Parishes reach out to Hispanic Catholics

Following election, church seeks ways to ease harassment, fears of deportation

GREEN BAY — The Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, usually a joyous celebration in the Diocese of Green Bay, had a somewhat somber tone this year for Hispanic Catholics. After the Nov. 8 presidential election, parishioners had contacted church leaders to express fear for their children and families.

Their concerns were rooted in statements made during the election campaign by President-elect Donald Trump regarding mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. In interviews with local pastors and others who serve the Hispanic community, fears of harassment and separation of families continue to surface.

Fr. Bill Hoffman, pastor of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, said he received a call before 7 a.m. on Nov. 9. “A parishioner, a Hispanic woman whom I know very well, was just sobbing,” he told The Compass Dec. 2. “Her children didn’t want to go to school because of remarks that were being made during the campaign: ‘You are going to be sent back to Mexico.’ She said, ‘My children were born here in the United States.’

A young girl holds a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe during Mass at St. Philip Church in Green Bay Dec. 12. Bishop David Ricken joined Hispanic Catholics in the celebration. In his homily, given in Spanish, he said, “Let’s pray for clear vision and wisdom for all of our leaders and let’s make sure that we welcome the Holy Family in whatever form they may take this Advent and Christmas season.” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“So there have been a lot of anxious people in terms of what the new president and administration are going to bring” regarding deportations, said Fr. Hoffman. “So my message is, ‘Continue life as it has been.’”

Parish leaders have taken steps to assure Hispanic Catholics of their support, but they say nothing is certain until after Trump is sworn into office Jan. 20.


The U.S. bishops designated Dec. 12 as a national day of prayer for migrants and refugees. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, newly-elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a leading spokesman for the bishops on immigration issues. In a column written for Catholic News Service Dec. 5, Archbishop Gomez said that the church is “deeply concerned” about the threat of deportations.

“Everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken — and it has been for more than a decade,” said Archbishop Gomez.  “The blame cuts across party lines and … our politicians have failed to act for so long that the people we are now punishing have become our neighbors.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the Hispanic population in Wisconsin in 2014 (the most recent figures) was around 370,000, 6 percent of the state’s population. Undocumented immigrants comprised about 1.3 percent of the state’s population (80,000) and 3.5 percent of the U.S. population (11.1 million).

Sr. Melanie Maczka, director of Casa Alba Melanie, a resource center for Green Bay’s Spanish-speaking community, said the Hispanic population in Brown County is around 25,000 and around 18,000 to 19,000 in the Fox Valley. Casa Alba Melanie was founded by Sr. Melanie, a member of the Society of Sisters for the Church, and Norbertine Fr. Ken De Groot, former pastor of St. Willebrord Parish. It serves all Hispanics regardless of faith.

Sr. Melanie has also seen a lot of despair among the people Casa Alba Melanie serves.

“The type of language that was used (during the campaign), the liberty that was taken in speaking and putting down other people, has opened up the doors to people who are bigoted who feel they have a right to say anything they want,” she told The Compass Dec. 8. “So the bullying of children in schools immediately, the very next day after the election, continues until today.”


Casa Alba Melanie teamed up with the community organizations on Nov. 30 to host a listening session at St. Willebrord Church. An estimated 200 people, two-thirds Hispanic, turned out to ask questions.

Among the community leaders attending the Nov. 30 meeting were Green Bay Area Public School District Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld, Green Bay Chief of Police Andrew J. Smith, Brown County Chief Deputy Todd Delain and Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff for Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt.

“The main purpose of the meeting was to give people a sense of support and to say to them, ‘There are a lot of people in the community who care about you, who respect you, who appreciate all that you contribute,’” said Sr. Melanie. “There’s not a whole lot that could be given by way of information  in terms of this is what’s going to happen because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It changes every day.”

Norbertine Fr. Andy Cribben, pastor of St. Willebrord, said the community gathering helped quell fears somewhat, “but it’s not gone.”


On Dec. 1, Bishop David Ricken met with parish leaders who minister to Hispanic Catholics across the diocese. In attendance were Fr. Cribben; Fr. Hoffman; Franciscan Fr. Tony Cirignani, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Green Bay; Fr. Ryan Starks, administrator of St. Therese Parish in Appleton; Fr. Dave Greskowiak, administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Wautoma; Franciscan Sr. Marlita Henseler, pastoral leader at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Newton; and Franciscan Sr. Pamela Biehl, pastoral leader at St. Mary Parish in Omro.

Bishop Ricken “wanted to know more about the status of the immigrant community in terms of pastoral care, given the president-elect’s promises relative to immigration and how can we, as a diocese, better serve the people who are experiencing that kind of pressure,” Fr. Cribben told The Compass Dec. 7.

Sr. Marlita, who serves at a rural parish with a growing Hispanic community in Manitowoc County, said her response to parishioners’ questions “is simply to try to quiet their anxieties as much as possible and assure them that the church is there for them in the midst of the turmoil.”

“There has been some discussion by our Living Justice Committee (to sponsor a listening session for parishioners) with school and law enforcement representatives,” said Sr. Marlita.

Carlos Herrera, Hispanic Ministry coordinator at St. Therese Parish in Appleton, said the parish held a listening session with Appleton Area School District representatives on Nov. 20.

“There are two coming up with the police department and the Appleton mayor to keep calm in the Latino community,” he said.

Bishop Ricken joined Hispanic Catholics from SS. Peter and Paul and St. Philip parishes in Green Bay Dec. 12 to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In his homily, Bishop Ricken acknowledged the fears and anxieties immigrants are experiencing “during this time of change in our country’s leadership.”

He said that the language and actions of a campaign cycle “are often very different from actual policy development and implementation.”

Bishop Ricken encouraged people to pray for elected leaders so they will keep in mind the “dignity of the human person, especially the immigrants and refugees among us of good will and those who want to make a contribution to the common good and the good of their families.”


Church leaders say the plight of undocumented immigrants is complicated due to outdated immigration laws.

“If you applied (for citizenship) in 1997, they are taking your case now,” said Sr. Melanie. “It’s 20 years (of waiting) for a lot of people. … There’s so much time and red tape and money being spent for a process that should not be that complicated.”

Every Wednesday, volunteer immigration attorneys from Sesini Law Group of Milwaukee travel to Green Bay to answer immigration questions at Casa Alba Melanie. “We want people to have the correct information so that they understand what can or cannot be done with their status,” said John Sesini.

“It’s not that people don’t want to be here and get regular documents,” said Fr. Cribben. “It’s that it’s very difficult, expensive, time-consuming and heart-wrenching at times when you get pushed back one or two times (in the process) because something wasn’t right or you’ve got an immigration officer who wasn’t in a good mood.”

Fr. Cribben’s response to someone who asks, “Why don’t they go through a regular legal process to become a permanent resident?” would be threefold.

“I would say, one, there are many who are already in that process,” he said. “Two, there are many who want to be in that process but who just cannot afford to at this point. Three, there are some who are here for whom there is no process. They are kind of stuck.”

“Oftentimes, if they began the process as a single person and they desire to marry, they cannot change their status,” Fr. Hoffman said. “If they change their status from single to married person, they have to start the process again. So they live together instead of (achieving) the desire to have a sacramental marriage.

“So there’s a great need for reform,” added Fr. Hoffman. “I think the whole system is simply overwhelmed. The resources haven’t been put there to help that process to clean it up, to streamline it.”

In his Dec. 5 column, Archbishop Gomez said there is “broad consensus” on reforming immigration laws and it includes a way for those who are here to become citizens.

“Virtually every poll has found overwhelming support for granting them a generous path to citizenship, provided they meet certain requirements, such as learning English, paying some fines and holding a job that pays taxes,” he said. “These basic points should form the basis for immigration reform that is just and merciful.”


One move in reforming the immigration process was made by executive order in 2012. President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to allow qualified undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of “deferred action” from deportation. They were also eligible for a driver’s license and a work permit.

Casa Alba Melanie has processed more than 450 applications from young adults who received the DACA status, said Sr. Melanie. “The young people who get DACA have to pay $465 every 18 months in order to be able to work and keep a driver’s license. All people that are on DACA have cleared an FBI background check, too.”

Nationally, more than 720,000 young immigrants have been approved for DACA.

While DACA wasn’t intended to be a long-term solution to immigration reform, it could have been a step in this direction, said Fr. Cribben. DACA youth “would be the first in line for some sort of remediation. It didn’t happen and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” he said.

If Trump chooses, he can rescind DACA and order U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to use personal information provided by DACA applicants to locate and apprehend families.

“President-elect Trump sees removal of people as the way to reform (immigration laws) right now and create more border security,” said Fr. Cribben. “Those are his priorities around immigration. That’s the kind of reform that’s in the other direction than what I think our parish community would want.”


Sr. Melanie said mass deportations and breaking up families is a human rights issue and church leaders need to take a strong stand against this approach to immigration reform.

“For me, immigration is a pro-life issue,” she said. “We see, at least two times a year, immigration (officers) come and pick up people and they are deported. So families are being torn apart.”

Sr. Melanie said that the “majority of people who are here without documents have come here not because they are flaunting the fact that they can cross the border. They are coming here out of desperation. When they come here, they work really hard.”

“I think the bishops found themselves in a conundrum” with Trump, “who is saying things very pro-life in terms of abortion,” said Fr. Cribben. “And then we have this other side that sounded rather harsh towards groups of people, immigrants and women. Church leaders know that a new president is never the fullness of what we hoped for … so President-elect Trump presents that imperfection as well in terms of church, Gospel values.”


Churches and cities around the country have pledged to serve as “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants. In a letter to his diocese read at Masses Dec. 4, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said his diocese would stand by immigrants.

“You, and the many of you who have American-born children, will be the subject of our advocacy and protection as far as we can offer it to you,” he wrote. “The law of God takes precedence over human laws and to this we must be witnesses.”

Local pastors are also wondering whether churches in the Green Bay Diocese can become sanctuaries for immigrants facing deportation.

Fr. Hoffman and Fr. Cribben said the topic of offering sanctuary to immigrants was discussed with Bishop Ricken, but no decisions were made. “Might some of our church buildings become places of sanctuary? What does that mean and how is that defined? We are waiting to get some additional information,” said Fr. Hoffman.

“There have been churches that have provided sanctuary to people, but I don’t know the details,” said Fr. Cribben. “I know that it was respected. (For) churches that have done it, it seems that the legal entities do not go after them.”

“It would be great if the Catholic Church would say, ‘We will protect you; we will work with you,’” said Sr. Melanie.

Fr. Hoffman said the church cannot stand idle when fear of harassment and deportation fills the lives of many people. “How can we not feel for those people? Fear is just a terrible thing,” he said. “How can we respond to that?”


He encouraged pastors to address the issue in parish bulletins or in a homily. International Migrants Day on Dec. 18, National Migration Week, Jan. 8-14, or the World Day for Migrants and Refugees on Jan. 15 would be opportunities “to bring forward in petitions and homilies” a message in support of immigrants, he said.

“The Holy Father says that the Jubilee Year has ended, but the call to be merciful, to be just, to be welcoming, that message still needs to be there,” Fr. Hoffman said.

Before the election, Fr. Cribben said he preached that, no matter who was elected, “we remain a Catholic, Christian community that works for justice and peace, proclaims Gospel values and tries to live by them and do so with courage and fidelity.”

“That remains, now that Trump is elected,” he added. “So how do we continue to do the work of the Gospel in this context? A government is not the church. We are still a church that wants to do good.”


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