05 Apr

For undocumented, Catholic Charities takes on the uncertainty

The events are called “charlas” – talks – and Catholic Charities holds them in schools and churches, places where so far the immigration authorities don’t go. The charlas explain to undocumented Oregonians their legal rights: the times when they don’t have to answer questions, that they shouldn’t let anyone into their home without required authority.

And how to prepare a power of attorney, so that if they’re deported, they can leave their U.S. citizen children in the custody of a relative or a neighbor.

“It’s super difficult to tell someone to fill out a form giving custody to someone else,” explains John Herrera, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities in Portland. “It is always so hard to explain to a parent that the best you can do is find someone to take care of your child.”
But otherwise, your kids might vanish into to the foster care system.

The organization has been holding holding charlas for a decade. Lately, however, it’s been holding a lot more of them.

Donald Trump ran for president, of course, on a pledge to round up huge numbers of undocumented immigrants, and now millions of people have been waiting for the other boot to fall. “Among immigrants and refugees, there is a lot of uncertainty about who’s going to be deported,” says Herrera. “We don’t know what’s going to happen –“ as the president talks of hiring thousands and thousands more enforcement agents.

Last week, uncertainty – not to say fear – ramped up considerably. U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III threatened sanctuary cities that were refusing to cooperate with deportations – like, say, Portland – with cutting off federal law enforcement funds. Sessions warned sanctuary cities (and states and counties) that they were making America “less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets,” making a connection between immigrants and violent crime that is statistically untrue but politically appealing. Last week, an Oregon Republican spokesman echoed the attorney general, accusing Portland of protecting “criminal illegal aliens who are murdering and raping.”

Lately, the unease has been turned up in other ways. Several local young immigrants covered by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have recently been detained. While the government officially maintains that its deportation efforts target criminals, its raids have increasingly swept in others, shown in a regional Northwest operation last week.

Local law enforcement officials oppose a sanctuary crackdown because – aside from not wanting to lose federal money – they see it driving immigrant communities deeper underground, making them unwilling to talk to police about any other crime. Already, says Herrera, undocumented immigrants – who may have been here a decade or longer – are becoming reluctant to deal with government about programs that would benefit their American citizen children, or even for something like a marriage license. In Los Angeles, sexual assault reports are down by a quarter, presumably due to women concluding that government might be more dangerous than their attacker.

Oregon authorities have resisted the Trump administration’s threats; last week, Gov. Kate Brown cited “my recent executive order that precludes all state agencies from treating Oregonians as criminals solely on the basis of immigration status,” and insisted, “What the federal government can’t do under the U.S. Constitution is conscript state law enforcement officers to implement the policies of this Administration.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler challenged the administration’s power to cut off law enforcement funding – San Francisco and Seattle have already filed suits on the issue – but conceded that the federal immigration agency “has the power to operate within our city, and does not have to inform us of their activities.”

And, Herrera points out, there are parts of Oregon where the feds don’t often reach, but local sheriffs and police might have their own agenda. In some parts of the country, such as California’s Central Valley, farming figures are beginning to express concern about the impact of mass deportation. But in Oregon, reports Herrera, “I haven’t heard anything. My question is, what are they going to do? Who is going to pick up the crops?”

Working with Oregon’s undocumented immigrants – estimated at as many as 150,000 – Catholic Charities doesn’t have its own attorney, although it’s hoping to add one. Now, it gets help from volunteers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, some support from local foundations and, adds Herrera, “parishes are starting to step up” – although he notes that Catholics, like everyone else, are not entirely united on the issue. Catholic Charities’ funding from the federal government, for refugee resettlement and some other programs, is either dropping or endangered, and it’s not easy to find outside help when everybody else’s funding is threatened as well.

Herrera came here in 2003, a lawyer back in Colombia, granted U.S. asylum from a bloody civil war thickened by heavily armed drug gangs. He understands something about insecurity, and looking around corners. “We’re not protecting criminals,” he says of Catholic Charities’ efforts. “We’re protecting families from being separated.”

When the elevator opens on John Herrera’s floor of the Catholic Charities building in Southeast Portland, arrivals face a large-print quotation from Pope Francis: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty, because it has been out on the streets.”

Or holding charlas in church basements.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/2/17.

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