By David Lewellen
When chaplains minister to immigrants who may lack documentation, a little legal background may be helpful, but they will also need their usual pastoral care skills.
“An undocumented person in the hospital is really afraid,” said Jay Stratton, an immigration attorney in Seattle, via email. “In their home countries they might be liable to pay a lot of money, especially in emergency situations or where they are victims of crimes. Undocumented people are afraid that ICE will come to the hospital to take them. If they are victims of crimes, especially domestic violence or violent crimes, it is important to give the immigrant the courage to report the crime.”
“You’re seeing a lot of fear, which is understandable,” said Erika Petty, an attorney in Milwaukee. “There’s a chilling effect, even for foreign nationals who have had crimes committed against them. Provide support so person doesn’t feel totally alone.”
Barbara Graham, an attorney at Catholic Charities in Milwaukee, said immigration status should not be a barrier to treatment – apart from the patient’s very natural fears. But for the most part, “the immigrant community doesn’t know what their options are.” Hospital chaplains, she said, see immigrants “long before we ever will.”
Immigrants who are the victims of certain crimes, such as domestic violence, are eligible for a visa, Stratton said, and in that case, “it is important to advocate for them to speak to law enforcement.”
Chaplains also need to learn the local resources available to them. A good starting point is the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which has a directory of affiliate groups that is searchable by location. “The Catholic conference has really been remarkable on this issue,” Graham said. “They’ve put muscle and money behind it.”
Another resource is the YouTube channel of Graham’s organization, which offers English and Spanish videos about DACA, domestic violence, naturalization, and other topics. It also offers a deportation kit, a checklist of steps to take before an immigrant is sent out of the United States.
“Make sure you help the undocumented immigrant to contact the family,” Stratton said. “Whenever it is unknown what happened to a person, the worst is always assumed, in that they believe they were arrested by ICE. Under the current administration there is a heighten level of fear. Some of it justified, most of it just a general atmosphere of fear.”