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Charleston immigrant family gets early Christmas gift

Wheels of justice grind slowly, but get a push from parish support

Published: December 22, 2012   
The Arroyo family includes mother Delia (left), father Ronald (center) and children, 8-year-old Julianna and 16-year-old Guido. They recently earned permanent residency.

In his first pastoral letter, "I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me," Bishop Anthony B. Taylor wrote, "Mary and Joseph found no warm welcome in Bethlehem, no room at the inn ... What changes do we need to make here in Arkansas in order to ensure that today's Marys and Josephs -- today's Marias and Josés -- receive a warm welcome truly worthy of the Savior ...?"

In the case of Delia and Ronald Arroyo, immigrants from Costa Rica, one Arkansas parish has responded in a manner that lives up to the bishop's challenge. Sacred Heart Church's example of welcome and acceptance has spilled over the pews into the rest of tiny Charleston, which the family has called home for the past 12 years.

Located about a half hour's drive from Fort Smith, the town has provided employment, education and opportunity to the Arroyos and their two children.

After two years of waiting, on Nov. 28, a letter arrived at the Arroyo household after several legal maneuvers and activism sparked by parishioners and spread throughout the 2,500-person community. It was the letter containing the couple's green card and documents certifying their permanent legal residency.

Weeks later, in an interview with Arkansas Catholic, Delia cannot recall the event without happy tears welling up in her eyes.

"We were amazed at the people who gave of themselves without getting anything in return. It showed us how we were not alone in our situation," she said. "It was overwhelming, satisfying and (made us) thankful to know we had so many friends."

Church secretary Brandy Verkamp has been friends with the Arroyos since they arrived in Charleston.

"We want families like this in our small community," she said. "They are friends in the truest sense of the word."

Verkamp, like the rest of the parish, watched as the newcomers participated in the church, school and community, despite limited means and limited English skills. The Arroyos were devoted to their son Guido, now 16, and daughter Julianna, 8.

"We wanted to come to experience the United States' opportunities for a couple of years, then we liked it and were needed for work here, so we wanted to stay," Delia said.

In return, the Arroyos gave their American friends glimpses of the complex, sometimes convoluted path to citizenship. Few in Charleston had regular contact with immigrants, much less the legal channels with which they contended.

Hardship hit home in October 2008 with an order from Memphis Immigration Court for the Arroyos to appear at a preliminary hearing. The reason why was even more devastating: Ronald's then-employer had agreed to sponsor him for citizenship but failed to meet a filing deadline.

"Everyone was pretty upset," Verkamp recalls. "Well, no, I was mad. Ronald and Delia shouldn't be punished over a lack of paperwork."

Verkamp and Veronica Frederick, parish youth ministry director, helped mobilize parishioners and those in the community who wanted to help. As the wheels of justice slowly ground on, the people of Charleston wrote hundreds of letters on the family's behalf (as did Bishop Taylor whose schedule did not permit attending the hearings) and hosted a barbecue dinner that raised $7,000 for legal bills.

The Arroyos arrived in Memphis for the March 2011 deportation hearing with 30 character witnesses, including Father Lourduswamy Dhanraj Narla, now pastor of St. Mary Church in Batesville, several parishioners, the Charleston mayor, superintendent of schools and other prominent citizens.

A fire drill forced Judge Charles Pazar to postpone the hearing to allow enough time for the supporters to speak. By the time the family's case was heard in April 2012, momentum was in the family's favor. The government didn't even voice a dissenting appeal.

"I really felt that God would allow them to stay," Verkamp said. "I don't know why. I just really felt it was in his hands."

Today, as with all Catholic homes, the Arroyos enjoy the hope and promise of the unfolding Advent season. However, Christmas has come early in the form of a pocket-size card and the many loving people around them.

"We were worried that people couldn't come (to the hearing) because of their own life responsibilities. So when so many showed up with no benefit to themselves, it was wonderfully shocking. We are fortunate that we belong. They will not only help us, but they would be there for anyone in need."


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