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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 55-62

The Situation and Challenges

of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees

in North America

Rev. Anthony MCGUIRE

outgoing Director

Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees

(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)


Since the founding of their nations, both the United States and Canada have received refugees and immigrants from countries throughout the world. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration from Europe dominated. In the latter part of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, the trend has changed dramatically. 

In response to refugees and immigrants, the bishops of the United States, beginning after World War I organized an immigration office, which eventually became the Migration and Refugee Service, divided into three offices: Refugee Programs, Public Policy, and Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees, with more than 100 diocesan offices for refugees usually in the Catholic Charities Offices. The Pastoral Care Office reaches out in two directions: Ethnic Ministries and People on the Move. The Ethnic Ministries section responds to the pastoral needs of immigrant Africans and Asians. There is an entire office in the USCCB dealing with Hispanic immigrants.

In the 1940’s the Catholic Church in Canada began the Office of Social Affairs to deal with immigrants and refugees. Since that time, over 25 dioceses have entered a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian Government to accept and help integrate refugees The Province of Quebec has its own. framework for reception of immigrants and refugees.. At the present time, the response of the Canadian Church is not centralized, but the major receiving dioceses have responded through diocesan offices for immigrants and refugees, national parishes, multicultural parishes, liturgical and social centers, immigration counseling offices, ethnic pastoral commissions, formation programs for immigrant clergy, religious and lay people. 

Every ten years the United States’ government conducts a census. The census of 2000 reveals a startling change in the population in the ten years from 1990 to 2000. Canada takes a census every five years. The changes from 1996 to 2001 have been equally startling. In the United states the paradigm is shifting from “the melting pot” to “the stew pot”. In Canada a bicultural society is becoming a multi-cultural mosaic. This presentation will analyze those changes as well as the changes in population trends in Canada and the Catholic Church response in the following categories: Legal Immigrants, Undocumented Immigrants, Refugees and the Church’s response to them.   

Legal Immigrants

The 2000 census in the United States solidifies trends which began in the 1960s in which the place of origin of immigrants shifted from Western Europe to Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Latin America and the Middle East. Among these new immigrants are many Catholics who bring with them different religious practices and traditions. The new Catholic immigration has changed the face of dioceses and parishes throughout the United States. A random sampling of percentage changes throughout the country gives an overview of the changes involved. As of the year 2000, there are 75% white Americans, there are 12.3% African Americans (among them, many recent immigrants), 12.5% Hispanic Americans, 3.6% Asian Americans. From 1990-2000, the African-American population increased 21.5%; Asian-Americans increased 72.2%; Hispanic-Americans increased 57.9%

In Canada, the major source for the 250,346 new immigrants in the past year has been China 16.10%, India 11.1%, Pakistan 6. 13%, Korea 3.84%.            .

This quick overview reveals the dramatic changes which have taken place in different parts of the United States and Canada. In the year 2000, more than one-fourth of Hispanics lived in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago. Yet in between and all around these gateway cities tremendous growth has taken place. In Las Vegas, the Hispanic population has increased 750% in 20 years. In Atlanta the Hispanic growth has been so great that the Sunday Spanish Masses have increased from 4 to 40 in ten years. In the year 2000 there were approximately 4000 parishes with Hispanic Ministry in the United States and 20.6% of parishes with a majority of Hispanic presence. The Hispanics have the largest number, but there are many other immigrants demanding special pastoral attention. Those same gateway cities with one-fourth of the Hispanic population offer Mass every Sunday in different languages: New York Archdiocese 48, Brooklyn 23, Chicago 23, Miami 13, Los Angeles 53. Along with liturgical services, many of the dioceses and parishes offer social services, legal and advocacy services for the new immigrants.

In Canada the major receiving provinces for immigrants have been Quebec: 15% (City of Montreal 13%); Ontario 60% (Toronto 50%); Alberta 6.54% (Calgary 4.06%); British Colombia 15.29% (Vancouver 13.65%). Throughout Canada, Masses are celebrated in different languages as follows: 25 languages in Vancouver; 12 in Calgary; 26 in Montreal with 15 Oriental churches functioning, 38 languages in Toronto. Toronto has proven to be a major immigrant city in North America. The 2001 census reported that 44% of the population was born outside the country. 43% of all Filipinos in Canada live in Toronto. The Chinese population in Toronto grew 69% from 1991 to 2001. 63% of immigrants to Toronto in the 1990’s were Asians, many from South Asia, while 17% were from Europe with a large migration from Poland. There are also sizeable numbers of Africans, Latin Americans, Arabs and West Asian immigrants. The Church in Toronto has responded actively to what an Archdiocesan report calls, “a continual intercity shifting of population due to new immigrants and refugees coming from different parts of the world”. The Archdiocese has set up intercultural courses for priests, renewal of parish life involving better communication among ethnic communities, setting up of ethnic pastoral commissions on the Archdiocesan level, expansion of formation programs to develop ethnic leadership and youth programs.

Besides the Catholic population, there has been a significant new immigration from the following world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Sikhism. Into parts of the United States dominated by Protestant and Catholic churches stand new temples and mosques. The Muslim population in the United States now outnumbers the Episcopalian population. Muslims are also more numerous than the Presbyterian or Jewish population. In Canada, the Muslim population grew 128.9% between 1991 and 2001. Muslims now outnumber the Jewish population in Canada.

This variety and complexity of Roman and Eastern Catholic immigrants as well as immigrants from the other great religions has posed great pastoral challenges to dioceses and parishes throughout the United States and Canada. The immigrants are often met with indifference, even hostility, based on racism and fear of newcomers. Often times clergy, religious and lay leaders do not accompany immigrants and the local church has not responded adequately with leadership to minister in ways that recognize and respect new cultures. The newcomers often lack catechetical, sacramental and devotional resources.

In March 1993, the members of the Theology Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a “Pastoral Message on the Acceptance and Integration of Immigrants to Build a Community of Togetherness.” In that letter, the bishops confronted the “ sin of xenophobia and racism” by reviewing Canada’s long history of openness to refugees and immigrants from all parts of the world. The statement drew on Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching on Migration to reaffirm that openness and solidarity in a context of growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The statement recommended the following directions for action: 1) Allow immigrants and refugees to celebrate their faith together. 2) Help people of immigrant or refugee origin to integrate into the host society. 3) Promote the emergence of a cross-cultural local church. 4) The statement concludes with proposals for the newly-arrived in Canada as well as proposals for members of cultural communities “with the goal of forming a more harmonious community of togetherness.”

The Bishops of the United Sates responded to this pastoral challenge by approving two pastoral statements prepared by the Bishops’ Committee on Migration: Welcoming the Stranger, Unity in Diversity (November 2000) and Asian and Pacific Presence Harmony in Faith. (December 2001). The outline of Welcoming the Stranger follows the outline of Ecclesia in America (the apostolic exhortation promulgated by Pope John Paul II at the end of the Synod on America) in order to show that this pastoral statement is an expression of the interconnectedness of the churches in America. The call to conversion challenges local churches to overcome apathy, prejudice and fear and to promote a spirit of welcome in all believers and to develop structures that enable a sense of belonging and facilitate integration in ways that are respectful of culture. The call to communion offers guidelines for intercultural communication, multicultural liturgies and invitation and empowerment of new leadership to diocesan and parish committees. The call to solidarity encourages church leaders to advocate for the human rights of immigrants, to provide ample social and legal services through parishes and Catholic Charities, and to cooperate with local community organizations to secure basic human needs. The call to evangelization promotes the proclamation of the Risen Christ to immigrants both in dialogue and conversion settings.

The second pastoral statement, Asian and Pacific Presence Harmony in Faith,, informed the local churches about the history, cultures, religious practices of Asian and Pacific Island rooted communities and recent immigrants, and the gifts which they bring to their new surroundings. For many US Catholics, Asians were an unknown entity, yet their increased presence and the complexity of their backgrounds (Asia comprises 53 countries) required an enlightened pastoral response. The pastoral statement is grounded in Ecclesia in Asia, the apostolic exhortation promulgated by Pope John Paul II at the end of the Synod on Asia. The bishops of the United States borrow the theme of the pastoral statement from that document: “This “Being Asian” is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition, but in the spirit of complementarity and harmony. In this framework of complementarity and harmony, the Church can communicate the Gospel in a way that is faithful both to her own tradition and to the Asian soul.” EA #6  

After this a parish kit with the pastoral statement, Welcoming the Stranger Unity in Diversity, brochures, homiletic and catechetical aids were sent to the 19,500 parishes in the US. Also, seven regional meetings were organized throughout the country for diocesan bishops and their staffs and for ethnic coordinators, refugee workers and pastors. These regional meetings reviewed the themes of the pastoral statement, offered best practices for parishes and dioceses, began a process of pastoral planning in each participating diocese. After the meetings, dioceses presented their plans to receive seed money to help carry out the plan. In the seven regional meetings, 830 people from 127 dioceses were represented including 36, bishops, 197 priests, 105 religious, 492 lay leaders. As a result of the 52 programs submitted, 11 dioceses set up new structures to welcome and integrate newcomers, 18 dioceses offered educational programs for clergy, religious and lay leaders.

Undocumented Immigrants

Besides legal immigrants, there are approximately 8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. They come from all over the world, but principally from Mexico and Central America. Most come in desperation for survival for themselves and their families. Because of increased vigilance at the U.S.-Mexico border, since 1995, over 2000 have died in transit crossing waterways and deserts. Besides these tragic deaths, families have been separated and at times destroyed and villages in Mexico have been decimated. The reality is that both the sending and receiving countries have become dependent on the undocumented in the U.S. (More than a million undocumented persons are employed in manufacturing and another million in service industries. More than 600,000 work in construction and more than 700,000 in restaurants.) But the presence of such a large number of undocumented immigrants who have no legal status is an invitation to exploitation and abuse. Their presence creates a tremendous pastoral challenge for the Church to stand by them as advocate for their rights and as provider of social, legal and religious services. Often their undocumented and migrant status makes even the reception of the sacrament of baptism, confirmation, first confession and communion and marriage problematic.

In order to facilitate legal proceedings, in 1988, the USCCB set up an office called CLINIC ( Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.) This office serves as a resource to the dioceses to help immigrants confront the complex legal issues they face.

In the year 2002, the Migration Committees of the U.S. and Mexican Bishops’ Conference prepared a pastoral statement approved by both Bishops’ Conferences to respond to this pastoral phenomenon. This document, is called in English Strangers No Longer, Together on the Journey of Hope. In Spanish it is called Ya No Somos Extranjeros Juntos En El Camino de la Esperanza. The document rooted in Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching recommends changes in immigration policy and in pastoral practice. The immigration policy recommendations address the root cause of migration and challenge present policies and practices of the Mexican and U.S. government regarding family-based immigration, legalization of the undocumented, employment-based immigration, border enforcement tactics, due process rights and the human rights of migrants, including the undocumented.

The pastoral recommendations encourage accompaniment of the migrant at point of origin with appropriate counseling, en route through migrant shelters which can respond to physical, spiritual and legal needs, and at the point of arrival with greater cooperation between bishops of sending and receiving dioceses, exchange of clergy, religious and lay leaders between the two countries, as well as joint cooperation in the development of devotional and catechetical materials. The joint committees of migration will continue to meet to discuss the designation of religious communities to respond to the immigrants’ needs, the advisability of a seminary for preparation of priests to accompany immigrants, seminary courses to prepare future priests in both countries to respond more adequately to the immigrant reality, orientation programs for immigrant priests, religious and laity.

In Canada, the issue of the undocumented is not so urgent.


In the year 2001, Canada received 27, 900 refugees. In Toronto, the Catholic Immigration Bureau has been established for settlement and adaptation counseling. The Office serves 31 different language groups. In the United States, the situation of the refugees since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 has worsened considerably. The traumatizing effect of the attacks as well as the hardening of refugee policies on the part of the U.S. government has resulted in the development of a ‘fortress mentality’ in the U.S. which changed from being a country which received 120,000 refugees in 1993 to a country which received 30,332 in 2002. Because of this drop in the number of refugees, the numbers of people serving in the refugee network continue to drop. The U.S. government continues to tighten procedures against asylum seekers and detainees. Meanwhile the numbers of those languishing in prisons and protracted refugee situations overseas increase dramatically. This fortress mentality presents a new pastoral challenge for the Church in the U.S.A. especially in its advocacy and social service response. One of the responses has been to engage a greater number of volunteers in parishes to work directly with refugee families. Since 2001, Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees (POWR) has provided assistance to 45 dioceses to strengthen parish involvement in the work of welcoming refugees.


Each year about 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States and forced into slave-like conditions as workers in the sex industry, sweatshops, and domestic work positions. As a response to this criminal behavior, the Migration and Refugee Service of the USCCB formed a Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking with more than twenty-five Catholic organizations to raise public awareness of trafficking and to meet the needs of victims. Trafficking in Canada has resulted in strong government measures resulting in changes in the citizenship act. 


An important outreach of the USCCB in relation to immigrants and refugees has been the advocacy work done through the Public Plolicy Office and Diocesan Networks. In the last five years the bishops on the Migration Committee and the Public Policy Office have lobbied State legislatures, the Congress and the State Department to have immigration laws and policies respond to the human dignity of migrants and refugees and have advocated for a more realistic approach to migrant workers in this globalized world. In the last five years, among many other initiatives, the Public Policy Office has promoted a program of legalization for the undocumented, a guest worker program with built-in securities for workers, more flexible immigration procedures for religious workers, policy changes to protect women and unaccompanied minors. In Canada the bishops on the Episcopal Commission for Social affairs of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops bring to the attention of government officials the rights of migrants in relation to immigration policy. A recent example is a letter sent on March 7, 2003 to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration protesting “the safe third country agreement” with the United States because of the negative effects on those, especially from Latin America, using the United States as a bridge to settling in Canada.


Both countries, in different ways, are trying to live out the words of Pope John Paul II in the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America: Â“With this in mind, the Synod Fathers recalled that “ the Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction of the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of immigrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”

Migrants should be met with a hospitable and welcoming attitude which can encourage them to become part of the Church’s life, always with due regard for their freedom and their specific cultural identity. Cooperation between the dioceses from which they come and those in which they settle, also through specific pastoral structures provided for in the legislation and praxis of the Church, has proved extremely beneficial to this end. In this way, the most adequate and complete pastoral care possible can be ensured.” (#65)