By Claudia Mathis
Felipa Pablo becomes frightened every time her doorbell rings. Last September, immigration officials barged through her front door looking for her. She is in danger of being deported.
“These last three years have been the best of my life,” said Felipa. “They’ve been peaceful, except for the problems of deportation.”
Felipa escaped a miserable and precarious existence in Guatemala three years ago. She recalls tales of physical abuse, extreme poverty and when she left her house, the danger of being murdered for no reason or of being robbed.
Felipa said she relies on her faith in God to cope with the uncertainty and stress she feels about her upcoming deportation.
Felipa resides with Trinidad Ramos and their two young children Marilena and Sergio, on the northeast side of Syracuse.
Trinidad arrived in Syracuse in the late 1980s from war-torn Guatemala with the intention of supporting his extended family’s 18 children, helping them to avoid starvation. As a legal permanent resident, Trinidad will be able to apply for citizenship in four years. He is currently employed as a painter and landscaper.
Trinidad’s survival is largely due to the parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul in Syracuse, especially its Peace & Justice Committee. “He was taken in by our Catholic community,” explained Paul Welch, a member of the committee. “He’s lived in St. Vincent de Paul’s Rectory, Slocum House and at other venues. We arranged legal aid for him so that he could get permanent residency.”
St. Vincent de Paul has joined many other religious organizations and individuals in taking a stand for immigrants’ rights, to protect immigrants against deportation and to advocate for changes in current immigration law through the New Sanctuary Movement.
The New Sanctuary Movement officially began Jan. 29, 2007 when representatives from 18 cities, 12 religious traditions and seven denominational and interdenominational organizations joined together in Washington, D.C. to listen to the experience of immigrant families fighting deportation. The meeting was sparked after a bill was proposed in 2006, which penalized people who provide humanitarian aid without asking the immigration status of individuals receiving the support. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, Calif. instructed his priests to disregard the bill if it became a law.
The representatives at the meeting also devised strategies to protect parents and children from being torn apart.
The New Sanctuary Movement selects families of immigrants who are in the legal process of deportation. They offer spiritual support, legal advice and financial aid to the immigrants. The immigrant must have children who are American citizens and also what the movement considers a viable case under current law.
As stated on their website, the New Sanctuary Movement started with the goal of “protecting immigrant families from unjust deportation, affirming and making visible these families as children of God and awakening the moral imagination of the country through prayer and witness.”
In February 2008, movement organizers from New York City met with representatives from Syracuse religious organizations and immigrant-support workers in Syracuse during a workshop at Plymouth Congregational Church. They discussed how and whether to assist immigrant families in Central New York who are fighting to stay in the U.S. The organizations participating in the workshop included St. Lucy’s Church, Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, University United Methodist Church, St. Andrew’s Church, May Memorial Universalist Society, the Central and Latin American Coalition and the Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi, all in Syracuse.
When Welch and his fellow parishioners heard Bishop Robert Cunningham’s plea to support the cause of justice for immigrants last December, they took it to heart. “We felt that we needed to put some work into this area,” said Welch. “We’re working very hard for the rights of migrant workers and immigrants.” He added that his parish has provided Felipa, Trinidad and their children with food, clothing and financial support. They have sent letters to Congressional legislators and are working to educate others about the rights of immigrants.
The parish is now attempting to raise money for the legal expenses to fight Felipa’s deportation. Bob Belge, a member of the Peace & Justice Committee, crafted a clock, a music box and a heart-shaped bowl from wood. The items are being offered in a raffle for $1 per chance.
After learning of the raffle, All Saints Church in Syracuse contributed $1,200 to the cause. “Their response was wonderful and heartening,” said Welch.
On June 12, Trinidad thanked the parishioners at All Saints Church during the 9 a.m. Mass. Martha Tamay de Vergara, a member of the Justice & Peace Committee at St. Vincent de Paul’s, described his presentation. “He was very sincere,” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude.’”
Welch said that Trinidad and Felipa feel compelled to give back to the community. The day of the Mass at All Saints, they prepared and served tamales to the parishioners.
The Peace & Justice Committee hopes to raise enough money to retain a lawyer. They are hoping that lawyer can persuade the judge at Felipa’s next court hearing to extend the time that she is allowed to stay in Syracuse.
Trinidad said that he hasn’t slept well lately because he has been worrying about his family being torn apart. Felipa will most likely take the couple’s children to Guatemala with her. “I can’t picture being without my children,” said Trinidad.
To purchase a raffle ticket or to make a donation, call Welch at (315) 256-8613.