When Guadalupe, a wife, mother of five and parishioner at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock, goes to work in the morning, there is a fear she will not return to her family. There’s a fear that her husband will not return home. There are “ugly stares” in the grocery stores, being followed by employees to make sure they “don’t do anything suspicious,” she said. Her children have been ridiculed for their nationality.
“We have days where we have fear; we start to think what we’re going to do if we do have to go,” said Guadalupe, who preferred her last name not be shared. “Being separated as a family would be very hard for us to deal with.”
This is the reality of being an undocumented immigrant. One of President Donald Trump’s main platforms on the campaign trail was a tougher approach to immigration. On Jan. 25, Trump signed the “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” executive order which called for expanding the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, hiring thousands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the border and quicker deportations of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
According to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center, there were an estimated 60,000 undocumented immigrants in Arkansas, making up 2.1 percent of the population. Sister Norma Muñoz, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Little Rock, said undocumented Catholics throughout the state have a heightened fear since the presidential election.
“In the United States we were slowly building bridges but right now a wall has been built. The bridge was destroyed by everything that’s going on,” Sister Norma said, adding that all over the state, “… there’s a fear of being deported, being taken back to Mexico. They have not lived in Mexico for 20, 25 years. All their kids were born here, they grew up here or some of them brought their children when they were little. They say, ‘Sister, what are we going to do? We don’t have a home to go back to. We have family, but what are we going to do if we are deported?’”
Under President Barack Obama, an undocumented immigrant who was convicted of a serious crime was considered a priority for deportation and “expedited removal” was reserved only for those arrested within 100 miles of the border and who were not in the U.S. more than 14 days, according to the New York Times. With President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security factsheet explains that the department “will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement,” meaning that anyone in the country that is undocumented would be a priority to deport. The DHS guidelines go on to state “however, that ICE should prioritize several categories of removable aliens who have committed crimes, beginning with those convicted of a criminal offense.”
Maricella Garcia, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock, said the Trump administration is allowing for expedited removal for anyone who has been in the U.S. undocumented for two years no matter the distance from the border.
“The administration said they were going to focus on criminals with dangerous records and that’s not what’s happening,” Garcia said. “… So that’s a struggle because are you supposed to carry two years’ worth of important documents with you that might get stolen or lost or are you going to risk that at the moment they take you, you’re going to be gone, you’re not going to have access to anybody.”
Garcia said Arkansas has lots of “mixed families,” which include members of different immigration status or no status, who are worried about what Trump’s comments mean. They hope that anti-immigrant rhetoric does not translate into policy.
Maria, 24, a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Glenwood who asked that her real name not be used, is engaged to a U.S. citizen. She celebrated her third birthday in the United States after leaving Mexico with her family — it’s the only home she’s ever known. Getting her green card costs about $9,000 to $10,000, something she can’t afford right now.
When her greatest concern should be finding the perfect wedding dress, she said her biggest fear is what would happen to her three younger siblings, who were born in the U.S., if her parents were deported.
“Do they go back, do they stay here, where do we go from here? That’s basically the question. This is all they know. What are we going to do?” she said.
Because of widely reported instances of ICE agents detaining people in other states, sometimes in front of places like domestic violence courts, schools, churches and hospitals that have always been considered “safe zones” for the undocumented, some are afraid to report crimes or go to these places.
“I have people who when we have gone to the (Catholic Charities immigration office) presentations who have asked me about how they have been victims of a crime and will they get in trouble if they try to call the police to tell them because the person who they have an order of protection against is still harassing them or stalking them,” Garcia said, adding that there has been a large increase of people applying for U Visas, a visa for victims of crimes willing to assist law enforcement or the government during investigations and/or prosecutions, after the presidential election.
“It was rare that I would have received a call a week, but we had between November and the end of the year 37 people call. I cleared that back log. There’s now I think 21” since January, she said.
However, Little Rock Police Department officers have said it is not their job to investigate immigration when someone is reporting a crime.
“Even with that, pretty much everywhere you go people are afraid of what can happen because they see these things happening every day,” in other parts of the country, Garcia said.
In a March 10 Los Angeles Times article, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly confirmed that his agency was considering separating children and parents that are caught crossing the border as a deterrent.
Despite being more than a 1,000 miles away from the border, Guadalupe’s 16-year-old daughter said, “My biggest fear is being separated from my parents because I’m really close to both of them, and I don’t know what I’d do if I were to be separated.”
Guillermo Bruzatori, executive director of the Vincentian Lay Missioners, director of Hispanic ministry and assistant director of religious education for St. Anne Church in North Little Rock, said many Catholic immigrants meet at the Vincentian Lay Missionary Center to learn about their rights while their children are in religious education. For the past five months, the Mexican consulate and staff members have met with parents to discuss a variety of topics, including immigration, health care, business and documentation. On March 29, the center had lawyers specializing in immigration talk to attendees about immigration and labor laws.
“Every day they’re leaving their houses … and they don’t know if they’re coming back in the afternoon. Many, many times I have calls in the morning because they heard rumors of police on I-30 stopping people. They’ll ask, ‘What do you know about that?’” said Bruzatori, who is a native of Argentina and became a U.S. citizen along with his family last year. He said he advises all immigrants to keep their car in “excellent condition” and to be “very, very careful.”
“You don’t have to give the authorities any reason to stop you,” he said. “But the main thing — you have to believe in Jesus and it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Don’t be afraid because we still need to keep living … we have to move on and believe in God’s desires.”
For Guadalupe and her family, the Catholic faith has kept them grounded through the struggles of her 21-year-old son being deported to Mexico and her husband detained by ICE agents while working in Houston a few years ago. He has been out of detention and a court date has still not been set.
“We feel more safe at church. Our faith plays a big role in our family, we’re all very religions people, and church helps us know whatever happens is God’s will,” she said. “My religion gives me hope and trust because I know that I am walking with God along this journey and it really helps to know I am in his hands to be protected.”
However, within those church walls are people who view undocumented immigrants as “illegals” or “aliens” and Jesus’ command of welcoming the stranger can sometimes fall on deaf ears.
“It’s really hard to keep my faith alive and actually go to church with people who consider immigrants illegals and need to get out of their country,” Maria said. “It’s a balance of being a good Catholic and standing your ground with your political views. You always want to be respectful and treat others the way you want to be treated, but at the same time, quoting our president, people think of you as a ‘bad hombre.’ It’s sad people see us that way.”
Sister Norma, who recalled a man grabbing her car window as she rolled it down in Dallas, shouting at her and fellow sisters to “go back to Mexico,” said it’s up to the faithful to set an example of Christian acceptance.
“To me it hurts a lot because the worse thing about this is we call ourselves Christians, we believe in Christ, we believe in God and how can you hate your brother like that? How can you forget you are an immigrant too in this country? If you’re not, your ancestors were.”
Catholic Charities of Arkansas is the only nonprofit agency in the state recognized by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals to legally assist immigrants and the undocumented. However, undocumented people often fall prey to “notarios” or notaries claiming to provide legal advice and benefit applications to immigrants in need. Arkansas law states that “notaries” must state that they are not an attorney and cannot provide legal advice.
“For Spanish-speaking countries, Latin America, a ‘notario’ is a lawyer with extra experience and training that can do specific types of things and that is why they go to them,” and their qualifications are not the same in the U.S., Garcia said. It is important to report instances of false “notario” advertising.
There is little that can be done if an immigrant signs paperwork given by a notario.
Garcia cautioned people who say that immigrants should “get in line” and come here legally because the process is backlogged for years and it’s not that simple.
Maria said people will ask her, “Why aren’t you legal? Why don’t you just go and sign up for it? I just don’t think people understand what that fear is. I don’t think people understand what it takes for people to come here legally.”
Sister Norma said it comes down to being Christ to one another. She pointed to Pope Francis’ directive to “touch the suffering flesh of your brother” and unless Anglos and those who are undocumented start truly seeing each other with compassion, things will not get better.
“I think in our parishes finding ways of building bridges and not walls. And I think it’s both ways. Sometimes people within a parish they don’t come to a certain event, ‘Oh everything’s going to be in English. I don’t understand it, I feel out of place.’ But maybe if we were to have more things that are multicultural, that helps build bridges,” she said.
For more information about Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock and Springdale, visit dolr.org/catholic-charities.
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