By Stan Friedman
TURLOCK, CA (July 27, 2011) – Members of Turlock Covenant Church, almost entirely an Anglo congregation, had gathered for worship last November 7 when the photograph of Maria Isobel Chaparro was illuminated on the screen at the front of the sanctuary.
Maria had attended the church with her family for three years. She sang in the choir, volunteered her services to translate for chaplains ministering to hospice patients, led Bible studies, participated in a variety of other community outreaches of the congregation, and assisted residents of the Covenant Village Care Center, a skilled nursing facility.
Pastor Steve Carlson told the worshipers that on Thursday morning, Maria had dropped off her children – Alex, 12, and Kaylee, 10 – at their school. She then returned home to gather up clothing she intended on donating to an impoverished family with 12 children.
That was when three Homeland Security officers showed up and arrested her. She was being deported. By that Saturday night, Homeland Security had transferred Maria to Arizona – from there she was going to be sent back to Honduras.
“People were just appalled. They couldn’t believe it,” Carlson recalls.
Since that day, the congregation in this politically conservative Central Valley community have been endeavoring to get Maria returned to her family, of which the church consider themselves a part. “The people here really love her,” says Carlson.
During that November worship service in which Carlson broke the news, members signed 117 letters that were shipped to the officer in charge of the Arizona detention facility. They included a copy of a memo from a U.S. immigration official sent to field officers that instructed them to focus on apprehending violent illegal immigrants and give low priority to people caring for minors or the elderly.
That did no good. Two weeks to the day after she was arrested, Maria was flown back to Honduras. Left behind were her husband, Cesar, 42, and two children, all of whom are American citizens.
Few, if any, of the congregation knew that Maria, 44, had come to the United States illegally some 25 years earlier. Just 19 at the time and having suffered from abuse and poverty, she sought a new life here.
Maria gave birth to a son, Dalman, now 25, and moved to Turlock where she started working at a menial job, she told the Modesto Bee in a recent interview. Shortly after arriving in the United States, she became a Christian and started taking English language classes.
Maria met Cesar, a legal resident from Mexico, and they decided to marry. She wanted to become a legal citizen before they wed, though.
Maria paid $500 to a man who widely advertised himself to be an immigration attorney. He turned out to be a fraud and was later arrested in Atlanta and sentenced to prison for his far-reaching scam.
The con man filed asylum applications, but never told his clients when their hearing dates had been scheduled. As a result, Maria and others like her failed to appear, and judges issued deportation notices.
Since that time, the Chaparros had worked with three other attorneys trying to secure her legal status, but eventually gave up after their money ran out. Following her arrest, the church hired a private detective to look into issues connected with the con man and is entreating elected representatives to intercede on her behalf.
They face an uphill battle. There is a three-year wait just to get a hearing on whether Maria can return to the country, based on a waiver that would allow her to return because her family continues to suffer undue hardship.
Typically, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service requires that any person who has lived illegally in this country at least a year and leaves the country for any reason, including deportation, must wait at least 10 years before coming back.
The family is keeping in almost daily contact with Maria via Skype, but it isn’t the same as being together as a family. Cesar, a machinist, has been reluctant to accept much financial assistance, but the congregation, where he operates the soundboard on Sundays, raised money so the family could visit Maria.
When Maria was flown to Honduras, she was dropped off at the airport and left to fend for herself. She eventually made her way to a distant relative’s home.
Since then she has become involved in a church there. It had little discipleship material, so she is now using material from Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos (CHET), the Covenant’s Hispanic training center. She also is using the Covenant’s Hispanic Bible study material, “El Pacto con Dios.”
“That’s one of the things that has kept her sane down there,” says Carlson. “She’s doing ministry.”
Carlson adds he was disgusted with responses left on the Modesto Bee website in response to the article. The paper removed the discussion due to the vitriolic nature of the comments.