Who has the power to help immigrants?

By OSV Newsweekly

“What if every cardinal accompanied an undocumented person who crossed our paths to the deportation hearing? What if every bishop did? Every pastor? Every mayor?”

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, offered that challenge in his May 17 address to the annual World Communications Day gathering sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. His remarks were in reference to the experience he had March 10, when he accompanied Catalino Guerrero, 59, an undocumented grandfather who had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, to his deportation hearing. Guerrero would go on to receive a one-year stay.

The day Cardinal Tobin spoke, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released data indicating that, during President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, the agency had arrested more than 41,000 people, a spike of more than 37 percent from the same period in 2016. The largest spike — an increase of 150 percent — was of immigrants with no criminal records.

This is largely the result of two late-January executive orders on border security and interior enforcement implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. Among the changes introduced was the elimination of the prior administration’s priority enforcement program and prosecutorial discretion — that is, practices of focusing on certain undocumented immigrants, such as those with records of violent crime, for deportation, while offering stipulations to others, such as having them check in with their local ICE field office regularly.

“Anybody and everybody is a priority — those who are undocumented. Now we’ve seen that play out already,” Michelle Mendez, training and legal support senior attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), told Our Sunday Visitor.

“The statistic that’s really concerning is we’re seeing an increase of removals or deportations of individuals who have what’s known as long-term equities here in the United States,” Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services told OSV. “We’re talking about parents of U.S. citizen children who have lived here for many years, who are integrated into their communities.” Feasley said such practices are driving increased fear in immigrant communities.

‘Those people disappear’

Mendez cites the story of Maribel Trujillo Diaz, 42, a Cincinnati woman who entered the United States from Mexico without documentation in 2002 and who first became known to ICE when her employer was raided in 2007. Her four children are U.S. citizens, and she was an active member of St. Julie Billiart Parish in Hamilton, Ohio. Under the Obama administration, she received a work permit and checked in regularly with ICE.

In March, ICE told her to return in April with a plane ticket to Mexico. She returned the following month with her plane tickets and her pastor, only to be told that, since she had a pending asylum case, she could report back a month later. Two days later, the Wednesday before Holy Week, ICE showed up at her home and took her into custody.

“She wasn’t even able to say goodbye to all of her children at that point,” Tony Stieritz, director of Catholic social action for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told OSV. “We felt that was very cruel and unacceptable.”

Parishioners, the archdiocese and other faith communities rallied around Trujillo, appealing for mercy because of her lack of criminal background and her contributing role in the community.

“The community itself wants her there, and she has a family that depends upon her being there,” said Stieritz. Trujillo’s youngest daughter, age 3, suffers from seizures, to which Trujillo is trained to respond.

As Trujillo was moved from detention center to detention center, the Church led rallies in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and, finally, New Orleans, before she was deported to Mexico City the Wednesday after Easter, April 19.

“We as a community do not benefit from that destabilization,” Feasley said of such cases, “and certainly that family unit is torn apart.”

“She had no criminal record,” said Mendez. “She was dutifully reporting” and, with U.S. citizen family members, should not have been a priority for deportation. Like Guerrero in New Jersey, Trujillo had a prior order of deportation, stemming from the 2007 raid. It’s these cases, Mendez said, that are the easiest for the government to process into speedy deportations.

“They’re going to rely on that prior order to ship you out,” said Mendez. “It’s easy to make those people disappear.”

Scaling up services

In the face of a new reality, CLINIC is “gearing for the worst” by scaling up legal resources.

“We’re very much focused on improving the representation in immigration court. At the same time we’re also committed to expanding representation for immigrants who are going to be in removal proceedings,” Mendez said. This, she added, means training a lot of immigration advocates to become better litigators. “We have court-skills trainings planned for this year. We have a removal defense webinar series.”

Connecting immigrants with counsel is another challenge, she said. “A lot of it is usually not knowing where to go, going to the wrong help, or just having no money to get a consultation with a competent attorney.”

But if there’s a silver lining, Mendez said, it’s that many undocumented people are eligible for relief under the law that they don’t even know about. “We did a screening clinic here in Baltimore after the election and before the inauguration,” she said. “And a lot of those people were eligible for a few things in immigration court.” But even then the catch is that people are only eligible for these forms of legal status if they’ve already been placed in a deportation proceeding and if they meet other conditions such as having been in the country for more than 10 years or having a parent, spouse or child who is a legal resident.

Mendez said most Americans have no idea of the hurdles to legal residency, from the costs associated with visas to the lack of a path to citizenship.

The power to help

But knowing their rights gives immigrants at least a small measure of power. Francia Elena Benitez-Castaño and her 23-year-old son, Jefferson Taborda, were arrested by ICE in Las Cruces, New Mexico, May 11. Taborda, who came to the United States as a child and now has a degree in criminal justice, was subsequently released. Thanks to a “know your rights” campaign sponsored by the local diocese and Catholic Charities, the family had a plan in place should any of them ever be arrested.

“The local Church and community are rallying for a stay of deportation for Francia, for the sake of her family. They are model members of our community, and it would be a tragedy to break up their family,” Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told OSV.

In his Brooklyn address, Cardinal Tobin noted: “Let’s be serious. This isn’t about border security. This is about being attentive to the reality of people who are already in our communities, most of whom are functioning, even in a marginal shadow existence, and making contributions to communities.”

Church leaders agree that those who hold the power of elected office should do more than, as Stieritz put it, “enforce a broken system in broken ways.”

More information on the U.S. bishops’ position on comprehensive immigration reform and resources for helping immigrant are available at www.justiceforimmigrants.org.



This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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