Tagged: Immigration Stories

Welcoming Strangers and the Power of Stories

Three people who moved to South Jersey from other countries shared their stories at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood a few weeks ago, and there were a few moments from that night I’ll never forget.

Moustafa, who grew up in Iraq and now helps resettle refugees for Catholic Charities, described being kidnapped and tortured as a teenager. He told the audience that he was released when his parents paid $20,000 ransom. Moustafa’s father, seated in the front row, said something to his son in Arabic. “My father just said he would’ve paid $100,000,” Moustafa translated. A quiet murmur went around the room.

Moustafa and his family after the presentation.

Moustafa and his family after the presentation.

David is originally from Liberia and came to New Jersey as a refugee. Now, with Moustafa and others on the team, he helps to welcome those from around the world who are facing similar circumstances. I asked David what he says to newly arrived refugees, whom he often sees in their most desperate hours. “I say, ‘That bag you are carrying now, I carried the same one.’” David’s empathy, radiant smile, and expertise give hope to the hopeless.

Fabiola came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child to live with her father, who had made the journey several years before. While her English today is strong, she didn’t know the language when she moved to New Jersey. Her first school here had no idea what to do with her, and put her in a class for students with developmental disabilities. “But I don’t have any disabilities!” she told the audience. “It really hurt my self-esteem.”

These stories, told at a Matthew 25 Project special event on October 29 called “Welcoming the Stranger,” remain vivid in my memory; I can quote all three without notes. On the other hand, I remember almost no other details from that week. I don’t know what my wife and I ate for dinner in late October, what sporting events I watched, or what errands I ran. Why such a discrepancy? Because stories have a special power.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving,” said the writer Madeleine L’Engle, whose own A Wrinkle in Time novels have touched millions of readers. Stories surely have a privileged place within our Catholic tradition. Just think about the Mass: We hear the same Scripture passages over and over in a three-year cycle. The homily and general intercessions connect the story of the Mass to the stories of our lives and the life of the world. The Creed calls to mind the most important details in the love story of God and his people. The Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the story of the Last Supper. As we hear these stories of compassion and mercy over and over again, they can shape us into more compassionate and merciful people.

Just like the stories that we share within Mass, stories like the ones shared by Moustafa, David and Fabiola can open our hearts and change our perspectives.

A recent article from Oregon Catholic Press’ “Today’s Liturgy” publication described this sort of a perspective shift in a really compelling way. Fr. Ronald Raab, CSC, describes a conversation he had with a retired bishop as Fr. Raab was preparing to serve a parish as pastor. “When you speak about ‘the poor,’ simply tell your people to switch out one word,” the bishop told him. “Tell them to take out the ‘the’ and replace it with ‘our.’”

In the case of the thousands of people who come from around the world to South Jersey, the phrase might be “our migrants and refugees.” And, as we have the chance to get to know individual people and their stories, we can take it one step further: “our migrants and refugees” become “our friends” Moustafa, David, Fabiola, and so on.

"Welcoming the Stranger: A Panel Discussion" on October 29 at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish.

“Welcoming the Stranger: A Panel Discussion” on October 29 at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish.

Peter Henriot, SJ, a Jesuit priest who was a pioneer in articulating the intimate connection between faith and social justice, says that as we become friends with those who have experienced oppression, our love for them inspires us to work to change the structures that oppress them.

In the spirit of this movement from friendship to action, participants at the October 29 event were encouraged to contact elected officials in the following days, urging them to enact policies that grant relief to so many of our immigrant families who are living in fear. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ suggested message for Catholics to send to President Obama is clear: Protect as many immigrants and their families as possible from deportation. When I called the White House last week and delivered that message, I had Fabiola’s story in my thoughts and prayers.

The only way to overcome polarization and division is to hear stories and build friendships across society’s boundaries. Where are there opportunities in your own life to start or deepen this process?

To learn more about opportunities for building friendships across boundaries, email michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org.

The Catholic Church works with both migrants (like Fabiola) and refugees (like David and Moustafa). Learn about this work, and the difference between migrants and refugees, at www.justiceforimmigrants.org/immigration-basics.shtml.

Local Couple Helps in Border Crisis

The following story by Peter Feuerherd appears in the July 24, 2014 edition of the Catholic Star-Herald, and it is reprinted with permission.

It’s one of the big stories of the summer: As tens of thousands of migrants from Central America made their way to the U.S. border, the American public watched with a mix of compassion and sometimes scorn at their desperate plight. Meanwhile, most political leaders focused on sending them back as quickly as possible.

Brian Wagner, 48, a Catholic Charities worker in Vineland, reacted differently: he offered to help. A military veteran schooled in logistics he used to assist New Jerseyans affected by Super Storm Sandy, Wagner spent much of July in a resettlement center in McAllen, Texas.


It’s about “sharing God’s love,” he said about his experience in a phone interview during a short break. He was accompanied by Nancy, his wife, who also volunteered. They responded to a call for help sent out by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brownsville, located on the Mexico/U.S. border.

The work was all-purpose: Brian alternated as counselor, security guard, tent cleaner, driver, media chaperone, coffee brewer – whatever was needed to assist. Nancy compiled data, provided orientations, and served breakfast, among other duties.

While attention has focused on unaccompanied children who made the long journey through Mexico to the border, the McAllen facility processed children accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Sometimes the center, located next to a Catholic church, served as many as 200 people a day. Other days the numbers went down as low as 40.

The families were issued new clothes, offered food by the Salvation Army, shelter tents, and then a shuttle bus to the local Greyhound station. There they would be sent as far away as Washington State to Rhode Island, where a family member or friend lived who had purchased tickets for them. Each migrant was given a court date that would determine their legal status.

Almost all the families came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but others came from disparate places such as Brazil, Albania and Cuba.

The center was filled with children, said Wagner, mostly with their mothers, sometimes with their fathers.

Why did they undertake what has been documented to be a perilous journey, where so many have been victims of accidents, extortion and the unscrupulous who take advantage of their vulnerability?

“Most are saying it’s because of the violence, poverty and fear for their children’s lives,” said Wagner. Why the migrants made it to Texas was peripheral to his task. Wagner focused on what had to be done to smooth their transition to wherever they eventually end up.

Wagner’s experience – eight years in the military combined with leadership in Sandy storm relief and knowledge of Spanish – has trained him to “seeing the task at hand and getting it done.”

By July 25, he was prepared to leave Texas and return to his duties with Catholic Charities in Vineland. Still, the influx of migrants remained unabated. “I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.

Asked how he would advise President Obama or the leaders of Congress about handling the crisis, Wagner said his time in Texas provided no easy solutions. “I have no idea. I don’t know what the answer is.”

He does know, however, that Americans sharing God’s love through the work of agencies such as Catholic Charities will be essential in resolving the crisis.

What’s happening in McAllen is a small witness to that effect.

Because of Catholic Charities, Wagner noted in an email, the migrants “start to see the true compassion from everyone here and that we really are here to help them and not take advantage of them, as so many people were in their journey.”

Immigration Stories: Praying for Thanksgiving Together This Year

Searching for a better life, Alejandra came to the United States from Mexico in 1992 with her oldest daughter, “Marta,” who was five years old.

She had two more children here, who are both American citizens. The middle child is on a soccer scholarship at a great university. The youngest is starting high school in the fall. Marta graduated from college and works as an addition counselor. But she hasn’t seen her family since 2005, when Marta returned to Mexico because she was ineligible for college financial aid here.

Alejandra, in the black and white dress, reflects after meeting with Congressman Frank LoBiondo Friday.

Alejandra, in the black and white dress, reflects after meeting with Congressman Frank LoBiondo Friday.

Alejandra can’t visit because she wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the United States. Marta has had visa requests denied. They represent yet another Diocese of Camden family torn apart by our immigration system.

Alejandra was part of our group that met with Congressman Frank LoBiondo today at his office in Mays Landing. As immigration reform has started to fade from the political forefront recently, it’s our job as people of faith to keep the message alive through the summer and autumn months. Alejandra did her part with courage, as she shared her heartbreaking story with the Congressman and the rest of our group. As we left the meeting, she shook Congressman LoBiondo’s hand and said, “Please, with your help, my family can have Thanksgiving together this year.”

Alejandra, Marta, and millions of other families are counting on our faith communities to  help make their dream of unity possible. Congressman LoBiondo told us that he reads a print out of every phone call to his office each day.

S. Graciela, center, who serves immigrant communities at Holy Cross Parish in Bridgeton, debriefs our meeting with Rep. LoBiondo at the vigil outside his office Friday.

S. Graciela, center, who serves immigrant communities at Holy Cross Parish in Bridgeton, debriefs our meeting with Rep. LoBiondo at the vigil outside his office Friday.

So pick up the phone and give him (or your local representative) a call. His Mays Landing office: (609) 625-5008

What you can say: Please tell Congressman LoBiondo that with people of faith throughout South Jersey, I urge him to support comprehensive immigration reform that includes strong family unity provisions and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here. The system is broken and we cannot afford to wait.

Immigration Stories: “Sometimes I Think People Are Numbers Here”

The following story is part of a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us. This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

“Rosalia” shared her story with Kristen Zielinski-Nalen, director of Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation and Hispanic Ministry at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden. Kristen transcribed and translated the story from the Spanish. All names have been changed.

My family and I are from the Dominican Republic. My husband, Rafael, came to the US in the year 2000 with a tourist visa because our house was in foreclosure, there was no work and we had three children to provide for.

After a few months, the wages he earned saved us from losing our house. When he asked me to join him, I refused at first. I went to the parish and my priest told me that our family should be together, that I shouldn’t have to be a scared, single mother protecting my children alone at night. So I came to the US with a short-term tourist visa in August 2002. I wanted to see what Camden was like, and then I returned to the DR.

I don’t make any decisions without speaking with God first. I said, “If you want me to go, show me a sign.” I needed to sell everything I had quickly. What I thought would have taken six months to sell was all gone in one month.

A young man was pursuing my 12 year-old daughter and didn’t respect me when I asked him to leave her alone. He threw eggs at me and at our house. It was hard being a single mother. So I said, well, the Lord wants me to join my husband. I left for the US with my children and I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I was feeling alone there in the DR. One brother had died and my sisters had already left for the US and were going through rough times. I wanted to be there for them.

My experience has included a lot of discrimination. When I have to say I don’t have a social security number, people treat me differently. Sometimes I think people are numbers here and not people.

For example, I have been waiting over two years for surgery for fibroma. They told me just to wait – that the cysts would disappear. But now I have three cysts. I know a Mexican woman who was very sick. Her treatment was costly. She was deported from the hospital. She was seen as a burden, not a person. However, my sister has a social security number and she received treatment at the hospital immediately for the same issue that I suffer from.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t pay the bills, I have had to ask for food at churches. In some churches, they say, “Put your social security number here and sign.” If you don’t have a social security number, how can one get help? Or when they say, “Show your last 3 paychecks.” But if you’re not paid with a check but in cash, how can I show I am working?

When I go shopping and someone hears my accent, they take time to give someone else a discount but won’t apply it to me. I was in a retail store and a Mexican woman presented a Mexican ID and she said she didn’t have a license. The employee called immigration. The woman cried and so did I. I left afraid that ICE would grab me, too. Then, I was outside once in NY and saw ICE close the front door and back door and grab everyone inside the store. I felt terrified.

Even worse than me is what my three children have had to experience for being undocumented. My 18 year-old daughter, Sandrina, worked at a job agency. She worked 8am to 6pm for $7 an hour. The boss didn’t pay her overtime. When he owed her $350, he paid her $260 or $170, whatever he felt like. He made Sandrina clean the bathroom and dig through the trashcans for lost items and stay later even though it was dark out and in a dangerous neighborhood. He touched her shoulders and arms and told her he was in love with her – a married man! He told her, “You’re not going anywhere else. You don’t have a social security number. Where else are you going to work?” It was true. She couldn’t leave at the time because my husband couldn’t find work during the winter and her pay was our rent payment. As soon as my husband was able to work, Sandrina left that terrible place.

The Holy Family was an immigrant family.

In school my other daughter, Marisol, experienced the social security number discrimination. Marisol had to show a social security number in order to go on school trips, which left her out and made her come home crying. Then, after being an A+ student, graduating with awards, and serving in our parish, she couldn’t enroll in a university. How Marisol cried, realizing that without a social security number, she couldn’t become a nurse. She works two jobs now and studies at Camden County College, thank God, where she can take some classes. They accepted her there.

Lastly, my son, Jorge, is 16 and still doesn’t realize what it means that he doesn’t have a social security number. He wants to work soon and says he wants to join the Army and defend our country from terrorists – which he cannot do without a social security number. Perhaps now there is hope for him because we applied for him through the Deferred Action program. Perhaps he will finally receive a social security number and become a person in the US.

I know so many horrible stories of the journey to get to the United States. Most immigrants I know don’t want to stay. They want to work and return to their families. They miss their parents, who many times have never met their grandchildren.

I participate in the immigration reform campaign because I don’t want it to be so dangerous and difficult for people to attempt to work to feed their families. There must be a safer way for families to find decent work.

Immigration Stories: Working Hard to Achieve an American Dream

The following story is part of a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us. This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

This reflection was written by a young woman named Karla.


My name is Karla, and I live in Pennsauken and belong to St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral. I am studying to become a graphic designer at Camden County College. I wish one day to enter the business industry and own a coffee shop franchise and sell coffee from around the world.

I was born in Guatemala, and crossed the border into the United States when I was six years old. My goal at that time was to meet the father who I had seen only through a photograph. He had moved to the US to help my mom and me financially.

I remember crossing the border into the United States. It was harsh. I was really cold, and wore four jackets, but I kept trembling. My cousin and I were scared of cars, thinking they were the border patrol. I remember passing a field that had plants with thorns. I remember hating it because I was scratched from head to toe.

We were happily reunited with my father, but as time passed by other problems rose up. The first came when I tried to apply for a driver’s license – I learned what it meant to not have a social security number. I learned that day that I was an immigrant.

But the hardest thing was not being able to receive a scholarship that I was given because I did not have a social security number. The scholarship I had received was NJ Stars, a program that paid two years of college in New Jersey as long as I was in the top 20 percent of my graduating class.

I worked hard to stay in the top 20 percent of my class at Pennsauken High School. This meant sleepless nights and taking extra classes, which meant I didn’t have a lunch time like most students and I had to give up a lot of my free time to studying.

When I realized I didn’t have a social security number when applying for my driver’s licence, in a matter of seconds the scholarship I received vanished, and along with it went the three years that I had worked hard to earn it.

At that point in my life I felt dismay and fell into a great depression because all that I had worked for was tossed away. But during that saddest part of my life the one thing that kept me going was my mom telling me, “Never give up.”

I continued to work hard, and in 2010 I graduated as an honor student in the top 15 percent of my class. Although there was still college to worry about, my mom said, “It doesn’t matter if it will take 10 years or even 20. But you will graduate from college.”

Just as she said, I continued to college, and although it is hard financially because I do not receive federal aid, I keep striving to do my best – even if it means doing extra jobs like babysitting and face painting to afford school. I will graduate in May 2013 as a Phi Theta Kappa honor student. I will show that I did not give up.

Immigration Stories: Fr. Ken Hallahan’s Irish Roots

The following story is part of a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us. This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

In this installment, Fr. Ken Hallahan of the Diocese of Camden recounts his family’s emigration from Ireland in the 1800s. Fr. Ken currently serves the diocese with the Black Horse Pike Ministry, which provides pastoral care for Latino Catholics along the Pike.

ken cropped

Fr. Ken Hallahan.

It was the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland. The young couple of tenant farmers were told by their landlord that they had two choices – stay at home and starve, or leave for America. The landlord would pay the four and one-half pounds passage fare from New Ross on the Barrow River in County Wexford.

This was a benevolent gesture by the landlord. He could have sent the couple to Liverpool and paid only two and one-half pounds for the passage.

Perhaps the landlord took pity on the young couple because they had a baby. Bridget Walsh, who would later become my great-grandmother, was only five months old when she boarded the Hibernia in April of 1847. Her father, James Walsh was 21, her mother, also Bridget Walsh, was 16.

After several weeks crossing the Atlantic, they arrived in New York Harbor on May 27, 1847.

One hundred years later, almost to the day, on May 19, 1947, I was born.

This sculpture in Dublin honors those lives lost and forever changed by the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849).

During that 100 years and the subsequent 66 years of my own life, our family has been a family of immigrants.

The Houlihan (later Holohan and Hallahan) branch of the family settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, where some worked in the coal mines and others in steel mills. Bridget Walsh married James Houlihan and together they had 15 children, the 12th of whom was my grandfather, John J. Holohan.

Schuylkill County, Penn., where Fr. Ken’s Irish ancestors settled.

My grandfather married Mary Jennings, the daughter of an Irish barkeeper who left Mary’s mother for another woman. Their son, John Holahan married Isabel Semple, Aunt Izzy, who was a Methodist from Northern Ireland. Aunt Izzy’s parents and half of her siblings never spoke to her again for the rest of her life, because she had married a Catholic. Uncle John became a fireman in the Philadelphia Fire Department, retiring at the rank of Captain in the 1980s. He died at the ripe old age of 96.

On my mother’s side, my great-great grandparents both came from Ireland. Bernard Sweeney was a young teenager, too young to be a soldier during the Civil War, but he volunteered to be a bugler. He was wounded in the war and walked with a cane for the rest of his life. He grew a beard that fell all the way to his ankles.

In 1868, he married Hannah O’Farrell, and their son, James J. Sweeney, became a bare-knuckles boxer who fought for the light-weight championship in Philadelphia in 1891. He lost the match, but was paid $100. He used the money to pay for his wedding to Catherine Malloy, whose father was born in New York State and whose mother came from the City of Cork in Ireland. The Malloys had two brothers, John and Edward, who became priests in the Diocese of Trenton. John later joined the Trappists.

Cork, Ireland.

In the Sweeney family, the immigrants worked in the jobs available, such as the expansion of the Erie Canal and the steel smelting plants (as “skimmers” who walked on catwalks above the molten metal, skimming the impurities off of the surface).

Several of the Sweeneys founded their own businesses: Great Uncle Tom Sweeney had his own home heating oil company in Pottsville, Penn., my grandfather had a Kelly Tire outlet in Trenton and his son Jack owned several successful businesses.

Despite the warnings to “stick to your own kind” and “don’t marry an Italian, your children won’t know who they are,” two of the Sweeneys married children of Italian immigrants. My uncle Larry Sweeney married Wanita Foulk Norato and Ellen Sweeney married Joe Anastasia. The two families produced a priest, a nurse and Lieutenant in the Lawrenceville Police Department.

The immigrant history of the Hallahan-Sweeney family follows the trajectory of so many similar families. The immigrant generation came to avoid famine, war, or poverty. They took the jobs available (“No Irish Need Apply” was a common sign in shop and factory windows). They helped to build the nation, and this region, with their labor.

As the generations descended, the children got more education. The first generation, in the 1880s, measured their education in “months.” The present generation of descendants has three doctorates, seven masters degrees and 14 college graduates, as well as two priests.

Today’s immigrants often come fleeing awful conditions similar to those of our ancestors. They are energetic and creative and they will make the same beneficial contribution to our society as our own ancestors did.

Very many of today’s immigrants are also Catholics who are making a wonderful contribution to the faith life of our Catholic community.

I am very proud of my own immigrant heritage and blessed to work with today’s immigrants.

Immigration Stories: From Undocumented Immigrant to Beloved Priest

The following story is part of a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us.

This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers. Be sure to sign the postcards at Mass on May 4/5!


Father Rene Canales

Earlier this week, Fr. Rene Canales was telling me the story of how he came to the US from El Salvador. “There’s a song about it,” he said.

It’s called “Tres Veces Mojado,” which literally means “Three Times Wet” – since crossing borders illegally often means swimming across rivers.

The song tells the story of a Salvadoran immigrant who has to cross three borders dangerously in pursuit of economic opportunity. First to Guatemala, then Mexico, then the United States.

“It was a struggle to get through those countries. If you were seen, they would send you back,” Rene told me. “The journey is dangerous: many people die.”

Like so many of his Salvadoran friends and relatives, Rene’s immigration story includes harrowing travel far from home to support his family. His story is yet another reminder that our nation’s immigration system is in dire need of repair.

The youngest of six children, Rene Canales was born in La Unión, El Salvador, on October 29, 1974. Tension and instability were rising in the country, as poverty and political repression moved El Salvador toward Civil War. A military junta overthrew the nation’s president two weeks before Rene’s fifth birthday.

Just three years later, Rene’s father passed away. The war continued to rage. “There was nothing for us,” Rene said.

In 1991, when he was just 16 years old, Rene left El Salvador with a group from his area, determined to make it to the United States for an opportunity to support his mother. Escorted by a coyote, the group traveled by foot and bus, hiding from authorities as they moved toward the United States.

Finally, Rene and the group made it across the US border into Arizona, and he traveled to Homestead, Florida, where he had friends. Without documents and unable to speak English, the only job option for Rene was to work in agriculture. He hoped to work for wo years, save money, and then return to his family in El Salvador.

Rene picked cucumbers, squash, and zucchini for hours a day, seven days a week, in the hot South Florida sun. “One day, I asked for a raise,” he said. The farmer told him, “You ask me one more time, and I will call INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] on you.”

“And that was the end of [the conversation],” Rene said.

The American Dream seemed backbreaking. “My first experience was not that this is a country of law and justice and opportunity for all,” he said. “There was work, work, work, work.”

In 1995, Rene decided to move to New Jersey, since he had cousins here. Because he had applied for political asylum as a refugee from El Salvador’s Civil War – asylum he was never granted –  Rene was given a social security number and temporary work authorization papers.

He worked in the kitchens at different casino restaurants in Atlantic City, washing pots and pans. When he wasn’t working, he was involved in the Latino Catholic community in Atlantic City. He had felt stirrings of a religious vocation since he was seven years old, and in 1997 he applied to enter formation for the priesthood in the Diocese of Camden. He was accepted in 1998.

“My last day of work at the Trump Marina was September 1, 1998. I started at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia on September 2,” he said, with a laugh.

As he moved through formation, Rene continued to struggle with the US immigration system. He wasn’t granted political asylum, and because he was studying to be a priest, it was unclear if he needed a religious visa or an educational one. In all the confusion, he was ultimately able to remain in the United States because Salvadorans were eligible for “temporary protected status,” due to the continuing political unrest in El Salvador.

“I almost didn’t make it,” Rene said.

Finally, in 2011, after almost 20 years in the United States, he obtained a green card: permanent resident status. This meant he could safely travel home. He saw his mother for the first time in 11 years, and only the second time since had first left home.

Today, Fr. Rene is a beloved spiritual leader, serving at St. Clare and St. Gabriel parishes in Gloucester and SalemCounties. “Fr. Rene has taught me what it means to evangelize with joy,” said Pam Tremblay, who works with Fr. Rene at St. Clare’s. “With his energetic and loving spirit, he welcomes all peoples and inspires them to live their faith joyfully.”

Fr. Rene celebrates the sacraments in Spanish and English, and helps immigrants navigate the system. He has also been involved with a group of priests, sisters, and laypeople in the diocese who have been urging members of Congress to enact just, comprehensive immigration reform.

“I see too much suffering. People shouldn’t be going through what I went through,” Fr. Rene said, describing why he is involved in this advocacy effort. “As we speak, people are suffering because of unjust laws and broken systems. [Our immigration system] needs to be fixed.

“I want to be the voice of people who cannot be heard because of their illegal status,” he continued. “I can speak up. They cannot.”