The Immigration Issue from a Bishop’s Perspective

Bishop Stika shares his thoughts with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) has asked Bishop Richard F. Stika to share his and the Diocese of Knoxville’s experiences when federal agents raided a Grainger County meatpacking plant and detained scores of Hispanic workers in 2018.

In seeking Bishop Stika’s input, CLINIC, an organization established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to support community-based immigration programs, said it is compiling resources on immigration detention and its impact on families, communities, and those in detention.

One of the CLINIC resources will focus on the effect immigration enforcement has on the U.S. communities left behind when their immigrant populations are detained and deported, including the diocese’s Five Rivers Deanery, where the raid and detentions occurred.

“For this piece, we wanted to do a sort of ‘case study’ over Morristown and the local immigrant community there,” said Mikhayla Stover, an advocacy intern with CLINIC who told Bishop Stika that she attended the University of Tennessee and converted to Catholicism in 2016 while attending St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center on the UT campus.

“I remember the chaos which occurred on April 5, 2018, when federal agents raided a slaughterhouse in Grainger County and arrested nearly 100 undocumented workers there, many of them parishioners at four Catholic churches in the area. As the bishop of these immigrants, I knew you would have a special perspective when it came to these events,” Ms. Stover said.

Bishop Stika responded to the following questions put forth by CLINIC.

Q. When did you first learn about what was happening in Morristown?

A. Initially, when it happened, I was in meetings and preparing for a full weekend of confirmation Masses and a special RCIA Mass at our cathedral. As soon as our pastor in Morristown was aware of what had happened, he called me.

Q. St. Patrick Catholic Church played one of the largest roles in the rapid response to the ICE raid of April 2018. How involved were you in that process? What was it like being the bishop of an area subject to the largest immigration raid in over a decade?

A. I received a phone call from Father Patrick Brownell (pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Morristown) that afternoon informing me of what was happening. I immediately told him, “Whatever you need to do, do it! Move quickly to open the parish center and provide whatever care and assistance you can provide.”

We immediately went into crisis-care mode. I was updated by Father Brownell almost hourly. I think it’s like when anyone is faced with a crisis, you jump into action almost instinctively. We are Catholics. We are Christians. We help people when they are in need. That’s what we do. There’s not much to think about. We were very, very focused in our Catholic and Christian calling to help.

Q. Did you get a chance to visit with the immigrants affected by the raid? If so, what did you see? What were your interactions like?

A. I did. I was able to visit St. Patrick Parish in the days after the raid, and it was difficult to see families (mothers and children) uncertain and worried about the whereabouts of their spouses and fathers. At the same time, Father Brownell, Father Steve Pawelk, Father Alex Waraksa, other priests, and laypeople from some of our other parishes provided care and comfort to the hundreds of family members who came to St. Patrick for food and shelter.

Families were afraid. Children and wives were emotional, and some were crying. As the first day went on, support from Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and local businesses and churches began to pour in. Many of our parishes, and some of the Protestant churches in the area, and especially the staff at St. Patrick, helped keep everyone organized and families fed.

Many of our parishes outside of Morristown contributed to the effort. It was encouraging to see how quickly it came together. The parish center at St. Patrick became home base for the affected families. I come in contact with immigrant families frequently in my visits to all of our parishes.

Shortly after my arrival at the Diocese of Knoxville 10 years ago, I had a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. At that time, the Holy Father asked me about our diocese. I said to him that I had recently met with Hispanics in our diocese who did not have the legal status to see what they were going through. Pope Benedict XVI personally asked me how these people survive facing such difficult circumstances.

I understand the fear that many of them live with. Legally or not, the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are here are just trying to feed their families and live decent lives. It’s really that simple.

Q. How was your diocese as a whole affected by the events in Morristown? What lessons did you learn?

A. The events that happened in Morristown reminded me that immigrant families are often victims even while they’re living here. The owner of the processing plant was exploiting those who were here illegally. I think that fact opened the eyes of a lot of people. We knew that some of these abuses were out there, maybe in other places, but the raid reminded us that people can be exploited anywhere.

Q. It has now been over a year since April 5, 2018. What encouraging trends in the wider community have you seen since the raid? Any concerning trends?

A. I continue to be encouraged by the overwhelming support the people of Morristown and surrounding areas give to the presence of immigrants in their communities. In the months since the raid, I have heard very little about legal versus illegal immigration in those communities.

The concern has been over the fact that these are people who really contribute to the community and deserve to be treated with dignity. Morristown, a largely traditional and conservative community, came to the defense of these families in the days and months since the raid. I think that says something.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to support their local immigrant community but don’t know how?

A. Please try to understand them. Look at them — I mean, really look at them. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Support them with respect and kindness in your encounters with them. A smile and a polite nod might be the best kind of support there is.

Q. What do you want our audience to know about the immigrant community in your diocese?

A. We have a lot of immigrant families in the Diocese of Knoxville. Some of them work in agriculture outside of our cities. Many are here legally. Some arrive seasonally with permission from the U.S. government to work in the fields. We shouldn’t assume everyone who speaks Spanish or another language is here illegally. That said, and based on Morristown, I know we have immigrant families living here without legal status. We aren’t unlike other dioceses, and, frankly, communities around the country that are dealing with this issue.

Q. Anything else you want to add?

A. I have said before, and I will say it again, Congress and all of our leaders, past and present, have failed in many respects in dealing with this issue. Everyone, voters included, is entrenched in their beliefs and feel that they’re the only enlightened ones. Our nation does great things when we come together. I really believe that both sides in this issue mean well and want the best for everyone. But our situation is unique, and it’s going to take real compromise and courage from both sides to get to a solution.

Comments 1

  1. Hey Bishop you familiar with

    Catechism of the Catholic Church
    2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
    Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

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