Immigrants gather to learn of their futures
The immigrants arrived sober-faced at St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Auburn one evening this week with their babies and young children...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The immigrants arrived sober-faced at St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Auburn one evening this week with their babies and young children in tow.
Years ago, they'd come to the United States, many of them illegally, from villages in Mexico.
Now they sat on metal folding chairs arranged in a circle to learn how the nation's fiercely debated immigration bill could change their families' futures.
The nearly 20 men and women also were encouraged to mobilize and spread the word to hundreds of others in the Hispanic community.
Most attendees were members of St. Matthew, one of the first churches in the Northwest to publicly join the new sanctuary movement launched earlier this month in cities across the U.S. The meeting is a regular event at the church, with immigration an ongoing topic.
Given the fast-changing nature of the bill, which has been characterized as the most momentous immigration deal since 1965, "it's really premature to talk about specific points. We can talk about principles," Carlos Marentes, a community organizer, told the group in Spanish.
Marentes, a member of El Comité Pro-Amnistia, an immigrant-justice group, outlined some of the measure's main provisions:
• Immigrants who identify themselves could obtain probationary legal status, but eventually they would have to qualify under a point system and meet other requirements to receive a renewable visa.
• To become permanent residents, immigrants would have to pay a $5,000 fine and meet other conditions.
• A temporary-worker program would be created, and security at the Mexican-American border would be dramatically increased.
Those who filled the room expressed a mixture of fear and frustration, hurt feelings and determination.
"We're not like snakes who've come here in the middle of the night," said a man named Antonio who, like some others at the meeting, asked that his last name not be used. "These talk shows [spread] the idea that we all came here to get welfare and abuse the system ... it's a lie and they know it ... "
Some later said they did not know what to think, but added that if a bill passes they would try to qualify.
"What I heard, pretty much, they will come forward," said Jeremias Perez, a legal U.S. resident, father of four and construction worker who is also a member of El Comité and helped lead the meeting. "It's like a dream coming true for them ... Everybody is pretty much ready to jump through any hoops."
But, if people come out of hiding and don't qualify for legal status, Perez said, they would end up undocumented and definitely would not abandon their American-born children by leaving the country.
One of the deepest worries expressed by those at the meeting was how the bill seemed to retreat from keeping immigrant families together, in part because of a provision that heads of household might have to leave the country for a time, separating family members.
"I don't have papers. I feel bad because my sons were born here. There's no money in Mexico to take care of my kids," said a man who is a landscaper.
Another concern some expressed: The bill provides little opportunity for American-born children to eventually help their undocumented parents gain legal status.
"Most of us who live here have children who are U.S. citizens, and our hope is in our children," said Vicky Sandate, a legal resident and member of the congregation.
As the adults frowned in concentration and talked for three hours, their young children grew bored with coloring books and played boisterously in the nursery, oblivious to the seriousness of the topic.
The new point system would determine who received a visa, and it favors those who speak English and are educated. Most at the meeting barely spoke English, and several work in construction, landscaping and building maintenance.
"Those of us who are here don't have anything ... Some of us have been here 10-20 years, but don't have enough studies for the points," said a woman named Gabriella.
An older man advised in a calm voice that it all was just talk — "What we have to wait for is something that passes both houses," he said. "But the one thing that keeps coming back: It's going to cost a lot of money."
St. Matthew and other sanctuary churches agree to help immigrants in a variety of ways: with legal advice, material goods and sometimes shelter. The churches also pledge to educate the community on immigrant issues.
That's why a reporter and photographer were allowed to attend the meeting and why a church staff member translated for them.
"Part of the sanctuary movement is saying: Come and see these are not scary people," said St. Matthew's pastor Susan Armer. "These are people like everyone has in our own families."
St. Matthew's embrace of the immigrant community started about five years ago — tentatively.
"People were not sure this was the thing to do," Armer said.
The Auburn area, including the neighborhood surrounding the church, had grown increasingly Hispanic.
The church started a summer Bible school for children, then a homework program for Hispanic students, then English classes for adults. It also started offering immigrants help in negotiating the system — such as how to apply for a driver's license and interpret a rental contract.
Eventually, the congregation began calling the church "San Mateo" and in the sanctuary placed a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe — a saint with great spiritual importance for Mexicans from certain villages, the same folks who'd moved to the area.
Today, about 20 percent of the 360-member church is of Hispanic origin.
"You look around. You see the neighbors God has given you, and you are in conversation with them," Armer said.
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.