“Our story as Christians begins with the refugee story,” Father Charles McCarron said, telling the saga of two adults traveling a great distance where their baby was born, and then soon after fleeing to a foreign country to escape tyranny.
The refugees to whom the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church priest was referring were, of course, Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem for the birth of the baby Jesus and then their fight into Egypt.
“It’s part of our DNA,” Father McCarron said.
But immigration for the clergyman is even more personal.
He was born to an undocumented immigrant mother in the mid-1950s in the Bronx. His parents, both from Scotland, had met in the United States. Using today’s vernacular, Father McCarron said he would be called “an anchor baby.”
The circumstances of his birth inform his ministry on Shelter Island, he said. Working with undocumented immigrants in Queens and Brooklyn through an Episcopal Community Services program, he helped them attain visas and green cards and educated them on how to get bank accounts and to take steps to provide for their children if they were taken into custody by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Often, the immigrants arrested are held for a lengthy time in detention centers along the southern border of the United States, he said, where they’re subject to deportation. Conditions in the detention centers are deplorable, Father McCarron added. For immigrants with documents, he advises them to always carry the papers or a copy with them.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in a pair of memos released three weeks ago, described new immigration guidelines that will “no longer … exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” In addition, President Donald Trump has plans to hire 10,000 more ICE officers. Secretary Kelly has told Congress he plans to process the hiring “as fast as we can.”
A NARROW ESCAPE
Father McCarron said one particular case in which he was involved stays with him to this day.
A young man with martial arts training was trying to immigrate to the United States to escape gang leaders who were pressing him to enlist to train their members. They threatened his life if he didn’t cooperate. He became determined to escape the gang by leaving his home country and traveling through Mexico to cross the border into the United States. His plan was to make it to the North Fork where his older brother was a migrant farm worker.
The older brother determined that it would be decades before his brother would be allowed to legally seek asylum in the United States.
Father McCarron and immigration attorneys were able to get a Suffolk County Family Court judge to declare the older brother as a guardian for his sibling, enabling the young man to relocate here.
Since coming to the Island, Father McCarron has continued to reach out to those in need of advice about how to protect themselves here.
“The whole country is anxious,” Father McCarron said. “There is a need for immigration reform.”
St. Mary’s has reached out to immigrant families at holiday times and counsels workers who live in Greenport, but come to the Island to work daily. The pastor has a small fund to help people with emergency needs. While in the past, he has helped immigrant students in Greenport, he plans to reach out to Island students this year.
When his ministry was in Brooklyn and Queens, there was discussion about reaching out to Long Island immigrants.
Through the church’s Rural Migrant Ministry, an office is opening now in Riverhead with another center in Greenport.
Father McCarron will also be participating in a Riverhead/North Fork Grassroots Town Hall for Unity at St. John’s School Cafeteria in Riverhead at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26. The event is being sponsored by Long Island Organizations and Allies and is designed to explore how people can become involved in the immigration issue and what resources are available to families concerned about the current crackdown by ICE agents.
That event is being co-chaired by Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate and Southold Anti-Bias Task Force member Carolyn Peabody.
MORE THAN THE POWER OF PRAYER
Other members of the clergy on the Island were asked about their response to the current situation facing immigrants. Father Peter DeSanctis of Our Lady of the Isle said his role is with one-to-one intervention with anyone seeking his assistance.
But another man of the cloth, the Reverend Stephen Fearing of Shelter Island Presbyterian Church has a different approach. One example of his commitment is that he spent time last week in Newark, New Jersey, at a vigil for Mexican immigrant Catalino Guerrero.
Mr. Guerrero, 59, came to the United States from Mexico in 1991, secured a work permit and a Social Security card and was planning to apply for citizenship. But he was advised instead to put the application through for asylum. It was denied.
Suffering from type two diabetes Mr. Guerrero walked slowly from a hotel to a courthouse last Friday, Pastor Fearing said. He was accompanied by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and clergy from many churches and synagogues from around the region.
Threatened with deportation by the Obama administration, he has received several stays. This time, however, he was told to bring his passport to court and fully expected to be deported immediately, Pastor Fearing said.
A grandfather with no criminal history, who has always paid his taxes, Mr. Guerrero is still considered “a threat to this nation,” Pastor Fearing said.
The court gave him another breather, delaying any action until May.
“I urge ICE to give full consideration to his request for a stay of removal so this New Jersey family can live in peace,” said Senator Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, in his appeal to the court.
“What changes the tone of the conversation is personalizing,” Pastor Fearing said. Officials need to meet people like Mr. Guerrero and hear their stories, he added. Putting a face and a name to those the government is trying to deport is important, he said.
Immigration must not be a partisan issue, Pastor Fearing said. All churches should be inclusive and welcoming. His own “session” — a governing board of nine elders of the church — is “wrestling with how to faithfully respond to this crisis,” Pastor Fearing said, believing that the majority of his congregation share his concerns for the undocumented people we see and interact with every day.
At the same time, the minister considers himself as having dual roles — the leader of his congregation and a concerned citizen. “Pushing churches to stand up and believe in prayer is not enough,” Pastor Fearing said. What his upbringing, studies and experiences have taught him, he said, is that “legality and justice are not always the same thing.”
Sometimes “bold acts of justice” can rub some people the wrong way, he said, with some churches offering sanctuary to immigrants or offering assistance to families with childcare issues if parents are arrested by ICE agents. Pastor Fearing defines his role, he said, as mainly one of education, bearing witness and helping tell the stories of the undocumented.
Pastor Fearing thinks it’s essential for community leaders to speak out. “No matter the complexities of any issue, it’s always good to err on the side of compassion,” he said.