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Faith in a time of fear: Undocumented immigrants turn to church for spiritual, legal help

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Last week, Father Mauricio Pineda, parochial vicar of All Saints Church in Manassas, heard from a woman whose husband had been detained by immigration authorities. Father Pineda officiated at their marriage a few years ago. The couple just had a baby. She didn’t know what to do.

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

The 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, undocumented immigrants are turning in large numbers to their church for spiritual counsel and practical legal assistance through Catholic Charities.

“I’ve 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.

“My concern is when I visit families,” said Father Pineda. “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.”

News of raids and detentions had spread among the undocumented population 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. The 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. 

Undocumented 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 in the country no more than 14 days and arrested within 100 miles of the border. 

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

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

 “There’s a lot of confusion inside the Hispanic communities. Some are living a very tragic situation,” said Father José 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?’ ”

Catholic social teaching

When 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. 

“We 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.”

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

“The 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.”

The government also has a duty to be careful how it implements those laws, he added. Not every undocumented person 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. 

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

Fulfilling practical needs

Brooke Hammond Pérez, program director for the diocesan Hogar Immigrant Services, had prepared for a large crowd at a recent workshop for undocumented Spanish-speakers about their civil rights and how to create an emergency plan. 

But 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 expectations. A typical workshop might draw a few dozen people. That day, speakers explained to more than 150 people how to prepare for a raid: Memorize phone numbers of an attorney and family member. 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. If asked, no one is required to say anything to authorities other than their name. Carry documentation that proves you have been in the country more than two years. 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. 

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

Countless 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.

“A 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.”

The attorneys at Hogar do what they can for these clients — both of whom qualified for visas. Workshops such as the one at Holy Family help fill in the gaps. Hogar typically hosts 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. 

ICE may arrest someone outside church property, as they did Feb. 8 across the street from a hypothermia shelter at Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria.

“I 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.”

Spiritual support in a time of need

A parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, came to the U.S. 12 years ago. A farm worker, he’s tried unsuccessfully to obtain legal residency many times over the years. He hasn’t talked to his two young children, who are American citizens, about the emergency plan he and his wife had notarized last week. If he and his wife are deported, his brother, a legal resident, will become their guardian. 

“They’re still too young to understand what’s going on,” he said. But his wife “cries all the time. She doesn’t want to leave.”

The man, whose name is being withheld because of the sensitivity of his situation, is mostly worried about his lack of paperwork proving he is the father of the children. But he isn’t about to let fear keep him from being active in the church. Last week, he met up with a small group of Hispanic leaders from around the diocese for a prayer group hosted by Father Hoyos. 

Prayer, Father Hoyos said, is crucial for undocumented men and women in this time of need. 

“We are just telling them to trust, to be part of the church, to trust that Jesus suffered like you are suffering today,” Father Hoyos said. “And every time that you go out, ask for the preparation of the Holy Spirit. Pray, stay calm.”


Know your rights

Virginia law requires you to give your name to a police officer or immigration official if asked. 

The constitution guarantees everyone the right to remain silent upon further questioning.

You cannot be compelled to sign documents without the presence of an attorney. 

If the immigration officials come to your house, you are not required to open the door unless they have a signed judicial order. 

If the police or immigration come to your work, they need a court order or the employer’s authorization to enter.

Do not try to flee from police or immigration agents; they may interpret this to mean that you have something to hide. 


Find out more

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. 2241) instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome immigrants and refugees out of charity and respect for the human person. The second duty is to secure one’s borders and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. Full USCCB statement on immigration reform: bit.ly/immigreform13.

To learn more about Catholic teaching on immigration, go to justiceforimmigrants.org

To find out about services offered by Hogar Immigrant Services, go to hogarimmigrantservices.org

To obtain a free card that asserts your legal rights, go to ilrc.org/red-cards

To read FAQs about refugee resettlement from Catholic Charities, go to bit.ly/ccdarefugee

Virginia Catholic Conference: vacatholic.org

Read Bishop Burbidge's message for National Migration Week


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017