Bishop Cunningham: Diocese ‘stands at the ready’ to welcome, support migrant children

In an open letter released July 17, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham said it is his “fervent hope that the City of Syracuse and other cities within the Diocese of Syracuse will be among the welcoming communities” to partner with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help care for unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the country, adding that the Diocese of Syracuse “stands at the ready to be one of the supporting partners in this endeavor.”

   More than 52,000 unaccompanied migrant children have been apprehended at the Southwest U.S. border as of mid-June this fiscal year, with approximately three-quarters of them coming from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. The departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services are coordinating with the Department of Defense to house and process the children and to find additional facilities, according to the site.

   Earlier this month, federal officials evaluated for this purpose property in Syracuse owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, Rochelle Cassella, congregational director of communications for the sisters, confirmed. Officials looked at the St. Anthony and Jolenta Convents and the former Maria Regina College, all located on the sisters’ campus at Grant Boulevard and Court Street, Cassella said. The buildings are for sale, as the sisters recently relocated to the newly constructed Franciscan Villa on Buckley Road in Salina.

   In a statement also released July 17, the sisters said they “are in complete support of humanitarian efforts to assist children entering the United States from Central America,” also noting that “Syracuse, the neighborhood in which the property is located and the Sisters have a long history of serving immigrants.” Both Cassella and the sisters’ statement said that no specific proposal for the use of the buildings had yet been received and that any such proposal would be carefully considered against a number of factors, “including, but not limited to: how the facility will be operated, whether the Sisters and other community members who are volunteering their assistance will have the opportunity to engage with the children, the impact it will have on the surrounding neighborhood, and the length and term of a lease or contract.” (See the sisters’ full statement at
www.sosf.org.)

   Bishop Cunningham told the Sun his letter (in full below) was written after being “concerned and disturbed for the past several weeks each time I picked up the paper and read about these young children — unaccompanied, alone, sent off to a foreign country. I thought, ‘What prompted the parents to make this very difficult decision to let their children go?’ I thought, ‘I want those children to be welcomed into our own country warmly.’ I think the children need some tenderness and compassion, hospitality, gentleness. And I wondered often what we could do about it.”

   Bishop Cunningham said that in speaking to Mayor of Syracuse Stephanie Miner — who wrote to President Barack Obama July 17 asking for his help in creating “a partnership between Syracuse and the federal government to help mitigate the humanitarian crisis of the unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border” — he learned of “the interest on the part of the city to welcome these young people, and I thought it would be good to let the people of the city and the diocese know that the Church was willing to work in partnership with government in assisting and meeting their [the children’s] needs.”

   How exactly the local Church will assist the children remains a question, one that can’t be answered until it is determined whether the children are coming to Syracuse, Bishop Cunningham explained. “If they do come, we will ask Catholic Charities and the people in our parishes to see if there’s some sort of assistance — perhaps through volunteer work” that can be offered, he said.

   Bishop Cunningham’s letter acknowledged the complexity of the child migrant crisis and the many viewpoints and emotions connected to addressing it. Such varying views were on display at a demonstration that drew more than 100 people to the edge of the sisters’ property at the intersection of Grant Blvd. and Court St. July 18. Individuals on both sides of the issue shouted chants and encouraged passing motorists to honk to show their support. Some of the opponents of housing the children in Syracuse held signs with slogans such as “No amnesty” and “Honk if you want secure borders.” Across the street, others in support of the possible housing plan held a banner reading “All are welcome” and signs like “All kids R our kids.”

   Bishop Cunningham’s letter, however, also underlined the need for compassion. “In the midst of this debate that will undoubtedly continue over the course of months, one fact remains. We must care for the children,” he wrote. “Whether we agree with the method or the circumstance, the fact is that there are 52,000-plus children in our country who are in need right now.”

   “I understand that some people do not agree with this, but that doesn’t lessen our obligation to see Christ in each member of the human race,” Bishop Cunningham told the Sun. “It’s also a part, certainly, of our desire to respect life, to treasure life, and to know that each life is precious in God’s sight. I would hope that people will eventually have the ability to open their hearts and their minds to the stranger in their midst. St. Benedict teaches that all guests should be received as Christ. I’ve found the people of Syracuse to be welcoming people and we certainly would want that beautiful quality to continue.”

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