Love your neighbor: Presbyterians in Kansas City help immigrants

Far from the borders, Presbyterians are feeling the impact of changing immigration policy. As the Trump administration steps up the number of arrests and deportations, people of faith are responding – doing what they can to help immigrants in the context of their own communities.

The Grandview church family spills out the front doors.

Rick Behrens, senior pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, has seen the urban neighborhood around his church shift demographically, moving from about 5 percent Latino in the mid-1990s to about 65 percent Latino a decade later. Most of the new residents are first-generation immigrants, many from Mexico but others from Central and South America.

The Grandview Park congregation now is made up of about half people for whom Spanish is their first language, and half who grew up speaking English. Worship is conducted in both languages – with one bilingual service for one community.

Recent months have brought new challenges, with public advocacy regarding immigration policy and “trying to help people who are caught up in this ridiculous system,” Behrens said.  “It feels like every day our community is being attacked and assaulted. … It’s a false narrative that families are only being separated at the border. Families are being separated every day” by detainments and deportations, he said.

Grandview Park members Naomi Tolentino (teacher), Jennifer Pineda (student) and Johann Sanchez (student) advocate with school superintendent Cindy Lane for a safe and welcoming policy in the schools.

Part of the work faith communities are doing involves helping immigrant families develop plans for what they will do if the parents end up being separated from their children. Behrens said some Anglo members of Grandview Park have taken steps to be named power of attorney for the children of immigrant families from the congregation if that happens.

Grandview Park is one of the supporters of a local interfaith coalition called Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation, known as AIRR, an interfaith coalition. Through AIRR, Presbyterians have been working to recruit lawyers willing to be trained to work pro bono with immigrants facing deportation; to raise public awareness for efforts to change immigration policy; and to raise bond money for immigrants who have been detained.

Recently, for example, the Deportation Defense Legal Network went to court on behalf of an 18-year-old Honduran who had come to the United States after receiving threats from gangs in Honduras. According to Behrens, the man had turned himself in in San Diego, been sent to a center for unaccompanied minors in Topeka, and then was taken to a county jail in northwest Missouri when the authorities determined he was actually an adult.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation march

The authorities considered the man a flight risk because he had no family involved in his case, Behrens said. So Behrens “agreed to be his sponsor and for him to come live with us” after he was released on bond.

AIRR is conducting “know your rights” workshops across the community, working with the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance, an organization of undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. AIRR was organized in 2012 with the hope of educating congregations about immigrants and immigration policy, said Diana Martinez, the organization’s executive director and herself a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.  “We saw there was a lot of misinformation” about how to apply for legal status, she said. In the years since, “it’s turned into more immigrant rights,” with an effort to help undocumented immigrants find legal representation and an emphasis on developing a rapid-response network in Kansas City.

AIRR marches on the 11th of every month in solidarity with the 11 million undocumented in the U.S.

In October 2017, Colonial Church in Prairie Village held a forum on immigration reform, along with Grandview Park, Village Presbyterian Church and AIRR.

In working with congregations, “we talk about the narrative of immigration, how this is a moral issue and not an economic issue,” Martinez said. “These are human beings who are being targeted. AIRR provides information about concrete ways to help. At least two Mennonite congregations in Kansas have made a public pledge to become sanctuary churches.

Martinez said the community has seen changes in the way deportations are being handled.

In June, an immigration lawyer was accompanying a 3-year-old child who was being reunited with his mother, so that both could be deported to Honduras together. The lawyer, Andrea Martinez, told the Washington Post that a deal had been worked out in advance regarding how the transfer would take place, but that the arrangement broke down at the 3 a.m. meeting at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Kansas City.  Martinez said an ICE agent pushed her and that she fell, fracturing a bone in her foot. The incident made the national news.

Under the Obama administration, immigrants with deportation orders often were allowed to stay under certain circumstances – particularly if they had no criminal record, ties to the community and children, Behrens said. The Trump administration is enforcing those deportations, and “a lot of good citizens are being ripped away from their community,” she said.

Welcome Table worship/meal experience with Gaby Carmona and her children (Israel, Beatiz and Galy) and Rick Behrens

In some rural communities, immigrants are being pulled over for traffic violations, as minor as failing to use a turn signal, Martinez said. “Those police stations have been cooperating with ICE and turning them over to immigration.” When some people have gone to court to pay traffic tickets, “immigration is waiting for them outside.”

While the Kansas City area has not experienced large raids on workplaces, “they will come looking and grab up anybody they find,” Behrens said. In the past, he said, ICE agents might come looking for an immigrant with a criminal history, and “if they didn’t find them, they would move on.” Now if they show up and the person they’re seeking isn’t there, they say to others, “I need to see your papers, I need to see your status. Before, they wouldn’t do that. Now they’re trying to snatch up anybody, collateral damage.”

Tamalada Project raises money for the church anniversary.

For his own congregation, the Latino members are sometimes reluctant to step forward in public advocacy on immigration issues – “undocumented people are not necessarily going to get out in front,” Behrens said, although he has been surprised by the political engagement of some of the Dreamers. “DACA wouldn’t have happened if the Dreamers hadn’t made it happen,” he said.

And for whites from his church, “it’s been a little bit of a challenge for us to get our Anglo members to step out and be advocates. Clearly they are ready to do things like be power of attorney and support in that way, but we’re not exactly a congregation that has a lot of white folks who have a history of feeling empowered. We’re in a poor neighborhood. A lot of our folks are not necessarily in positions of feeling they have power to flex. We’re working on that.”