Local churches seek to care for, inform, educate immigrants

There was no future and no hope for Salvador, who grew up in Michoacan, Mexico.

The money he made working in the fields never amounted to enough to be able to save for a home, much less provide for a family.

At the age of 20, he left Mexico and came to the United States.

“I wanted a better life,” he said.

Salvador found labor first in Nevada and later moved to Minnesota, working in various fields and factories. He quickly learned to speak English, met his wife and started a family.

Yet, even thousands of miles away from the poverty, violence and drug trafficking of his old neighborhoods in Mexico, Salvador still isn’t safe. Immigration laws don’t allow him to become an American citizen yet, which he wants to do.

Every day he is afraid of what could happen to his family if he should be forced to return to Mexico, a concern that escalated after President Donald Trump said he would deport the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. and issued new guidelines aiming to enhance the enforcement of immigration laws.

On April 2 at St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Long Prairie, Salvador attended one of several informational forums taking place at parishes around the diocese intended to educate and inform Mexican citizens of their civil and human rights.

Bishop Donald Kettler and several priests heard concerns from the local immigrant population about their increasing worries and met with officials from the Mexican Consulate located in St. Paul to learn about what rights immigrants have, including those who are undocumented.

“Jesus Christ taught us by his actions and his words to do everything we can to care for our neighbor,” Bishop Kettler said. “It’s one of his commandments. When our neighbor is in danger, it’s the church’s response to care and to do it the best we can legally and morally.”

He wants to make it clear that this effort is not to evade the law but rather to help to inform immigrants of what the laws are.

“We don’t want to ignore our obligations to follow the law. That’s why immigration reform is so important. With the way the laws are now, we can’t always do the appropriate thing. Everybody in our country has certain rights and we want to make sure those rights are respected.”

Providing information

After the meeting with Bishop Kettler, representatives from the Mexican Consulate set up informational sessions with a number of parishes across the Diocese of St. Cloud to explain the general services the consulate provides for Mexican citizens, inform them of their rights and available resources, and explain how to seek legal assistance, if necessary.

Mexican Consulate community affairs representative Oswaldo Cabrera Vidal was one of the officials who met with Bishop Kettler.

“Churches are a great support to us,” Cabrera said. “They are a principle connection with all of the community and that is a good collaboration for us.”

Giancarlo Salinas, who works in the protection department of the Mexican Consulate, met with people from the Hispanic community April 2 in Long Prairie.

“The main concern we have identified in the area is getting the Hispanic community close to law enforcement agencies,” he said. “People are more afraid than they were before the election. We want to get them confident to talk to the sheriffs and police departments. There is so much misinformation — they hear rumors of raids and are afraid of getting out of their houses and going to work. The main thing we are seeing is a lack of trust.

Giancarlo Salinas, who works in the protection department of the Mexican Consulate, talks with a parishioner after a presentation April 2 at St. Mary of Mount Carmel in Long Prairie. (Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

“We need allies all over Minnesota to give trusted information. People are getting news through Facebook or their neighbors that is not necessarily true. We want to give them correct information so they can feel more comfortable getting to work and getting their children to school,” Salinas said.

Long Prairie Police Chief Kevin Langer said his department has worked very hard at gaining the trust of the immigrant communities in his jurisdiction, which he said have been around for 15 years.

“Our position with the immigrant community is that we have a very good relationship,” Langer said. “We work to treat everybody fairly. Our job here at the police department is to keep everybody safe in our community. To do that, we need to gain their trust. And I feel we have.”

One of the ways they’ve achieved that sense of trust is by attending new employee orientations at the local packing plant, which employs a number of immigrants.

“We take about 15-20 minutes to talk about driving laws, drinking laws, crime and immigration and then do a question-and-answer session. It really brings that one-on-one relationship, and later they feel they can come to me as a resource.

“It helps keep our crime stats lower,” Langer said. “I know them and they know me, and having that relationship reduces our problems and I believe makes our community safer. They are more willing to come forward to report crimes, too, and that benefits everyone.”

Along with Mexican immigrants, the community also includes Puerto Rican, Burmese and Peruvian immigrants.

“We have a wide variety of people from around the world here, and being a small community we need to work with everyone. Having [immigrants] as part of our community helps the city out, too. We have their children in our school district, we have several people who have started businesses here and they are involved with the community. I see more and more involvement every year and that makes our community stronger,” Langer said.

In addition to Long Prairie, representatives from the consulate have hosted forums in the Catholic churches in Elk River, Cold Spring and Melrose and have plans to speak in Morris and Pelican Rapids. A mobile consulate unit also will be coming to Waite Park in July.

Salinas said as a representative of the consulate, he is not allowed to give legal representation, but he is aware of many of the laws and rules.

“We can do a screening and refer them to different organizations they need. We also let people know what documents they need so they can be ready when they need them,” he said.

Having a plan

Cassandra Bautista, an immigration attorney at Heinz Law in St. Paul, accompanied Salinas to Long Prairie April 2. Through the Volunteer Lawyers Network, Bautista volunteers her time weekly at the Mexican Consulate, providing updates on immigration laws, performing one-on-one intakes and answering individual questions.

“The first message I share is to know your situation as much as possible,” she said. “A lot of people either have opportunities to get some kind of legal status in the United States and don’t know about it, or they’ve heard about it and haven’t had the opportunity to speak with a professional or an attorney.

“Our biggest message is to encourage people to talk with professionals and find out what they can do for themselves,” Bautista said.

She also encourages people to do what she calls “family planning.”

“With the Trump administration there has been a lot of talk about how they are going to address immigration laws. A lot of the Hispanic community is very nervous about what’s going on with these developments,” she said.

“In order to counteract that nervous anxiety that we are feeling in the community, we set forth a plan for if you or your wife are picked up by immigration, these are the things you need to do — make sure the kids have a custodian in place who can pick them up from school and make necessary decisions. We tell them what documents they need to have at home like birth certificates and passports, and then we also tell them how the [deportation] process works. We hear a lot that people don’t know what it means to be deported.”

Bautista said she’s been to a lot of different churches and feels they’ve been collaborative, especially because churches are normally a place where the community feels safe.

“Since we’ve been working with churches and other neutral spaces, we’ve had larger turnouts and people are more open about the kinds of questions they ask. Instead of general topics like ‘How long do I need to wait before I can get a work permit?’ we get detailed questions like, ‘I was a victim of domestic abuse. What are my options?’ These are really important questions that people are afraid to ask. I think the churches play a large role in making people feel comfortable,” she said.

“I also think the church did a wonderful job of inviting us out for these forums so that we have this opportunity to reach out to the communities that really don’t get the information that they deserve, especially being so far away from St. Paul and in a small town,” Bautista said. “It’s often hard for people to come to the [Twin Cities] to meet with professionals. It’s a great service and honestly, you would be doing a disservice if the church stopped doing these community forums.”

Bishop Kettler said he hopes that priests and those working in ministry in the church as well as people in the pews take the time to get to know immigrants like Salvador.

“It’s a priority for me, it was a priority for Jesus Christ and for people down through the centuries,” he said. “[Immigrants] are a part of our parishes as much as anyone else and we want to support and care for them as much as we would any of our people.”

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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