Tuesday, November 14, 2023
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
Photography: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC
MIAMI | They started with three people, two desks, one phone, and one clunky desktop computer in a tiny office on the grounds of Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission in Miami.
That was back in 1994, when 60,000 Haitians joined an exodus at sea, and 12,000 of them were allowed to come to Miami and apply for asylum. With funding cobbled together from Jesuit Refugee Services and CLINIC (the Catholic Legal Immigration Network), Randy McGrorty, Myriam Mezadieu and Marie Claire Moise helped the Haitians with the application process, “at no cost to the government,” McGrorty noted.
The three were armed only with fierce dedication to the belief that “every single person deserves adequate legal representation, no matter what country they come from,” in the words of immigration attorney Vanessa Joseph.
Today, that tiny office bears a different name: Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami, and McGrorty and Mezadieu still lead it. But it has grown to two offices — one near the courthouse on Flagler Street in downtown Miami, the other on Taft Street in Hollywood — with a staff that now numbers more than 78, including attorneys, paralegals, accredited immigration representatives and even an IT department. They serve around 3,000 people every month — “from babies to grandmothers” — and not just Haitians, but Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, even, in the past year, Ukrainians and Bangladeshis.
“It was a very small project, but look how it’s bloomed,” said Dominican Brother Edward van Merrienboer, inadvertently adding an understatement: “It’s a growth industry.”
Brother Ed helped launch Catholic Legal Services when he organized the fledgling agency’s board of directors in 1998. He lived in Miami at the time, teaching atSt. John Vianney College Seminary, and served as the board’s founding president until 2004.
Now 80 but still serving at a parish in Madison, Wisconsin, Brother Ed was one of two honorees at Catholic Legal Services’ 25th anniversary gala, held Oct. 27, 2023, at the Doubletree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay. The other honoree was immigration attorney and Annunciation Church parishioner Mary Kramer, who has served on the board since its inception, and as president from 2012-2016.
“I’ve simply been along for the ride,” she said, taking no credit for the success of an agency that has “ridden waves of immigration” to South Florida.
At first, the focus was the Haitian community, then the Cubans, followed by Colombians and Central Americans and other South Americans, Kramer said. “The organization has grown and changed and met the needs of the people, and it is a wonderful, wonderful organization.”
Similar tributes piled up throughout the evening, as everyone from Doral council members to a Miami Marlins representative to current and former staff extoled the agency’s work. The Marlins, in fact, donated $12,120, the proceeds from a Nicaraguan Heritage Celebration held at the ballpark in July.
“CLS steps in where others won’t tread,” said Julie Grimes, whose Hilton Doubletree was a “presenting sponsor” at the gala, along with entrepreneur Mike Fernandez’s MBF Healthcare Partners.
“Still the best job I’ve ever had,” said current board president Jordan E. Dollar, now an attorney in private practice.
McGrorty noted that in 25 years, Catholic Legal Services has educated and trained “tremendous, tremendous lawyers” and paralegals, many of whom have gone on to do “great things,” including occupying top positions with the Florida district of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Many of you learned your trade with us and I’m so proud,” McGrorty said.
Others went from clients to colleagues. One of them is Emilio Garcia, who has worked at Catholic Legal Services for 22 years. He came to the U.S. from Cuba at 23 and spent a year in Guantanamo. He began working for CLS as a volunteer in 2001 and “started loving it.” He eventually got his degree as a paralegal and became an accredited representative in immigration courts.
“We have a great crew and great bosses. We have great leadership,” Garcia said. “What they teach us is that people need help, and that’s the first thing we need to focus on.”
“This is what America is all about. This is what South Florida in particular is all about,” said McGrorty in a pre-recorded video, as a message on the screen referred to the agency’s work as “a legacy of welcome.”
At the gala, McGrorty especially thanked one of the agency’s biggest supporters, Archbishop Thomas Wenski — Father Wenski back in 1994, Notre Dame’s pastor, “who allowed us into the Notre Dame d’Haiti community, introduced us, gave us legitimacy. You saw the need and we were, I hope, able to fill some of that need.”
The archbishop concurred, stating his oft-repeated phrase that “no immigrant is a problem” because “when we think of people as problems, then we look for solutions, and the sad history of the 20th century shows us what happens when people look for the final solutions.”
“Immigration laws are problematic. They're difficult, they're broken. But the people are not problems,” the archbishop said, because they are “made in the image and likeness of God. They may be strangers, but they should be embraced as brothers and sisters. And that's what Catholic Legal Services does for us and for our community, and for the future members of our community.”
After thanking current and former colleagues, board members, community leaders and South Florida organizations who have partnered with CLS throughout the years, McGrorty concluded by thanking one last group of people.
“I want to thank our clients,” he said, “because they are the reason for what we do. And as the archbishop said earlier, immigrants are not a problem to be solved. They’re people to be helped. But we take that a little bit further. More than that, they are an opportunity for our community and our country to grow. And what they give to us, day in and day out, is so vital to our life as a country and to our greatness. If you believe in American exceptionalism, it's because we are a country of immigrants.”