Becoming an American
In 2009, Marina Aguilar, a native of Colombia, arrived in the United States as a legal permanent resident. Her grandmother sponsored her green card, and Marina graduated high school and attended technical school, which helped her secure her current job as a phlebotomist.
Marina was 19 and José was 20 when they welcomed their daughter, Helen. Her arrival convinced them to secure a future in the United States.
“Once she was born, we were like ‘we have to do something about changing her life,’ because it’s not just about our life anymore, everything is about her now,” Marina said. “We want her to have both of her parents, always, and that’s it. It’s just the best thing that happened to us. She’s our sunshine.”
José and Marina, who belong to St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood, began to look into programs which would help Marina become a permanent U.S. citizen. A friend of a friend encouraged them to attend an outreach presentation organized by Catholic Charities Community Services in Ocean County.
Lisha Loo-Morgan, a program coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, met with the Aguilars and began to help them chart a path towards creating a stable home in the United States.
“We want her to have both of her parents, always, and that’s it.”
Marina’s green card meant she could apply for lawful citizenship. For over two months, she stressed over studying for the citizenship exam, finding time during breaks at work or before going to sleep.
As the date of her test approached, her car was stolen. Inside was the green card proving her legal residence.
Devastated, the Aguilars went to another lawyer, thinking “I don’t think Lisha is going to help us, we call her all the time,” José recalls. The lawyer gave them a quote of $10,000-$15,000 to overcome the loss of the green card and successfully attain permanent citizenship.
“Hell, no,” José remembers thinking to himself. “I’m going back to Lisha.”
Loo-Morgan helped Marina navigate the bureaucracy and continuing her journey towards becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Even after Aguilar passed the citizenship test, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still made her wait two months before the naturalization ceremony to investigate the lost green card.
When the day finally came for Marina to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States, she said, “I just couldn’t stop crying.
“It really means a lot to me – I met José here, my daughter was born here, this is now my country. I really worked hard for it, and it’s my country now…
“We never could have afforded it [without Lisha]. So I became a citizen and now I just want to help him so we can have a better future.”
Lisha Loo-Morgan, a program coordinator with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton
Place of Refuge, Journey of Hope
These types of success stories are why Loo-Morgan has dedicated her career to working with immigrant families as an accredited immigration services representative for Catholic Charities.
Born in New York, she spent nearly a decade doing missionary work in Uganda, Jamaica and Panama before returning to New Jersey. She spends her time traveling to parishes in the Diocese of Trenton, doing outreach to the Hispanic community and practicing immigration law under the umbrella of Catholic Charities in front of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
Catholic Charities’ mission, she said, is to help “keeping the family united” in the face of economic and legal challenges. Many of the individuals she meets with are working low-paying jobs, often under the table, with little legal protection, such as landscaping, working in kitchens or cleaning houses.
“People say that [immigrants] ‘come and take our jobs’ and that’s not so,” Loo-Morgan said. “The jobs that they’re working are menial jobs that no one wants. So everything is for economic reasons – they can’t receive their driver’s license, they can’t receive any kind of state benefits, so they come to Catholic Charities.
“We help with food, we help with clothing, we give them any kind of household needs they might need. And if we have the funds we might also help them financially too,” said Loo-Morgan.
“Lisha…was there to help us,” Marina said. “Every single thing we needed, she knew the answer. She really played in an important part of all these processes – if it wasn’t for her, we never could have done it. It was so expensive, it was so stressful, but she helped us through it.”
According to statistics released by Catholic Charities USA, over 40,000 immigrants received help with family visa, citizenship and DACA applications from a Catholic Charities agency last year, with nearly 7,000 individuals like Marina becoming citizens. Whatever their immigration status, Loo-Morgan said, people come to Catholic Charities for a “sense of refuge.”
“These migrants come here and are looking for a place to be accepted…the Church has always been a refuge,” she said. “Our work is based on the Gospel, on helping one another, on helping those who are the least of our brothers, that’s the Gospel. That’s what makes it Catholic Charities.”
“Faith is what kept us up. It’s what kept us hopeful.”
“The Church has always supported the right of people to migrate,” said Pat Zapor, director of communications for CLINIC, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. “People of faith have an obligation to take care of ‘the stranger,’ which in today’s society is very often the migrant, the refugee, the young person who needs protection from the fear of deportation to a place he or she doesn't know.”
Working with individuals eligible for the DACA program has been inspiration in many ways, Loo-Morgan said. She knows immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children are graduating from high school and have gone onto succeed at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and other colleges. These “kids…are smart, intelligent individuals who want to get ahead,” she said. Despite that, there is still “a lot of stigma out there” about Catholic Charities’ work with undocumented immigrants.
“The Pope, the Catholic Church, especially in this Year of Mercy, [have] talked about love for your brother and your sister – even the ones that are undocumented, they’re still our brother and sister. But there’s still that old stigma,” Loo-Morgan said.
But in the Latino community, programs like DACA are helping families envision a future in which they might be fully welcomed into society. “These days, I’m seeing a lot more hope,” she said. But an impending decision by the Supreme Court could throw a wrench into the Obama administration’s plans to use the existing DACA program as a baseline to provide stability for undocumented immigrants.
SUVs drive past the U.S.-Mexico border. CNS photo
Concerns Raised by 26 States
DACA was introduced by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012 as a way to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” regarding those who had entered the U.S. without authorization as young children. In February 2015, a planned expansion of the program was put on hold by a federal district court judge’s injunction.
Texas, joined by twenty-five other states and the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed the program’s rollout created new immigration law by executive fiat and that the White House did not follow proper procedure in announcing the new regulations. As the lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, broader questions about the states’ legal standing to sue the federal government, and questions over the Constitution’s command to “faithfully execute” the laws of the United States, also became topics at issue in the case.
Oral arguments were heard April 18. The Court’s current vacant seat, left open after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, complicates the calculus.
Five justices could join in a ruling to allow the planned expansion to go forward – or one finding the planned expansion unlawful or unconstitutional. A split four-four court would keep the current injunction against the plan in place while sending the case back to lower courts for final rulings.
While a decision against the new programs wouldn’t impact current DACA enrollees like José, it could lay the groundwork for further legal action to dismantle that program. Zapor said that until the outcome of the Court’s ruling is known, “we’re continuing to advise our affiliates to encourage people to get their materials together in case there is some kind of relief they can apply for.”
The Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project estimates five million individuals would be eligible for legal status under DACA and DAPA if the Court rules the new program rules can go into effect. A ruling will be handed down by the end of the Court’s term, expected to be June 30.