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USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services marks 50th year by looking ahead

20 Nov 2015 – By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services marked its 50th anniversary with a daylong conference 19 November that was hardly an occasion for the group to rest on its laurels but instead brought about 200 people together to focus on ongoing and upcoming challenges.

At a Washington hotel, panelists and guest speakers praised MRS for its five decades of work serving and advocating for more than 1 million refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, unaccompanied children and human trafficking victims, but they also urged the agency to keep up the fight and do even stronger advocacy work to help those in need and educate the general public, politicians and Catholics in the pews about why that work is so important.

Perhaps the most poignant accolade for MRS’ work came from Ericka Santoyo Ramirez, a college student who came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from Honduras. Ramirez told of her harrowing journey to the United States as a pregnant teenager traveling alone who was helped by a Catholic Charities agency after crossing the U.S. border. Now she is in college, working three jobs and raising her daughter.

“Please keep doing what you’re doing,” she told conference participants, who in turn gave her a rousing standing ovation.

Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who was the keynote lunch speaker, likewise thanked the MRS staff for their work, mentioning that a lot had been done and there was a lot more to do. His specific remarks to MRS participants were off the record.

Many of the day’s panelists highlighted what MRS is up against: primarily overriding fears, prejudices and even hatred toward today’s refugees and immigrants coupled with a limited budgets or the lack of political clout to help them.

The plight of the Syrian refugees seemed to be on everyone’s mind and came up in many discussions. A Franciscan sister attending the conference said if she hadn’t been at the event she would have been at Capitol Hill attending a hearing about U.S. response to Syrian refugees, where the House ended up voting to tighten screening procedures.

She said she feared many were putting national security concerns above compassion and common sense.

Jesuit Father Rick Ryscavage, director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University in Connecticut and former MRS director, said national security and compassion for refugees can take place at the same time.

“The church can help the government think through this stuff,” he added, noting that the U.S. government has the right to control its borders but also must show compassion to refugees. “It should do both; it's not neither or,” he added, stressing that screening — which is valid and strict — takes place to be able to welcome refugees.

Panelists also discussed the plight of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a crisis that many said is no longer getting media attention since the numbers have decreased, but still requires work from those on the ground trying to help these children and teenagers.

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