Anxious immigrants focus on their rights


CAMDEN — Remember, the speakers advised — as if addressing soldiers who could become prisoners of war — you don’t have to say anything after giving your name.

If questioned by an officer, they continued, do not say if you are undocumented. Do not say where you are from. Do not say how you came to the United States.

Two speakers, immigrants themselves, were talking to some 100 people at the first of two Know Your Rights Workshops for Immigrants, held at Cathedral Hall at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden on Feb. 13.

It was scheduled on a Monday because that is the day restaurants are most likely to be closed, and so many immigrants work in restaurants, said Sister of Saint Joseph Veronica Roche, one of the organizers of the workshops. She currently lives in Maple Shade but spent years working with immigrant parishioners at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden.

“There is great anxiety in the community. The children are picking up on it, too,” she said, referring to President Donald Trump’s promises to deport the country’s estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

The evening was, in some ways, a family affair, with tired children sitting on their parent’s lap and bored adolescents playing games on their phones.

Their parents were not bored, as they heard attorneys from the Center for Law and Social Justice — Jeff DeCristofero and Carol Wood — suggest they make arrangements ahead of time for someone to be able to pick up their children from school in case they get detained. They also suggested arranging for someone to have power of attorney over their finances in the event of legal trouble, and making contact with a lawyer before they need one.

The day after the workshop, Catholic bishops whose dioceses are along the U.S.-Mexico border issued a joint statement, noting the “pain, the fear, and the anguish” they’re seeing in immigrants and vowed to follow the example of the pope in building “bridges, rather than the walls of exclusion and exploitation.”

Church leaders have consistently used biblical allusions when advocating for immigrants, often citing, as the border bishops did, the plight of the Holy Family as they sought refuge and a compassionate human response.

For attendees at the Camden workshop, a parallel may be Moses in Midian, who described himself as “a stranger in a foreign land.” For them, this foreign land is a place where knowing the laws, procedures and, above all, their rights can make a decisive difference for their future, as well as that of their family.

Attendees heard explanations about search warrants, and what legal authorities can do if they come to their work. They were advised to remain calm in any situation, to never carry fake documents or give fake names. They were also given contact information for immigrant legal service providers, including Catholic Charities and the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice.

The event was publicized at the Catholic churches in Camden with large Hispanic memberships.

The presentation drew a distinction between local police and other law enforcement agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A bilingual Camden police officer emphasized to the audience that they need not fear reporting crimes, either as victims or witnesses.

“People confuse immigrants with terrorists,” said Sister Veronica. “They don’t have a clue about the suffering of immigrant families. These families are not much different from immigrants in our own families. They come here for work.”

If you go:

The second Know Your Rights for Immigrants workshop will be held at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 12:30 p.m.

Catholic Charities and the Center for Law and Social Justice are supported by the House of Charity.