Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet lead an immigrant rights interfaith prayer walk and rally down Central Avenue in Albany in May.
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet lead an immigrant rights interfaith prayer walk and rally down Central Avenue in Albany in May.
"Carolina" (a pseudonym) is a 21-year-old parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Albany who immigrated to America from Burkina Faso 10 years ago, along with her sister. They joined their mother in New York City before coming to the Albany Diocese.

Carolina has deferred action status, meaning she could apply for work authorization because she came to the U.S. as a child for education, but this does not guarantee her citizenship.

New Sanctuary for Immigrants (NSI), a faith-based program at Our Lady of the Americas Shrine Church in Albany (a mission of Blessed Sacrament), has helped Carolina and about 200 other families navigate the nuances of immigration laws and the challenges of living in a new country.

NSI assists immigrants with food, clothing, school registration, translation services, health care and understanding their rights as employees. Volunteers visit immigrants being held in jails, refer them to free legal counsel and host workshops, interfaith prayer vigils and demonstrations to raise awareness of their struggles.

Funding for NSI comes from donations; the group also recently won a monthly grant of $500 for one year from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

Help on the way
NSI helped Carolina, who is blind, apply for deferred action status. The group also helps her with food and phone bills so she can call transportation. Carolina came to America because of its educational opportunities for blind people; she graduated from a U.S. high school in 2011 and hopes to work in an office.

There were no programs in New York City that helped Carolina's family the way NSI has.

Other organizations "said we didn't have problems," she recalled. "It was very tough. We used to get kicked out of our apartments [often]."

NSI "did the best and they're still doing more," she continued. "We didn't know anything about this until one day at school. My mom was afraid at first. It does mean a lot" to receive aid.

NSI prides itself on supporting immigrants regardless of their status. It is supported by Our Lady of the Americas, St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady and the Albany Friends Meeting, a Quaker group.

"We feel that all immigrants have human dignity and should be treated fairly and welcomed into our community," said Fred Boehrer, director of NSI and co-founder of the Albany Catholic Worker Community, which began providing shelter and other services to immigrants in the late 1990s as part of its wider social justice ministries. As needs grew, he decided to start something specifically for vulnerable immigrants.

Growing problem
"There are more and more immigrants in more and more desperate situations," Mr. Boehrer said, pointing to deportation proceedings, unfair treatment at work or by landlords and the challenges of getting health insurance or registering children for school. "Each person or each family's story is unique. Many of us are called to be in solidarity with them."

Paul Besong, a native of the Republic of Cameroon, came to America almost four years ago; his wife and children eventually followed. They have lawful permanent residence and are awaiting citizenship. NSI volunteers have helped his family pay for necessary paperwork, get to doctors' appointments, apply for food assistance and Medicaid and register for school. Volunteers brought winter clothes, shoes, food, Christmas gifts and baby supplies and watched Mr. Besong's other children when his wife gave birth to their youngest.

"They are part and parcel of my family," Mr. Besong said of NSI. "They keep coming and checking on us to see that we are fine. They are showing us genuine love.

"We are happy today because of them," he continued. "We have a family because of them. They are really understanding. They are God-sent to us."

Foundation and faith
Mr. Besong works full time as a certified nurse assistant and goes to school full time, working toward a pharmacy technician degree. He said NSI changes lives: "They are like the foundation of every new immigrant. They kind of guide and set you up. You need people around you; you need somebody to talk to, someone to share ideas. It's an embodiment of the Church."

Joaquin Bermudez is an NSI volunteer. A retired outreach worker and attorney, he translates Spanish for NSI clients, often helping out at know-your-rights workshops that educate immigrants about issues like dual citizenship or how to behave if stopped by police.

Mr. Bermudez said NSI treats immigrants as equals: "They feel that we are treating them like human beings."

A native of Nicaragua, he said his Catholic faith informs his involvement.

"We are all sons of God. If we are made by God in His image and likeness, we have to see where God is in these people. You can see how nice they are, how loving, how strong in their faith."