CENTRAL FALLS — Edgar and Elva, like many of the 125 gathered Saturday in the basement of Holy Spirit Church, had reason to worry.
Although they’ve led peaceful, productive lives in the U.S. since fleeing their native Guatemala 15 and nine years ago respectively, making the difficult trek to and finally across the border via the scrub desert of Arizona, the undocumented couple are more fearful than ever before of being taken into custody and deported.
They’re also fearful for their two young children who have spent their entire lives as U.S. citizens.
But by the end of a session sponsored by the Diocese of Providence’s Office of Immigration and Refugee Services designed to help assuage the fears of the undocumented living in Rhode Island, they felt more supported by the church than ever in their time of need, and left smiling.
The crucial moment for them was hearing a message by their diocesan shepherd, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who reaffirmed the Church’s support for undocumented immigrants in their hour of need.
“These are very difficult times, very challenging days for you and for all of us. I want to assure you today that we your Church, we love you, we stand with you and we will help you,” the bishop said, prefacing his next statement as the most important message that he hoped to deliver to them that day.
“Do not be afraid,” Bishop Tobin said. “Even though these are challenging times, we have the words of our Lord Jesus to assure us: ‘Do not be afraid.’”
He spoke of how important it was for families to stay together and close to their church communities for support.
“We know that in these challenging times there are many people, some political leaders and even I’m afraid some religious leaders who are causing a great deal of anxiety,” he said.
He said he hoped they would leave the two-hour information session, which was conducted entirely in Spanish — with the bishop’s message offered in translation — they would do so with renewed hope, confidence and faith.
Edgar and Elba did leave the session with a renewed sense of optimism.
“It was emotional for us to hear those words from Bishop Tobin. It was a great thing for us,” Edgar said through a translator.
Elba said she was grateful to the diocese for hosting the event, which featured information on the rights that immigrants have, especially when interacting with members of U.S. law enforcement.
“We got real information because there is a lot of false information in the community that Immigration is going to go to the schools, laundromats and other places,” she said.
Edgar said that some of their fears were the result of coverage of President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration and his earlier vow to send millions of immigrants packing, forcing them to apply for citizenship from nations on the other side of the wall he has committed to building to enhance safety.
On Monday, the president signed a second executive order on immigration, this time allowing green card holders and those already in possession of a valid visa to travel to the U.S. Also, Iraq was removed from the slate of seven majority-Muslim countries, including Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iran. While the brakes have again been applied to the government’s refugee resettlement program, the ban on receiving Syrian refugees is no longer an indefinite one.
“Maybe we should stop watching the news because we hear so much bad news and exaggerated news and we’ve just got to be patient and pray to God that everything will be okay,” Edgar said.
As the couple, parents of two young children both born in the U.S., don’t have any relatives who are legal residents, and their native country of Guatemala wouldn’t qualify them for refugee status, the only way they can become legal residents in the short term is if there is some legalization process down the road.
If not, they would need to continue living with a feeling of unease for 13 years until their oldest child, who is 8, turns 21 and would then be eligible to apply to sponsor his parents in their application to become legal residents.
“If we are very peaceful, law-abiding citizens and pray to God, we will be okay,” Elba said.
Genesis Flores, a case manager for the diocesan Office of Immigration and Refugee Services told the gathering that the U.S. government does provide the undocumented with some protections under the law.
“Even as undocumented civilians you do have rights, a lot of people don’t know about that,” she said.
Flores, assisted by Immigration and Refugee Services Coordinator Stella Carrera, and Manager Nancy Gonzalez, encouraged all to plan ahead, and to have a plan of action and know who they should call in the event they are detained or need assistance. Whether it is the contact information for a lawyer or an embassy or consulate, they should have those phone numbers committed to memory in case of emergency.
“You should know that it is your right not to speak if you don’t want to, and it is your right to talk to an attorney,” Flores told them.
Participants were supplied with a list of local attorneys they could call, as well as a guide on what to do if they are approached by an immigration officer in their home, their workplace or even in the car, with notes on how to read a warrant if presented with one.
One participant, who declined to use even his first name, said he found the information very useful, and the bishop’s presence indispensable.
“I liked what he said: ‘Do not be afraid.’ His presence is important. The church is here to help us, it’s important. Sometimes, people feel the church is away from them,” the man said.
Betina, a resident who emigrated from Argentina to the U.S. 15 years ago, fleeing political and economic difficulties in her homeland, said she was very grateful to see Bishop Tobin speak to the gathering at Holy Spirit Parish.
“His words: ‘Do not be afraid,’ are very important,” she said. “Those words, coming from a man of God are very important.”
She said there is so much misinformation out there that can turn the public against immigrants that it’s important for people to know the truth about who their neighbors really are.
“We are not all delinquents or drug dealers,” she said, countering the impression that some may have given the national discussion. “We have a lot of Central Americans in this community who are very strong in their faith. Even though they are working and busy with their families, they are always willing to help with anything whenever help is needed.”