Catholic health care aids and advocates for migrants, refugees

July 1, 2021


Experts on the tangled issues that force Central Americans to flee their homes and seek sanctuary in the United States acknowledge Catholic health care as a powerful ally in offering direct aid and advocating for change. Speakers at the Catholic Health Assembly asked the ministry to amplify its advocacy on behalf of refugees and immigrants.

Migrants with children cross the Rio Grande to reach the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on May 21. During the Catholic Health Assembly, two experts on refugee issues urged the ministry to expand its advocacy on behalf of those fleeing Central America in search of safety and opportunities.
John Lamparski/Associated Press

"We need your voice to be louder to bring compassion more into the public discourse as well as policymaking," said Yolanda González Cerdeira. "I think it's urgent to change the anti-immigrant narrative and help people understand the root causes" and desperation of people who make the treacherous journey from Central America to attempt to enter the U.S.

González was one of two speakers in the assembly's closing session on the roots, realities and response to migration by the poor seeking safety and opportunity. She is a researcher and human rights advocate for ERIC-SJ, a Jesuit social institution in Honduras. She was joined by Teresa Welsh, a senior reporter at Devex, a media platform for the global development community. Welsh's coverage areas include refugees, migration and food insecurity.

The speakers enumerated the conditions that cause migrants to leave the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. González referred to increased U.S. funding for security and the military for the purpose of halting drug trafficking. She contends that money, as well as financial aid for COVID response, has been misappropriated by national and local officials in these countries. She also asserted that attempts to curb corruption at the national and local level have been ineffective.

Welsh emphasized that climate change had led many people to abandon farming, which in turn has exacerbated food insecurity throughout the region. The damage from a pair of hurricanes in the fall magnified both issues.

"Millions affected in Central America had livelihoods wiped out, agricultural fields wiped out. Homes, schools and infrastructure were destroyed," she said. "Many people endure a layered experience that makes it untenable to stay."

González cheered the proposed Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2021, which she said "shines a spotlight on behaviors that have too often been excused by U.S. administrations. We believe that this is an excellent first step, and we trust that it will not remain just a proposal, but it can be approved and implemented."

Both speakers highlighted the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a multifaceted bill put forward by the Biden administration on its first day in office and endorsed by CHA. González views as "a source for hope" the fact that administration officials seem to have learned from failed attempts at immigration reform. Welsh said the bill could ease the flow of immigrants because it would establish asylum centers in home countries so people could file paperwork requesting a refugee status determination without making the journey to the southern U.S. border. The bill also contains a four-year, $4 billion plan to address violence, poverty and corruption in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Welsh, however, found that timeline for fixing root causes of mass migration unrealistic.

"Experts say it can take up to a decade to see the effects of foreign assistance on the ground if we're looking at reducing migration as the metric of success," she said. "We've gotten into this oscillation of taking funding away and giving it back. Some of the root problems are endemic. They can be solved, but we have to recognize how long that can take."

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