The humanitarian crisis on our southern border — where more than 60,000 children have crossed into the U.S. since October — has parallels to the plight of largely Catholic children who were shipped across America between 1854 and 1929 on so-called “orphan trains.”
Today's crisis involves unaccompanied minors, principally from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Some are being sent north by parents striving to protect them from violent gangs and drug cartels. Others are children heading to the U.S. in a highly risk-filled attempt to find and join their parents who are working in communities across our country.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, prior to any substantial social safety nets, more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless Irish, Italian and Polish Catholic youngsters were sent packing from large East Coast cities to the heartland of the U.S.
A common denominator between the migrant youth of old and today's youth is their Catholicism. Another parallel is that then, as now, these children did not know where their journey would take them or what experiences awaited them.
The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul in New York strived to place as many of the 10,000 children homeless at any time on the streets of New York with Catholic foster families in the Midwest. But far too many on the "orphan trains" found exploitation, abuse and 'life' as indentured servants.
Presently it is unclear what awaits the projected 120,000 unaccompanied minors expected to enter the U.S. in 2014. In the meantime, Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services and our U.S. Bishops are stepping up and addressing this humanitarian emergency just as it has done through our country's history.
Archbishop José Gomez' valuable book, “Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation” (Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2013), chronicles the contributions of church leaders such as John the Baptist Scalabrini, Vincent Pallotti, Frances Xavier Cabrini and the first American-born saint, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who ministered to immigrants during the "orphan train" era.
An initiative sponsored and supported by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles with the nonprofit Crittenton Services assists many dozens of unaccompanied minors in Southern California, where these youngsters from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere are lodged, cared for and schooled.
Our current challenges demand more than political infighting and anti-immigrant tirades. We need more Scalabrinis, Pallottis, Cabrinis and Setons ready to put faith into action for the life and dignity of today's immigrants, in particularly the masses of unaccompanied minors.
The status quo is unacceptable. Catholics have big shoes to fill in order to follow in the better traditions of spiritual and material care of our immigrant forbearers.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino, led by their bishops, will gather at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles for a Procession and Mass for Immigrants on July 20 at 3 p.m. All parishioners are welcome.
Mike Clements is director of Advocacy and Training, and “Justice In Education” volunteer organizer for the Office of Life, Justice and Peace, Diocese of Orange.