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Helping immigrants: As Catholic as the Holy Family

An interview with the executive director of Catholic Legal Services

MIAMI | Think of yourself in court. Not as you are now, but as a 5-year-old trying to enter the U.S.

Men in suits or black robes ask why you think you need asylum.

Would you feel confused? Frightened? Probably. But not defenseless. Not as long as Catholic Legal Services is around.

Helping refugees is

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Helping refugees is "as old as Exodus," says Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, which held its 20th anniversary gala in Miami on April 27.

“We see children 5 or 6 years old sitting before a judge,” executive director Randolph McGrorty said in an interview during the 20th anniversary gala of CLS. “Those are the ones we try to prioritize.”

Originally formed to serve Haitian refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their homeland, CLS has expanded to serve people from more than 100 countries. Some are fleeing gang violence; some, religious or political persecution; some, brutal spouses.

The CLS staff has grown to accommodate the larger roles, from three to 65 staffers, including 27 lawyers.

Besides seeking asylum, the organization helps clients get employment authorization, adjust their legal status and become U.S. citizens. Its fees range from low to none.

Thus far, McGrorty estimates, CLS has represented an amazing 200,000 people — adults, children and whole families. Although its lawyers work in the legal arena, all of it falls well within Catholic values, McGrorty said.

“It's an integral part of Church history,” he said. “It's as old as Exodus, as central to our beliefs as the Holy Family's flight to Egypt. But especially, the Gospel came to us through people from other lands.”

CLS may be celebrating its 20th anniversary as an arm of the Archdiocese of Miami. But McGrorty traces its origins years earlier, when a young Father Thomas Wenski — now archbishop of Miami — invited the group to work at Notre Dame d'Haiti, where he was pastor at the time.

“He really created us,” McGrorty said gratefully.

Miami has long been a destination for Central American immigrants, from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — especially for unaccompanied children, McGrorty said.

He said that most American observers fixate on “pull” factors, like jobs and the American dream, that attract people to the U.S. There are also what he called “push” factors, like violence and persecution.

“It's more than severe poverty — they’ve always had that,” McGrorty said.

Both “push” and “pull” are fueling the newest wave of refugees from Venezuela, currently plagued by starvation, human trafficking, political persecution, even a rise in malaria cases. Requests for help to CLS, which usually run around 2,200 per month, have lately shot up to 3,000.

“People are fearful, seeking the Church and lawyers to support them,” McGrorty said. “And we [at CLS] have both.”

He said the staffers hail from a dozen nations and speak a total of seven languages: Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Portuguese and Italian along with English. Often, clients can talk with the lawyers in their own tongues.

“I'm proud that the staff reflects the demographics of Miami,” McGrorty said. 

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