Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur
February 27, 2024 // National

Social Justice Drives Advocacy for Undocumented Residents

Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur

While the latest attempt to provide driving privilege cards for undocumented residents is stuck in neutral at the Statehouse, Indiana Catholics continue to advocate on this and other issues affecting the thousands who live and work in the state but cannot prove their legal status.

For the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the Church’s longstanding commitment to social justice fuels these advocacy efforts – from supporting driving cards to opposing a bill that would crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” that offer aid to the undocumented population.

“From its earliest days, the Catholic Church has stood in solidarity with the most vulnerable in our society,” said Angela Espada, Executive Director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “These are matters of social justice and of ensuring that people are treated with dignity and are able to obtain the basic necessities of life.”

A simple trip to work or to the grocery store is often a terrifying prospect for the approximately 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Indiana who must drive but do so without a license. For nearly a decade, legislation
has been introduced in the General Assembly to provide undocumented residents with legal driving privileges – a move some lawmakers and advocates, from the ICC to law enforcement officials, believe would address basic human needs while offering larger economic and public safety benefits. 

Driving cards would allow undocumented residents to drive legally and to purchase car insurance. They could not be used for voting or for other purposes.

Last year, for the first time, driving card legislation received a hearing at the Statehouse. During this year’s short session of the General Assembly, companion bills were once again introduced in both chambers of the Legislature but did not receive a hearing.

“There are many people who feel very passionate about this issue on both sides,” Espada said. “You might hear people say that if (undocumented residents) don’t have legal status it’s because they didn’t come here the right way, so why should they receive this benefit? Well, that’s painting with a very broad brush. There are a lot of people who are in very different stages of citizenship or having their asylum status approved, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy. It’s a lengthy process.

“It’s also important to recognize that most people do not leave their home country because they want to,” she added. “They leave because they have to – because they can’t provide for their families or because they fear for their safety.”

Felix Navarrete, the new Director of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, can relate all too well. Six years ago, he and his family fled their homeland of Nicaragua because of political unrest and government persecution of the Church. As state employees as well as individuals heavily involved in church ministry, Navarrete and his wife, Paholla, knew they had no choice but to leave with their four children, eventually settling in Indianapolis.

“Everyone was in shock – dealing with a new language, a new reality, a new culture,” said Navarrete, who is now in his second year in his role with the archdiocese. “I am in touch with so many people across our archdiocese, and I can see how people are struggling with so many things – not only with the language barrier but with not being able to drive safely to many places that they need to go.”

The Navarrete family found a home at Holy Spirit Parish and, later, at Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis and became actively involved in Hispanic ministries there. Now, Navarrete works both at the parish and archdiocesan levels to advocate for immigrants who face numerous challenges, recently becoming heavily involved with the first Civic Engagement Day held at the Statehouse.

All roads led to Indianapolis on that bitterly cold January day as about 200 people representing the Hispanic community across the state converged to meet with lawmakers and make their voices heard, particularly on the issue of driving cards.   

“I could see on their faces that they were acting by faith,” Navarrete said. “People from our Hispanic background are very humble, and sometimes they are afraid to speak out. But this was an incredible opportunity to not only advocate for something that will benefit people but also to empower new leaders in our Church. It was very powerful.”

Jesusa Rivera, the primary organizer of the event, understands deeply the humility of the Hispanic community and works every day to empower people, particularly farm workers, to use their voices to effect change.

At age 8, Rivera began working in fields alongside her parents, who left Mexico and met as farm workers in Texas. She endured the taunts of classmates and heard the stinging insults leveled at her mother by her employers and vowed to make a difference one day.

“These are the individuals who are putting food on our table – the food that we eat daily, and yet they usually don’t make enough to feed their own families,” said Rivera, now a senior career coach for Proteus, which provides farm workers and their families with job training, education assistance, and emergency assistance in Indiana. “Not every American will take those jobs.”

Rivera described the fear that so often grips undocumented immigrants, many of whom she says drive hours each day to and from their work in the fields in this highly agricultural state.

“It’s not being able to drive to work safely because you’re always looking over your shoulder, and when you see a police officer, you start praying in the vehicle and wonder, ‘Is this the day? Is this my day?’

“Or it’s not being able to go to Mass on Sunday, or to drive your children to school or pick them up, or to take your child from Lake County to Indianapolis for cancer treatment,” said Rivera, a member of St. Adalbert Parish in South Bend, where she helps minister to the large Hispanic population.

Rivera credits Bishop Rhoades for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of Hispanic and other immigrants. Just this week, Bishop Rhoades issued a statement expressing “solidarity with faith-driven ministries to migrants and noted the special need to protect religious liberty.”

“As the tragic situation along our border with Mexico increasingly poses challenges for American communities and vulnerable persons alike, we just especially preserve the freedom of Catholics and other people of faith to assist their communities and meet migrants’ basic needs,” wrote Bishop Rhoades, who serves as Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty.

The bishop also called for “solidarity with those seeking simply to fulfill the fundamental biblical call: ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

For Rivera and other advocates, the drive for positive change continues.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Rivera said. “It’s one individual at a time, one parish at a time. This is a calling for me, and I’m not going to stop. I will keep going.”

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit indianacc.org. This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.

 

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