CHICAGO, IL (March 22, 2017) – In the wake of recent crackdowns on illegal immigration, attendance at many Hispanic Covenant congregations has dropped dramatically, say Hispanic church leaders. Families are discussing possible scenarios should any of their members be deported.
“The fear is real,” says Danny Martinez, pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Spring Valley, California, and president of the Ministry of Hispanic Covenant Churches in the United States (MHIPE). “There has been a significant decrease of attendance at our churches all across the country.”
At a gathering of roughly 20 ECC Hispanic pastors in Los Angeles three weeks ago, one pastor said attendance had dropped to 30 percent, said Ed Delgado, president of El Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos (CHET), the Covenant’s Hispanic leadership training center. Other pastors expressed similar concerns.
The changes are due to the increasing crackdown on illegal immigration in the wake of President Donald Trump’s January 26 executive order. Immigration authorities say the order emphasized arresting people with criminal records. But the new order also provides greater latitude to detain individuals who have had no run-ins with the law or who have been cited for minor infractions.
Although people without criminal records were detained under the Obama administration, which deported more people than any previous administration, the new order makes that much more likely. In a highly publicized case, a mother in Phoenix who had been allowed to stay in the country as long as she reported to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office every six months was arrested when she reported as required this past February. The mother, who had been in the country since she was 14 years old, was deported.
To Hispanics, the fear is palpable. This is a very heart-wrenching time – Gricel Medina
Melvin Ardon, director of Hispanic ministries at Rolling Hills Covenant Church in Rolling Hills Estates, California, said three families are in the process of pursuing political asylum, but they are nervous about going to court for fear of being picked up and deported by immigration authorities.
Covenant minister Gricel Medina said she recently attended a worship service led by a friend and church planter. Roughly 75 percent of the congregation had stayed home, and some were afraid to send their children to school.
While those fears may sound overblown to some, “to Hispanics, the fear is palpable. This is a very heart-wrenching time,” Medina said.
Some families must decide whether to return to Latin America or risk becoming separated. One Covenanter is a citizen, but his wife has been living in the United States illegally for more than a decade. Their two children are citizens. The woman has been unable to pursue citizenship because she entered illegally, her husband said. If she is deported or leaves the country for any reason, she will not be allowed back for at least 10 years—even if she goes through a legal process, her husband said. Contributions to Hispanic congregations have declined as well. One minister at the Los Angeles gathering told attendees that families in her congregation are saving their money in case one of the parents earning an income is deported. Others reported similar stories.
One presenter at the Los Angeles gathering distributed a document from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center titled “Preparing Your Family for Immigration Enforcement” for pastors to share with parishioners.
The recent orders are also affecting immigrants who are in the country legally. Ardon and a team from Centennial Covenant Church in Littleton, Colorado, launched a pastors training program in Kenya using translated CHET materials. The first graduates will be honored in ceremonies next month. Although members of the team had planned to attend, one has decided to stay home, fearing that we will not be permitted to return to the United States—despite having a green card.
Martinez, who has been nominated to be the superintendent of the Central Conference, said he understands that people have differences about immigration policy, but he tells Covenanters that those who are living in fear, being deported, and becoming separated from their families are their brothers and sisters. “We love the Covenant, and we are asking you to pray for us.”