Sacramento Episcopal cathedral, area churches provide aid to migrants flown to California

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jun 21, 2023

Migrants who were flown from Texas to Sacramento share a moment of prayer in one of the local faith communities that provided housing after they arrived in early June. Photo: Sacramento ACT

[Episcopal News Service] When a chartered plane brought a total of 36 migrants to Sacramento, California, on flights June 2 and again on June 5, members of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral joined other faith communities in providing immediate food and shelter, as well as the promise of ongoing support.

The cathedral is a founding member of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, or Sacramento ACT, the agency through which aid has been provided. Trinity’s dean, the Very Rev. Mathew Woodward, is a member of the board.

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The migrants, all adults ages 20 to 40 and mostly from Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala, were approached in El Paso, Texas, where some had been working, with the promise of housing and jobs if they agreed to go to California. From there they were bused to Deming, New Mexico, and put on a plane chartered by the same Florida-based entity that flew migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September 2022, where St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, provided them with temporary housing and meals.

On June 6, an official with the Florida Division of Emergency Management admitted the agency was responsible for the two California flights. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation appropriating $12 million to fund the state’s migrant relocation program. El Paso Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz on June 14 told the Associated Press that recruiters for DeSantis had sought out asylum-seekers at the migrant center at El Paso’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church in order to fly them to California.

On June 2, 16 migrants arrived at a non-commercial airport and were bused to administrative offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, where they were left on the sidewalk. A diocesan official noticed them and called Sacramento ACT. On June 5, 20 migrants arrived at a different non-commercial airport, but Woodward told Episcopal News Service community organizers were warned of their pending arrival and met them there. Five migrants left to be with family or friends in the area, but the rest have remained together.

Shireen Miles, a member of Trinity Cathedral and a volunteer with Sacramento ACT, speaks to reporters after a June 6 press conference. Photo: Alan Rellaford

Shireen Miles, a member of Trinity Cathedral and an active Sacramento ACT volunteer,  said they all had walked thousands of miles, including passing through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap , to reach the United States, and at least most of them also are seeking asylum in the United States. Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers often are used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers. The latter are people seeking protection from persecution or violence but who haven’t yet been legally recognized as refugees.

Miles told ENS she met the first group of migrants after they had been taken to a local church, where she and other volunteers “starting to marshal all of our local resources” to help. Because numerous faith communities work with Sacramento ACT, coordinating this unexpected need was easier. “We weren’t building from scratch,” she said. In recent years the city also has helped to resettle refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Migrants who arrived from Texas on June 2 told Miles they were suspicious of the offer to help them. Because some had arrived with cell phones – even though most of their belongings had been lost during their travels – they had taken photos of the people who approached them, the vehicles in which they rode and license plates of vehicles they saw, all of which were turned over to California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “I thought, they are definitely millennials, because they pulled out their cell phones,” Miles said.

On June 16 four of the migrants spoke with the Sacramento Bee newspaper and said they either could not read the English consent forms they ultimately signed or refused to sign a bilingual form after feeling pressured to do so. One man said he had made the 62-day trek to the United States to earn more money to feed the 11 children he left behind in Venezuela. Another man said he fled Venezuela because he was wanted for what he said were “political reasons.”

Providing help, hope, information – and the need for empathy

One of the first things the migrants needed was clothes, having arrived with only what they were wearing. Miles and other volunteers took them to a nearby thrift store to pick out extra clothing, and the cathedral provided duffle bags so they could keep their belongings together. Sacramento ACT also provided cell phones to those who didn’t have one and set up a WhatsApp group so the migrants, many of whom hadn’t met before, could stay connected. Local faith communities offered their building so migrants had a place to gather and sleep. Woodward told ENS that the cathedral also quickly raised $15,000, including money provided by the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, to help with expenses.

Teams of attorneys from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation began helping those who had applied for asylum and had appointments to meet with immigration officials in locations far from California, something Miles called particularly cruel. “Imagine if you got dropped off thousands of miles away from a location with no money, when you are supposed to appear within a few days or be deported. You know, that’s just a setup,” she said.

Trinity Cathedral Dean Matthew Woodward speaks at a press conference hosted by the cathedral on June 6 to help the community learn more about the migrant’s arrival. The Rev. Julie Wakelee, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Northern California, is behind Woodward, far left. Photo: Alan Rellaford

To better help the Sacramento community understand the migrants’ arrival and efforts to meet their needs, the cathedral hosted a news conference on June 6, at which Woodward, Miles and diocesan canon to the ordinary the Rev. Julie Wakelee spoke. Wakelee, representing Bishop Megan Traquair, said those who were helping were responding to the “first and most important moral imperative” – love God and love neighbor – adding, “whoever shows up in need is our neighbor.” She noted, “There is a time in every family’s story when they were in a strange place and needed the love of a new neighbor.”

Sacramento ACT and other community volunteers continue to provide help to the migrants. Miles said many of them have been moved into hotel rooms for the time being, and faith communities are hosting them one day a week for lunch. They have provided them with passes for the city’s public transportation system, along with instructions on how to use it. They also are helping them replace important documents, like passports, that were lost during their trip. Consulates have been helpful in this, Miles said, with one major exception – Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro closed Venezuela’s embassy and consulates in the U.S. in January 2019, and the United States government doesn’t recognize him as the country’s president.

In their comments to the Sacramento newspaper, the four migrants said they wanted to remain in the city and seek work. Miles said some of them came with experience in construction, and others had worked as an upholsterer, a barber, a plumber and a cosmetologist. Wakelee told ENS that once migrants start to get established, the diocese will be there with Project (Re)Start kits it has been organizing to help people recover from natural disasters but can help provide basic necessities for kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, along with household supplies.

With immigration a hot-button political issue in the U.S., Woodward said he and others involved in helping the migrants are steering clear of any political elements in this situation, adding, “The migrants didn’t ask to be transported into the middle of an American political debate.” In her remarks during the news conference, Wakelee addressed the migrants, saying,” We know you didn’t plan to end up here, but we are honored to show up for you in your time of need.”

Miles recognizes the immigration system needs to be revamped, because it is “complicated, confusing and often very unfair.” And while the U.S. can’t take in every person who is struggling in another country, she said people need to look at those who do come here with greater empathy. “They’re just young people, who, like many of our ancestors at some point in our past, had to strike out for various reasons to a new country,” she said. “It’s very disorienting to leave everything behind. But [we need] to just understand that people don’t uproot themselves and go through what this group of individuals has gone through, unless there’s something powerful driving them to get away from where they were living.”

One of the migrants asked Miles how they could repay people for all the help they had received. “I talked about the concept of paying it forward,” she said, “telling them there would be a time in their life when they could help others.” That’s all they would ask of them, she said. When you have the chance, just help someone else.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.