by Bob Geary
It was Easter weekend in 2010 when members of a small Hispanic church, Iglesia Buen Pastor, while returning from a religious exercise in Texas, were pulled over by federal agents in Louisiana for looking suspiciously like they might be immigrants — undocumented immigrants, even. Those with no children were deported immediately. Those with children were threatened with deportation, and they've been fighting it since. We reported on their case last year. Today, we have good news from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. They won't be deported.
And it only took two years —
Immigration Charges Dropped For 22 Raleigh Church Members After A Stressful Two Year Legal Battle
Raleigh, NC- Late last week 22 members of the Buen Pastor Church received final confirmation that the Department of Homeland Security is no longer seeking to have them deported. They had been stopped and detained by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Lake Charles, Louisiana on April 15, 2010, on their return home from Holy Week festivities in Houston, Texas. The church members were awaiting their deportation when they received the news that their cases had been closed.
They were subjected to civil rights and due process violations throughout their interaction with CBP including racial profiling, threats to place their children in foster care and mockery for their religious dress. Five of those involved in the proceedings were under 18.
Jorge Calderon, who attends the Buen Pastor church with his wife and two young children shared, “When I heard the news that our case was administratively closed I prayed with my family in thanks to God. We were haunted by what happened. The uncertainty of our future brought emotional stress into our lives, especially for my children. Their friends, their school and their lives are here and I could not tell them whether we would have to leave.”
Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), which provides legal, organizing media and research support to community organizations, provided ongoing support to the church since October 2010. Attorney Elizabeth Simpson, who co-defended them with the SCSJ since 2010, said, “This case was a long shot; we had justice on our side but not the law. However, we did not consider giving up for a minute, and the lives of 22 individuals have been fundamentally changed because of that. They can imagine their futures now.”
Thanks to the “Morton Memo”, a policy released by John Morton, director of Homeland Security, in June 2011, DHS officials were empowered to use their discretion to administratively close immigration cases of individuals in deportation proceedings who do not pose a public safety risk, have been in this country for numerous years, and have filed civil rights claims among other criteria. The church members were among a handful of cases in North Carolina granted administrative closure.
Simpson said, “The reason we won this case is because of the multiple strategies employed. Alongside the legal work, the church members led a public pressure campaign and I think that was the tipping point”. The case drew attention and sympathy of supporters across the country. For the last two years church members have held vigils and rallies to talk about the abuses they experienced. They organized a petition sending over 900 signatures to Immigration officials. These are strategies that have been used by immigrant youth who have successfully stopped their deportations.
This case exposed the reality of abuse facing many immigrant communities. “What we won is a significant victory but it is only a stop-gap solution for the church members,” according to Rebecca Fontaine, community organizer with SCSJ. “Under our current immigration system we are facing a human rights crisis. We need to keep working for systemic change. ”
Elizabeth Simpson was an immigration legal fellow with the Southern Coalition with SCSJ from Sept 2010 to Sept 2011. She is currently a staff attorney at Prisoner Legal Services.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in August, 2007 in Durham, North Carolina by a multi-disciplinary group, predominantly people of color, who believe that families and communities engaged in social justice struggles need a team of lawyers, social scientists, community organizers and media specialists to support them in their efforts to dismantle structural racism and oppression.