Jim Renfrew is pastor of Byron Presbyterian Church in upstate New York. That’s “a very rural, conservative area” between Buffalo and Rochester, he said, and one where “it’s not easy to take an advocacy position on immigration.”
Renfrew has found ways, however, to get involved with immigration work in his community and to keep the issue before his “purple” congregation – not so much by preaching about policy, but about telling stories to his congregation about the immigrants he’s met.
“I think that’s the most effective way to humanize the story,” he said. “We’re talking about people who live in our neighborhood. We can fool ourselves into thinking that our neighborhood is homogenous. But the reality is there are a lot of farm workers from other countries. Currently they’re keeping their heads down,” and may not be as visible at the corner market and gas stations.
Whether you see them or not, “our agricultural industry depends on these workers. These are the people who make the farms profitable and put food on everybody’s table.”
Here’s one of the stories that Renfrew tells. He’s involved with a group called the Rochester Rapid Response Network, which mobilizes when an immigrant gets picked up or incarcerated by the Border Patrol. People may forget that the Border Patrol is active along the U.S.-Canada border too, not just in the south.
One day late this summer, the authorities picked up an immigrant near Albion, on his way to work. Then “they surrounded his house out in the country, demanding to get in” and frightening the family, Renfrew said. People from the rapid response network showed up too, providing a presence of witnesses at the house – and after a while the immigration authorities went away.
Volunteers from the network accompany immigrants when they go to court for hearings, offering not legal advice but a sense of presence. “If one of the breadwinners are picked up, that can put a lot of distress on the remaining family members,” Renfrew said.
The network tries to encourage the local municipal police departments that “you’re not a representative of the Border Patrol – you’re just doing local stuff,” Renfrew said. Some local law enforcement agencies will call the federal authorities when they stop an immigrant, others don’t. In agricultural areas, “you can’t detain everyone,” he said. “Who’s going to pick the food?”
The family of the man picked up near Albion has three children. Renfrew collected two carloads of food and supplies gathered by volunteers from a local Unitarian church and drove it to the man’s house – trying to provide some comfort “to a family that is scared and desperate and has no idea how to interface with the U.S. legal system. … The motivation for this type of help is scriptural. Certainly the story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ response to the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ In a rural area, we have a lot of farm workers. … They’re our neighbors.”
The Bible speaks of “protecting the alien, the stranger, the sojourner, and providing hospitality. In my mind, that gives a very strong biblical mandate.”
Renfrew stresses the importance of building relationships and community connections. “A very simple way is to find out where (immigrant) people worship, and arrange to visit. You don’t march in and say, ‘My church wants to help you,’” but worship together, introduce yourselves, ask: ‘How can we pray for you? How can you help us?’ More of a two-way kind of experience,” Renfrew said.
In 2017, his congregation hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for farm workers. Both church members and farm workers attended, along with translators, and the farm workers who were willing to share their stories were asked: “Where are you from? What are your hopes and dreams?” Many migrant workers come to the area seasonally, Renfrew said, with legal permits to work during the harvest season, and then return to their families during the winter.
A newer venture has been Los Samaritanos, an organization that has formed in Batavia, New York, near the location of a federal detention center. Word got around that immigrants being released from detention were showing up at a gas station where they could catch the bus that runs between Rochester and Buffalo. Sometimes, they didn’t have food or money for tickets, and the bus wasn’t coming any time soon.
Los Samaritnos has posted a phone number there, so when an immigrant is in need a volunteer is dispatched to bring snack kits and hygiene items, and to help with getting a bus ticket.
It’s not unusual for detention centers to be in rural communities, where they provide needed jobs. Renfrew said some members of his congregation work there, and “I’m supportive of them too.”
A friend involved with the rapid response network told him about an immigrant she knew who was in trouble in traffic court. The woman, from Guatemala, was in the U.S. legally, with work papers, but after a traffic stop was given a series of tickets for having no driver’s license, no insurance, no car registration. She was facing significant fines.
Renfrew put out the word through the network, and got 10 people to volunteer to go to traffic court with the woman, who spoke little English. “Somehow, I got a bunch of retired Episcopalian priests,” Renfrew said. “They dressed up for the role – the collars, the whole deal.”
When the woman’s case was called and she stood before the judge, the priests stood behind her in solidarity, perfectly quiet. The assistant district attorney offered to drop all the charges except for one – not having a valid license – and to reduce the fines to $170. Her supporters paid the fine.
“They could have really hammered her on all three,” Renfrew said. As they left the courtroom, Renfrew told the assistant district attorney, “We’re going to fix all these things.”
He kept his word. They got the car insured and properly registered. For the next year and a half, Renfrew tutored the woman until she passed the written test for a driver’s license. “And I practiced endlessly with her on parallel parking and right of way at intersections.”
The first two times, she failed the road test. Renfrew went with her the third time, meeting the inspector at the testing spot in Albion. When Renfrew asked the inspector if he knew any Spanish, the man said no. “I taught him to say ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Spanish.”
The inspector said he didn’t plan to use the words, but “he knew that I was there for her,” Renfrew said. Afterwards, the inspector said “it was a little fuzzy in a few areas, but I’m going to pass her. … That told me that my being there made the difference, just kind of humanizing the situation,” Renfrew said.
The Guatemalan immigrant now drives legally. She has become a leader in the local farm workers organization.
Now, she can drive to the meetings.