Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner has heard people say about people crossing the border: They should get in line. “My response to that,” Wagner says, “is always, they would love to get in line. Give them a line to get in; they’ll be happy to get in that line.”
Wagner speaks from experience. In the late 1990s she served as an intern with Immigration Legal Services of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington (CCADW). Her work with immigrants moved her to become an immigration attorney. Now she is back with CCADW as the founding director of a new program called the Newcomer Network.
In 2019 CCADW leadership conducted a study to look at unmet needs in their area of service, which includes Washington, DC, and the surrounding Maryland counties. Immigration emerged as a high-need issue that CCADW was uniquely positioned to address. The next step was a grant proposal submitted to and eventually accepted by the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, which provided a generous multiyear investment to launch the Newcomer Network. Wagner was hired in June of 2020 and started to operationalize the program.
“The model is a holistic model,” says Wagner. The Newcomer Network brings together immigration legal services, which CCADW was already offering, and holistic services provided by a team of trained case managers called “navigators.” The navigators work with clients to set goals and overcome barriers to achieving goals. The Newcomer Network also works with parishes to offer both the legal and holistic services in a setting trusted by clients.
The first set of clients were served on November 30, 2020, and the number of people seeking help continues to rise. “With Covid [still ongoing],” Wagner says, “we’re seeing many clients who are coming to us with basic survival needs: they’re dealing with food insecurity, with housing issues, with physical health crises.”
“Our faith compels us to provide a welcome to those who seek refuge.” Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, executive director, Newcomer Network, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of WashingtonClick to tweet
Another particularly challenging need right now is mental health needs. “We see many clients who have suffered trauma either in their home country or on their journey here or both, and that trauma is compounded by the insecurity they’re dealing with at this time. So we have a tremendous need for bilingual, culturally competent mental health counselors; community resources are limited in this area. Those who offer these services are operating at capacity.”
Although the work is challenging, Wagner also speaks of the bright side: “We’re privileged to be trusted by our clients and invited into their lives,…and when we are able to listen as well as to act at helping them meet their needs and provide help in a way that truly changes lives, it is tremendously rewarding and tremendously humbling at the same time.”
For Wagner, it all comes down to our Christian beliefs: “Our faith compels us to provide a welcome to those who seek refuge.”
At the same time, it’s also possible to work for new and better policies. “My hope,” Wagner says, “is that perhaps with the new administration we’ll be able to create a process and a line [immigrants] will be happy to get in.”
To hear a podcast featuring Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner talking about the Newcomer Network at CCADW, click here.