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Living in a Climate of Fear

Latino congregations struggle to cope as racism and raids heighten anxiety.

Life changed for the members of Spanish-speaking communities in the Diocese of Chicago after the election of Donald Trump.

“As a Latino/Hispanic clergy and person of color in the United States after the election, I have been reminded again and again that some people think I don’t belong here,” says the Rev. Victor Conrado, associate for ministries on Bishop Jeff Lee’s staff. “Some people make you feel that you’re not welcome. Some people have become bolder in letting you know that. Family-wise I have had conversations with my wife, even with my children: ‘We are going to Walmart today, if someone starts attacking you, here is how you are going to respond.’”

Conrado, who is also priest associate at St. Mark’s in Glen Ellyn, says people in churches and mosques throughout the area are putting together response plans that cover issues ranging from financial to parental. “They are saying, ‘If I am deported this is what I need to do with my children.’ How come we are normalizing these conversations where families are going to be set apart?”

Immigrants who entered the country without documentation have always been subject to deporta- tion, but the pace of raids has quickened during the Trump administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers no longer hesitate to detain or deport individuals who are the primary financial sup- port of minor children, or who have no criminal record.

The raids have cast a pall over families in the diocese’s eight Spanish-language congregations, says the Rev. Narciso Díaz, a priest at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Waukegan. “People are feeling like prisoners in their own homes,” he says. “They are scared to go out in the streets. Even in their own homes they feel like prisoners because they don’t know who is going to knock on the door.”

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is in a poor neighborhood where apartments change hands frequently, Díaz says. “Sometimes ice will come and look for the former resident, but if the current resident does not have papers, ICE can take them, too.

“At times,” he adds, “people have been scared to drive because they might be pulled over, and so they walk
to work in the cold. Or they are not going to work for fear of ice coming to the workplace, so they go three or four months without work. There are not any words to express the sadness and feeling of helplessness.”

Because local immigrant communities are close-knit, everyone knows someone who has had a family member deported, Díaz says.

“There was a 24-year-old young man who was under court supervision, complying, doing all the things he should be doing,” he says. “One day at home, there was a knock on the door. They said, ‘We are from the court and we are here to check up on you.’ When his mother came to the door, it was really ICE. They took him and he’s in jail, and they are figuring out whether to deport him. His family are members of our church.”

Even young people who are ostensibly protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are under great strain, says the Rev. José Arroyo of La Iglesia Episcopal Sagrada Familia in Lake Villa, and not simply because the program is in legal limbo. There are almost 700,000 Dreamers, as DACA recipients are sometimes called, in the United States, and almost 42,500 in Illinois.

“Families with kids in college under DACA are stressed and tense because that young person is the only person in the family who can open a bank account, drive legally, etc.,” Arroyo says. “So that young person is the legal center of the family.”

Irma Hernandez, a member of Sagrada Familia, was one such child.

“I arrived in 2000 at 15,” says Hernandez, who works in the real estate business in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. “I didn’t want to come because I was going to school in Mexico and everything was fine. But there had been an economic crisis in the 1990s. My dad, who was a heavy machinery mechanic, lost a lot of his business. He worked for the municipality from 1995 to 1998, but then both he and my mom came on tourist visas and they came to stay with my sister, who was about to have a baby. They soon got jobs, and most of our family is in the United States. So, the answer to me was, ‘We are not returning. You have to come up.’”

The climate for immigrants in the United States changed after 9/11, Hernandez says. “Our immigrant community was blamed in general for the terrorist attacks, and also heavily persecuted due to the Patriot Act. They almost had an immigration reform bill right before that, then it all went to flames. Our community continued marching, but nothing happened.”

After her family moved to Illinois and joined Sagrada Familia, a high school teacher called to ask if she would be interested in being the receptionist at the Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake.

“People tell me ‘I don’t go shopping anymore to buy groceries because I don’t feel safe.’”

“It was a two-room non-profit offering English classes, computer classes and employment referrals,” she says. “The kids in the area had issues with the gangs, and the parents didn’t know what to do about it.”

In 2008 Hernandez began the complex process of obtaining an employment visa. She received protection from deportation under the daca program, instituted during the Obama administration, and finally received the visa in 2014.

Her experiences taught her how government bureaucracies work, and that the cost of making them work is high.

“The reason I am so passionate about immigration reform is that every time I had to provide immigration officers with paperwork, you are talking about two binders of papers,” she says. “My boss paid $8,000 to get me through the process and to make sure I had lawyers at my interviews. Most of the families in this country have prob-
ably already spent more than $3,000 trying to get their status figured out. They have at least two to three cases open and pending without response.

“The system forces you to consider quitting due to feeling constantly rejected and unwanted,” she says. “And our community thinks that the reasons of such rejection have nothing to do with the law and all to do with anti-immigrant attitudes.”

Solving the community’s problems, however, cannot be accomplished only by passing new laws, Hernandez says. “My biggest concern is that the president will say either ‘Everybody is sent back,’ or ‘Fine, we have an immigration reform,’ because people don’t have the money or the help that they need to take advantage of these legal processes.

“You can see this with the Dreamers issue. There are more than a million eligible people who haven’t applied because of lack of money, misinformation and lack of help. So, you will have a lot of people who aren’t going to apply.”

Leaders of Spanish-language congregations say there are myriad ways in which members of the diocese can be helpful to immigrants if they choose.

“People tell me ‘I don’t go shopping anymore to buy groceries because I don’t feel safe,’” Conrado says. “So, we must find someone who can help them, someone from the English-speaking services at our church.”

Arrests and deportations present a particular challenge. “I know all the county jails, and we try to help people with lawyers,” Díaz says. Sometimes, however, arrestees are moved quickly to the detention center in El Paso, Texas. “We connect with the center and with family if there are family that live in the area, so we can discuss the time the person is supposed to arrive,” he says.

Providing immigrants with accurate, up-to-date information is essential, says Arroyo, who has welcomed Congressman Brad Schneider and speakers from the Mexican consulate to visit Sagrada Familia.

“The fact that President Trump hasn’t shown any interest in looking for solutions and says only negative stuff, especially in his behavior toward the Latino community, specifically Mexico, makes people frustrated,” he says. “They feel like their dream is disappearing in front of their eyes. All of their successes and achievements are for nothing.

“There is a lot of fear and insecurity, and it is affecting the ministry in general because people are saving up for if they have to leave the country in an emergency.”

“It is important to have Anglo brothers and sisters near to show their opinion or attitude toward all of this.”

Conrado agrees. “I have been telling white people to go to court because the court will value their presence,” he says. “Their testimony is taken more seriously than that of a person of color. I feel that this is a time when we need to be aware of the power of advocacy, especially from our white sisters and brothers in our congregations.”

Through Resolution A086, the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church called on dioceses to foster a network of Latino and Hispanic partners for congregational development and to offer intensive cultural-competency training programs for diocesan staff members. In response, Conrado and others worked with the church’s Office of Latino/Hispanic Ministries to develop an Episcopal Latino Ministry Competency course, which is now being offered churchwide. The course was offered at St. James Commons in October with 32 people in attendance. Before the gathering, Conrado asked Hernandez, who has worked with many DACA recipients, to recruit several Dreamers to speak about the realities of life among Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Manuel Gomez, a student at Loyola University of Chicago was among the speakers. “In my very blunt opinion, crying about it isn’t going to change the situation,” he said later about this presentation. “What is going to help is being proactive, to reach out to those who can help us legislatively.”

At its convention in November, the diocese passed a resolution urging Congress to renew the DACA program.

As Episcopal advocates for fair immigration policies continue to make their case, leaders at the grassroots level struggle to keep their congregations together.

“There is a lot of fear and insecurity, and it is affecting the minis- try in general because people are saving up for if they have to leave the country in an emergency,” Díaz says. “It is very, very, very difficult because there are people suffering and the parish is suffering too, and we are trying to be a family to support everyone, but it is struggling financially to have the necessary things to go forward.”

The trauma immigrant communities are facing, Conrado says, is a wound in the body of Christ.

“What is happening affects us all. Even if we don’t have the presence of Latino people in our community, it affects us all. If one part of the body is hurting, all of the body is hurting.”