At Charlotte’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where up to 4,000 Latino immigrants attend Spanish-language Mass every weekend, longtime Pastor Vincent Finnerty said Tuesday he’s been hearing a lot of stories in recent days.
Stories of fear.
They come in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order expanding the definition of immigrants targeted for deportation as well as recent headlines about arrests of immigrants in the Carolinas and around the country.
Finnerty said parishioners who volunteer as classroom assistants in Charlotte’s public schools have told him they’ve had to console crying children from immigrant families. After seeing TV reports about raids and arrests by federal immigration authorities, the kids are worried “they’re going to deport momma and daddy.”
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One small business owner in Charlotte, Finnerty said, became worried one of her valued employees from Guatemala would be stopped and maybe detained. Her solution: “I’m going to pick you up. I don’t want you driving.”
And the pastor also recounted the story of a woman who left Honduras after her drug-dealing husband was killed and those who did it said she and her 6-year-old daughter were next. Their flight to the United States included five hours in a railroad freezer car. Now in Charlotte, the woman is deeply worried Trump’s order will mean she and her daughter will soon be sent back to an uncertain fate.
“There is certainly a lot of fear,” Finnerty said, “a lot of worry that (immigrants) will not be able to have a stable life here any more, that families will be broken up.”
The fear in this community is huge right now. There’s no indication that things are going back to normal. There’s fear that this is the new normal.
Atenas Burrola, an attorney who directs the Immigration Integration Center at Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition
On Monday, federal officials announced the arrests of more than 100 undocumented immigrants in the Carolinas last week.
A news release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not specify charges or details for the 84 immigrants arrested in North Carolina and the 19 in South Carolina. ICE did highlight the arrest of one Charlotte-area person who had been convicted on three counts of taking indecent liberties with a child.
But agency officials added in their release that ICE does not conduct “sweeps, check-points or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
Also Monday, Trump insisted he wants to target drug lords, gang members and other serious criminals for deportation.
Still, on Tuesday, Finnerty and others who interact daily with undocumented immigrants in Charlotte said that, despite such assurances, anxiety in the Latino community is growing.
“The fear in this community is huge right now,” said Atenas Burrola, an attorney who directs the Immigration Integration Center – including its legal clinic – at Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition. “There’s no indication that things are going back to normal. There’s fear that this is the new normal.”
The Latin American Coalition offers a range of services to immigrants – everything from English, computer and labor rights classes to attorney referrals and translation of documents.
But recently, some immigrants are also seeking help on other things, such as affidavits on who will watch the children if something happens to the parents, if they don’t come home one day.
Said Jose Hernandez-Paris, who directs the Latin American Coalition: “We can’t let (fear) paralyze our community. And that’s happening.”
‘Just came to work’
There were other local stories of fear Tuesday.
A woman from El Salvador who asked not to be named said she feels like a prisoner in her own home because she worries about being deported if she leaves the house.
Her husband works as a truck driver and has temporary protected status, she said, so she only goes out with him or for essential reasons such as taking her two children to school. And then, she’ll always get a ride with a friend who has papers.
“More than anything, people are afraid to drive,” she said. “But even if you’re riding with someone with a license – what if (law enforcement officers) question the passengers?”
Even taking the bus seems risky, she said, because she has to walk three blocks from her home off South Boulevard.
Since last Friday, her phone has been lighting up with texts and calls from friends with news of an arrest they’ve heard about, she said.
“We cannot go back to my country, where there are so many killings and assaults,” she said. “It’s so dangerous, we could not survive there.”
The majority of undocumented immigrants, she said, “haven’t done anything wrong. We know there are lots of people who have done bad things, but we haven’t done anything wrong. We just came here to work.”
Anxiety at schools
The panic among many immigrants came before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday night.
In a break with normal procedure, board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew opened the meeting with a statement from the board about immigration enforcement near schools. She said ICE officials have assured CMS leaders that students will continue to be safe from arrest at schools or bus stops, but she said that recent “immigration enforcement actions” conducted in a neighborhood near a school has “caused heightened anxiety in the community.”
Last Thursday, faculty at Berryhill School, a majority-Hispanic K-8 school in west Charlotte, reported seeing arrests as they arrived at school. No students or their parents were involved, CMS said.
A handful of speakers urged CMS to work with community groups to educate immigrant families about their rights and to ask ICE not to arrest parents who are taking their children to schools or bus stops.
Some said they are seeing anxiety among international students.
“When kids are in fear … it’s impossible to learn,” said Betsy Rosen, a volunteer who works with students learning English.
Rebecca Costas, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Myers Park High, said two students who were stopped on their way to a bus stop last year eventually dropped out and left town.
“The tension is even stronger this year,” she said, “due to rhetoric from the election cycle.”
Prayers for Trump
Back at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Finerty’s secretary, Gloria Sierra, said she’s gotten calls recently from mothers who said they were keeping their children home from catechism classes for fear of ICE.
“I tell them, ‘Stay at home, don’t worry, skip the class,’ ” said Sierra, an immigrant from Colombia.
And longtime parishioner Haydee Garcia, who hails from Mexico, said even her 13-year-old granddaughter – a U.S. citizen – got scared at the news that Trump had been elected.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to go to Mexico,’ ” Garcia said. “Even though we’re OK, she has heard a lot of news from school and from friends. And it’s not good news.”
Finnerty said many of his undocumented parishioners are taking action to try to protect themselves.
They’re saving more of their money for what might happen, he said. They’re cutting back on fiestas, or parties. And to make sure they are more prudent, more careful behind the wheel, they are swearing off alcohol.
Finally, they are praying – for President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to get tough with immigrants here illegally.
“They pray for him every day in the Mass,” Finnerty said. “They pray that God would touch him so he’d have a change of heart.”
Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.