Welcoming Newly Arrived Migrants with Empathy and Respect 

by Catherine Lee | February 20, 2024

When threatening phone calls started targeting his wife and daughter in September 2022, Leonardo and his family decided to leave Venezuela. Within two weeks, Leonardo, an employee of an oil company, and his wife sold all their belongings and started the treacherous journey to the United States on foot, with their 14-month-old daughter and teenage son.

In Colombia, they entered the Darién Gap, where they walked along jungle paths that quickly turned to mud on rainy days, passing dead bodies along the way. They struggled to climb steep mountains where the path was so narrow, they feared they’d fall over the edge.  

After crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, the family was bused to Washington, D.C., and referred to Catholic Charities. The agency worked with Montgomery County to move them to temporary lodging at a hotel, assisted in registering Leonardo’s son in school and the baby in an Early Head Start program, and provided first month’s rent.

By the time Leonardo and his family got to D.C., a team of Catholic Charities staffers had been working feverishly to provide services for an increasing number of migrants arriving from Texas and Arizona by creating a new Migrant Case Management Program. Catholic Charities has hired 17 new case managers, four medical assistants, five support staff, and a director and five managers for the program.

“The gospel teaches us to help those in need,” says Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, executive director of the agency’s Newcomer Network. “How could we turn our backs on people who come here seeking refuge?”

For the newly arrived who plan to stay in the D.C. area, their first stop is a respite center — either in D.C. or Montgomery County — where they arrive exhausted and traumatized, with little more than the clothes they’re wearing. At the respite centers, they take showers and receive food and clothing. They need to find jobs and enroll their children in school, but they don’t speak English and typically know nothing about the area.

The Newcomer Network’s Navigator Program case managers (known as “navigators”) provide referrals to legal, health care, housing, employment and education services for individuals living in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who have arrived in the U.S. in the past five years. The counties are home to 40 percent of the immigrants who live in the D.C. area. Two newly hired navigators are helping those who arrived on buses and are staying at the respite center or temporary lodging in Montgomery County.  

Catholic Charities case managers, who are bilingual, meet with migrants at the respite centers to do an intake and assess their needs. Treating migrants with respect and empathy, case managers “change the environment where people are living,” says Denise Capaci, executive director of Catholic Charities’ Adult and Children Clinical Services.

The case managers explain what life in the D.C. area is like, so their clients have a realistic picture of what lies ahead and can plan for the high cost of rent and child care. “Because many of our case managers were migrants themselves or the children of migrants, they’re familiar with what families are going through,” Capaci says.

From the respite center, some migrants have been moved to a hotel either in D.C. or Montgomery County that serves as a temporary shelter, where they live while looking for jobs and permanent housing. With the help of local government funding, case managers continue meeting with migrants at the hotels. 

How could we turn our backs on people who come here seeking refuge?

Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, executive director of the Newcomer Network

A navigator case manager who immigrated from Bolivia when she was about 8, describes the work as “intense but incredibly rewarding.” She recalls working with a woman last summer who had a severe panic attack. 

After meeting with the woman in her hotel room, the case manager contacted a DC Department of Behavioral Health helpline. That night, she received a text from her client who had been taken to a psychiatric facility. Within minutes, the case manager had talked to the woman as well as a nurse at the facility. With the help of medication, the woman was able to return to work the next morning.

Sister Wagner says that when interviewing prospective case managers, Catholic Charities “isn’t necessarily looking for trained case managers. We can train them. We’re looking for people who are empathetic and have a heart for the work.”