A few weeks ago, a group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers, who arrived in the Big Apple on a charter bus by way of Texas, came to the Migrant Center of New York at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, asking for a place to stay. More recently, migrants showed up at the Center with identification papers in hand. Printed under their names was the address of the West 31st Street church. Since U.S. Border Patrol agents won’t release migrants unless they show an intended destination, word has spread via the Franciscan Network on Migration in Mexico and Central America among weary travelers traversing the often-perilous and challenging road to freedom, that if their sights are set on New York City, the Migrant Center is a place of welcome.

These encounters are hardly isolated, according to Julian Jagudilla, OFM,director of the Migrant Center since 2013. In fact, with increasing numbers of migrants being bussed to New York from the southern border, it is becoming the norm – and it isn’t just migrants turning to this Franciscan ministry that has provided a humanitarian response to thousands of immigrants – individuals and families. It’s city officials as well.

Prior to the bussing crisis, Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs, had already met with Julian at the Migrant Center to discuss how the city could support its outreach work. But since that meeting, the Migrant Center has become a critical part of the city’s response – which involves non-profit, private, and religious-based organizations – to help provide for the newly-arrived migrants. Reputation, and a previous working relationship, are what drew Mr. Castro to the Migrant Center.

“I met the commissioner when he was with the New York Immigrant Coalition. He is very much aware of what we do at the Migrant Center. I was invited to join him recently at the intake center at the Port Authority to welcome immigrants as they emerged from buses after their long trip from Texas. We have to work together to make sure migrants feel welcome and are receiving the housing and social services they need,” said Julian, noting that St. Francis of Assisi Church is considering the expansion of a program to secure backpacks and school supplies to include migrant children who will be enrolled in public schools when the 2022-23 academic session starts in September.

Julian Jagudilla, OFM

“Under normal circumstances, we are inundated with requests for assistance on any number of issues that range from legal services and housing, to social services and reuniting families. Everyone knows they are welcome at the Migrant Center, and that our staff and volunteers know how to help people get what they need. All immigrants, no matter their ethnic backgrounds or religions, come to the Migrant Center because they feel safe, confident and comfortable with the Franciscans and Catholic Church,” explained Julian, who said the Migrant Center has been working with other non-profits to help the newly-arrived immigrants in New York navigate housing, food, healthcare, and other social services available through city, state and federal agencies.

Reflecting the Franciscan spirit of welcoming the stranger among us, the Migrant Center is one of the few programs in New York that provides comprehensive outreach and advocacy for undocumented immigrants. Realizing the growing need to protect the rights of non-citizens, Julian helped broaden the Migrant Center’s services to include education, advocacy and networking, as well as attorneys and other volunteers who provide legal assistance to immigrants, help them navigate social services and other relief and benefits, and connect them to non-profits and government agencies.

When the US-6 become one coast-to-coast province in October 2023, Julian is hopeful that the Migrant Center of New York could expand its outreach across the country. “Of course, this would require the support of the province and friars. Imagine the realization of a dream which envisions a national response in the Franciscan tradition of ministering to alienated and displaced immigrants, protecting the rights and welfare of migrants and refugees – especially the undocumented – and promoting education, advocacy and networking,” he said.

Julian shared a story that speaks volumes for the need of a compassionate response to all newcomers to the U.S. He said that an elementary school at a parish where HNP friars provide pastoral care enrolled an asylum-seeker who would’ve been sent back to their native country – which would have subjected the student to life-threatening dangers from which they fled.

“The back-stories on many of these migrants are heartbreaking. All they are seeking is a better life and safe place to live. We must approach this with a Franciscan heart, and that includes educating and raising consciousness of the plight of our newly-arrived sisters and brothers,” he said.