“This is firstly a humanitarian issue that transcends political opinions and dispositions,” Bishop Gerald Barnes said in a July 3 statement on the transportation of migrants to Southern California. “I ask you to reflect on how you can answer the call of the Gospel to come to the aid of the stranger in this situation.”
Volunteers from the parish and Diocesan Pastoral Center sat with the migrants to listen to the harrowing accounts of their journey to the U.S. and their time in federal holding facilities. They also played card games, worked puzzles and kicked the soccer ball with the children, who enjoyed some play time after weeks of grueling travel.
Dianca, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, spoke briefly for the group of migrants when she briefly addressed the media in the St. Joseph social hall.
“We are here and we are OK,” she said in a strong voice.
Most of the migrants were able to leave the parish to begin their trip to meet up with loved ones the same day they had arrived, while four families remained for the night before leaving the following day. All had come with contact information for someone in the United States and most were headed to the Midwest and east.
Julie Gutierrez, a consultant in the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Adult Faith Formation, volunteered to coordinate efforts to provide recreation for the children who arrived. Having lived through the impact of immigration law in her own family, Gutierrez said she observed uncertainty in the faces of the mothers and children.
“I just wanted to reach out and be present to them in that moment,” she said. “I understand the separation of the family. I know how that affects you.”
The warm reception at St. Joseph contrasted sharply with the scene ten days earlier in Murrieta when a large crowd of anti-immigrant demonstrators stopped several busloads of migrants from entering a Border Patrol facility there. Locally, St. Martha parish responded by collecting essential items that could be given to the migrants should they have the opportunity to connect with them. Father Jack Barker, parish pastor, spoke at a public hearing on the issue and at an interfaith prayer service July 9, urging compassion for the visitors and the need to view the situation as a humanitarian crisis.
Following the Murrieta protests, Diocesan officials immediately began discussions on how to best help the migrants. Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego met with a federal immigration enforcement official and the idea that the diocese could provide transition centers for the migrants resulted. The next several days were spent identifying potential sites and forming volunteer committees to address different aspects of the relief effort, including hospitality, transportation, prayer and medical needs. In addition to St. Joseph in Fontana, St. Catherine of Siena parish in Rialto and St. Catherine of Alexandria, Riverside made preparations to receive the Central American migrants.
Ken Sawa, CEO of Catholic Charities San Bernardino-Riverside, told a group of volunteers gathered at a planning meeting that the migrants may be initially wary of the assistance offered.
“These are strangers in a strange land and they are dependent on people they can’t completely trust,” Sawa said. “We want to make sure that what they get from us is care and protection.”
When the migrants, who came from as far away as Ecuador, walked off of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bus that Thursday morning their faces showed fatigue, some disorientation, but also a trace of hope. As they rested, ate, cleaned up, played and began to make arrangements to travel to family, the visitors warmed to their hosts, volunteers observed. Bishop Barnes paid a visit to the convent that afternoon and visited with the migrants.
Many of the children hugged volunteers when it was time to head to the bus station, and the feeling of attachment was mutual. Gutierrez said she hoped their short stay in Fontana countered the hostility of the Murrieta protests.
“It broke my heart for the kids to see so much anger directed at them,” she said. “They thought they were coming to something better.”
Before coming to St. Joseph the migrants were legally processed and received temporary authorization to be in the United States, pending a court hearing to make their case for asylum here. It could take 18-24 months before that hearing takes place, based on court backlogs. In the meantime, they are permitted to connect with family.
The diocese, meanwhile, reflected on the experience as an opportunity for Christian witness, as spelled out in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25). Dianca told the world as much in her statement to the media.
“The Catholic Church welcomed us.”