Viator House: A Center For Advocacy, Not Just Hospitality

Looking inward, Viator House is a welcoming social, legal and educational setting for immigrants, the focus of dozens of volunteers and skilled staff. Looking outward more broadly, though, it’s quite simply the necessary response to a bewildering U.S immigration system that diverts desperate seekers of asylum into detention lockups to fend for themselves.

Unless that system changes, the situation for the residents of Viator House and every other immigrant in the same situation will remain difficult. So in addition to the already multi-layered mission of ministering to two dozen young men, Viator House has become an engine of advocacy for better treatment of asylum-seekers and broader understanding of what seeking asylum is all about.

Helping the men we know and those we haven’t met yet

 “Our service to the young men in the house requires that we be advocates for structural change, because the system is so unforgiving and brutal to them,” said Fr. Corey Brost, Viator House executive director. “An important part of our service to them, and to the young men we haven’t even met yet who will be in the program, is trying to change the system in which their rights are determined.” 

Viator House advocacy initiatives include:

●     Hosting interested student and adult groups at the house.

●     Fanning out to speak at universities, professional societies, law firms and religious assemblies.

●     Sponsoring young immersion adult trips to the U.S.-Mexico border (pictured above).

●     Public sessions on immigration issues, and

●         Efforts to inspire people young and old to advocate for changes to our immigration system.

Br. Michael Gosch, director of programs and housing, hosts immersion trips to Viator House that have included students from St. Norbert’s College in Green Bay, Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and Harper College.

Fr. Corey and Br. Michael traverse the Chicago area doing presentations and often are drawn out of the area to brief a variety of audiences. Br. Michael has spoken at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, Duquesne University School of Nursing, Loyola University School of Social Work, a  Chicago law firm and the human services non-profit Heartland Alliance, among others.

Key messages

Two recurring themes underpin their presentations:

  1. The treatment of young immigrants, from procedures when they encounter U.S. officials at the border to their detention in county jails when they turn 18.
  2. An explanation of our asylum system, emphasizing that people seeking asylum are not here “illegally,” but are following U.S. laws established decades ago to protect people fleeing violence in their home countries.

Seeking asylum is a legal right for immigrants that is often misunderstood

The talks have been educational for both audience and speaker. “I’ve learned that people don’t understand our asylum process,” Fr. Corey said. “They don’t understand that everyone in the world, under U.S. law, has a right to seek asylum. So anyone going to the border and seeking asylum is following our laws.”

After a presentation to a group of women recently in south exurban Bourbonnais, Br. Gosch found the audience taken aback by his description of immigration issues. “That’s often the response of many people: ‘We had no idea.’ ” When talk turns specifically to the issues that brought about Viator House, “It’s amazing how little is known about unaccompanied immigrant youth,” he adds. “They’ve heard about children being separated from their families at the border, but many of them are completely unaware about immigrant children who come here on their own.”

Consciousness-raising takes a number of forms in addition to guest-speaker roles. An annual immigration awareness assembly — the most recent in November 2019 at St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights — attracts a crowd of hundreds that comes away with deeper understanding and maybe motivation to be more vocal in spreading the word. A young adult immigration advocacy training day mobilizes a team of educators from the Chicago area every winter to teach a group of high school and college students how to advocate for immigrant justice and change to the system.

A Viator House participant always speaks at this gathering, one of several ways the young men bring impact to advocacy by telling their personal stories. Student groups in the immersion visits learn about the immigration system, what they can do to push for change, or how to get involved in the lives of immigrants. Participants “talk about our immigration system, the anxiety and frustration it causes, talk about what they’ve been through because of our detention system,” Fr. Corey said. “They really are educating people about the need for systemic change and they don’t even realize it.”

Seeing it first-hand

Perhaps the most intense outreach episodes are visits to the U.S.-Mexico border. In early January, Fr. Corey led his eighth trip in three years to Arizona where two towns called Nogales are on each side of the border. He takes high schoolers in the summer and collegians and young adults in the winter.

“The goal is to immerse them in the issues at the border by meeting with people intimately involved: human rights activists, Christian leaders, border patrol. There is a lot of dialogue with people who are living the reality of the border crisis every day,” he explained. At one point they cross into Mexico to visit a soup kitchen that serves immigrants at the border, to converse with people waiting to be called to seek asylum or who have been deported.

The experience gives current Viator House volunteers a way to even better understand immigration issues as well as feeds new young volunteers back into Viator House once they return, he said. The combined events help them to “see what we can learn, what questions are raised, what each of our roles is as people of faith, as Christian, when we go back.”

For Jason Wilhite, a St. Viator High School graduate and a recent graduate of Saint Louis University who is now campus minister at the high school, several years of deepening involvement in high school and college, from border activities with Fr. Corey to organized lobbying trips to Washington, have made him a committed advocate and example for other young adults.

Wilhite, also a member of the young-adult advocacy training team and an overnight-shift volunteer at Viator House, observed that “opportunities for direct relationships are the most important things in terms of speaking about these policy issues, these justice issues. And to have a relationship with two dozen guys and more, who interact with the immigration system, those relationships are with me every time I see the news or hear about a policy that is being considered or implemented.”

Synchronizing efforts

Viator House not only initiates but also coordinates and benefits from advocacy efforts in the community. At St. James, a peace and justice group co-chaired by Sarah Tipperreiter has been passionate for several years about immigration issues, including spreading information to parishioners, petitioning legislators and hosting large-group sessions such as the Viator House immigration awareness assembly.

The immigration awareness assembly made postcards available with messages that could be addressed and sent to specific legislators representing people who attended, Tipperreiter said. All 200 handwritten and pre-stamped cards were filled out and put in baskets sorted by legislator. That’s one small act that can be followed up by writing letters on the same issues “and magnify that even further,” she said.

Wilhite gets high school students involved with advocacy through projects such as an immigration call-in and letter-writing workshop at St. Viator, which covers how to call elected officials, how to write them and what to write about.

He also will go to the border this summer with Fr. Corey’s contingent of high school students, with the aim of giving them answers to difficult questions that have informed his own sense of direction over the past several years, and to “try to give students an experience like the one I had so they are then the story-tellers, not just the story-sharers.”

At this time in our nation, when asylum-seekers and the asylum system are so often miusunderstood, we ask you to learn more here and pass this on to friends and family. Education is the first step toward protecting the rights of people coming to our nation who have already suffered so much.