Venezuelans became the second-largest nationality of foreign migrants entering the country, after Mexicans. Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 25,439 encounters with Venezuelans, up 43% from July.
The figure is 155,553 encounters with Venezuelans between Oct. 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2022. (Nationwide, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had nearly 2.5 million encounters with migrants from foreign countries generally between Oct. 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2022, a record high.)
They have unusual status once they get to the United States. Like other migrants who surrender themselves to U.S. immigration authorities, their applications for asylum are processed on the U.S. side of the border — a key change the Biden administration made from the Trump years that favors would-be immigrants, many of whom are released into the country pending an immigration court hearing, which could take more than two years to occur.
But unlike other migrants, the Venezuelans for the most part can’t be removed from the country once they’re here. Mexico won’t take them back, and since the United States doesn’t currently have diplomatic relations with the government of Venezuela, U.S. officials can’t deport them to their country of origin.
Local and state officials in the border states say they are swamped and can’t assist them all.
Republican governors in Arizona, Texas and Florida have moved some migrants to Democratic-leaning areas farther north, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City, both because of the practical problems locally and also to make a political point.
Most famously, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, thought to be a likely presidential candidate in 2024, on Sept. 14 had several dozen Venezuelan migrants flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a left-leaning summer vacation destination, at the Florida state government’s expense.
The migrants’ presence, the Biden administration’s asylum policy, and the actions of DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have become a political flashpoint that divides the country largely along partisan lines. A CBS News poll released Monday, for instance, found that 89% of Republicans approve what the Republican governors are doing, while 80% of Democrats disapprove.
But local Catholic church officials say they are treating the presence of migrants not as a political issue but as a humanitarian and spiritual need.
The Martha’s Vineyard migrants, after spending two nights at an Episcopal church on the island, were taken by state authorities to Joint Base Cape Cod, a military base with surplus housing units from a time when it was more active.
The day they arrived, employees and volunteers from the Catholic Diocese of Fall River, which includes the Cape and the islands, also came, and stayed from noon to 8. They fed them lunch and dinner and got them sweatpants, sweatshirts, underwear, hats, toys, soccer balls and a pump to blow them up with. They also provided a Spanish-speaking immigration lawyer.
“It was an opportunity for us at Catholic Charities to really experience the mission, which is following the Gospel of St. Matthew — welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. And that’s what we were able to do,” said Susan Mazzarella, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Fall River (which was formally called until very recently Catholic Social Services).
There are 48 Venezuelans now on the base, she said. Most are single men in their 20s and 30s. The group includes about four families, including eight children ages 2 through 11.
“There were a few who said they would be happy to go back to Martha’s Vineyard, but most said, ‘We would be willing to go anywhere where we can work and we can live, and we can live peacefully,’” Mazzarella said.
Their stories are harrowing. “Really, it makes you feel incredible gratitude for the country that we live in,” Mazzarella said.
Bishop Cunha’s Response
The bishop of Fall River, Bishop Edgar da Cunha, celebrated a Mass for the migrants at a nondenominational wooden chapel on the base during the mid-afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 25, along with two priests from nearby Falmouth, Msgr. Stephen Avila and Father Matthew Laird.
Twelve of the Venezuelans came to the Mass. They were given prayer cards in Spanish and bilingual missals as they went in. The bishop said Mass in Spanish and preached on the Gospel reading of Lazarus and the rich man who ignored his needs, in Luke 16.
Afterward, the bishop spoke with the Register about why he came.
“First of all, these people are so needy and desperate for any kind of recognition, any kind of support; I think for them to know, ‘Wow, they came and had the Mass for us. We are somebody,’” Bishop da Cunha said. “Putting aside all the political side of migration and all that, look at the human condition of these people: how they are desperate for survival, for a future, and we need at least to give them a little bit of a sense of recognition of their dignity.”