Amid fears, unauthorized immigrants ask church for spiritual, legal help

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mary Stachyra Lopez, A

By Mary Stachyra Lopez

Va. (CNS) — In late February Father Mauricio Pineda, parochial vicar of All
Saints Church in Manassas, heard from a couple he had married a few years ago.

husband had been detained by immigration authorities. They just had a baby four
months ago. They didn’t know what to do.

Pineda gave the best advice he could: Trust God. Keep praying hard. And he
promised to pray for them, too.

conversation was one of many such calls Father Pineda, and priests throughout
the Arlington Diocese, have taken during the last few weeks amid increased
enforcement of immigration laws. In a time of personal crisis, immigrants in
the country without documents are turning in large numbers to their church for
spiritual counsel and practical legal assistance through Catholic Charities.

been living in this country for 18 years now and I’ve never seen this kind of
pressure and fear,” said Father Pineda, who is originally from El Salvador.

concern is when I visit families,” Father Pineda told the Arlington Catholic
Herald, the diocesan newspaper. “I find mothers who are pregnant. They are
afraid to go to the doctor. They don’t want to send their kids to school. It’s
very heartbreaking. I suffer a lot when I see that.”

of raids and detentions had spread among immigrants well before a Feb. 21
memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security outlined a policy of
enhanced enforcement of existing immigration laws. The memo directs Immigration
and Customs Enforcement to hire 10,000 agents, and expands priorities for
deportation beyond those convicted of a violent criminal offense.

expanded priorities include: those who are charged but not convicted of a
crime; have misrepresented themselves in any official matter before a
governmental agency or engaged in fraud; abused any public benefit program; are
subject to a deportation order but have not left the country; or pose a risk to
public safety in the judgment of an immigration officer.

immigrants who have been in the U.S. less than two years, no matter where they
are captured, now also may be subject to “expedited removal,” bypassing due
protection such as court hearings. Previous policy had limited such removals to
immigrants who were in the country no more than 14 days and arrested within 100
miles of the border.

also plans to publicize crimes committed by these immigrants, rescind privacy
protections and build new detention facilities.

unauthorized immigrants, already used to staying below the radar, are now
taking extreme precautions to avoid detention.

a lot of confusion inside the Hispanic communities. Some are living a very tragic
situation,” said Father Jose E. Hoyos, director of the diocesan Spanish
Apostolate. “Some of them are too afraid to go to their work sites, to go to
the supermarket, to take the children to schools. ‘ They are coming to my
office asking for help, like ‘What about, Father, if they took my husband or my
children or my wife?'”

it comes to immigration, the church balances two values: the dignity of every individual
and the right of the state to enact just laws, said Father Thomas P. Ferguson, vicar
general and pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria.

are created in the image and likeness of God,” Father Ferguson said. “Every
person has a right to live in a place where they and their families can be safe
and secure and have those fundamental things that are necessary to live a
decent human life. First of all: personal safety, adequate food and shelter,
and a job.”

church offers spiritual and practical support to immigrants and others in light
of these teachings — with respect for the law.

church does recognize the right of the state to protect its citizens, and
protect its reasonable and legitimate boundaries, and provide for the security
of its people,” Father Ferguson said. “So immigration laws in themselves can be
good if they enable the state to really create a condition of safety and security
for the people of a country.”

government also has a duty to be careful how it implements those laws, he
added. Not every person in the U.S. without legal permission should be treated
as an equal priority for deportation. Families should not be torn apart.
“Sensitive areas” such as hospitals, schools, doctors’ offices and churches
should be respected.

looking for enforcement of just laws, but in a targeted, in a proportionate and
in a humane way,” Father Ferguson said.

Hammond Perez, program director for the diocesan Hogar Immigrant Services, had prepared
for a large crowd at a recent workshop for Spanish-speakers in the country
without legal permission about their civil rights and how to create an
emergency plan.

she wasn’t sure how many people would show up that day at Holy Family School in
Dale City. There was already a steep drop in attendance at the English classes
Hogar offers. For many people, it was simply too risky to leave their homes.

attendance surpassed all expectations. A typical workshop might draw a few
dozen people. That day, more than 150 people listened as speakers explained how
to prepare for a raid:

Memorize the phone number of an attorney, a nonprofit organization and a family

Sign a document that, upon deportation or detention, gives a loved one power of
attorney over your home, bank account and custody of your kids.

Remember that if asked, no one is required to say anything to immigration
officials or the police other than their name. Answering questions about legal
status or place of birth — even during a routine traffic stop — could lead to
deportation in light of ICE’s goal to renew partnerships with local police.

much any minor offense could expose somebody (if) they have to show up in
court,” Perez said.

people have walked through Hogar’s doors over the past few weeks hoping to remedy
their legal situation – the 33-year-old El Salvador native who came to the U.S.
two years ago and found a job at a hotel, only to be raped by her employer; the
woman fleeing forced prostitution by the gangs in Honduras.

lot of people say, ‘Why don’t they just come legally?’ Well, they don’t have a
means to come legally,” Perez said. “They’re fleeing because they have to.”

attorneys at Hogar do what they can for these clients – both of whom qualified
for visas. But workshops such as the one at Holy Family help fill in the gaps. And
Hogar will typically only host them at a church; ICE has a policy to avoid
enforcement at places of worship without prior approval from a supervisory
official or exigent circumstances demanding immediate action.

prevents ICE from arresting someone outside church property. Agents did exactly
that Feb. 8, apprehending a group of men after they left a hypothermia shelter
at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria.

think the panic people are in right now has overcome any reluctance” to attend
a workshop such as the one at Holy Family, said Father Gerry Creedon, pastor.
And despite the news, “there’s a confidence level people have with their church
that they don’t have with other institutions.”

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Lopez is social media coordinator at the Arlington Catholic Herald,
newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

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