Clewiston | José Garcia (whose name was changed to protect his family) has simple goals in life: to care for his family and to be sure they are safe and stay together. These aspirations are the same for which all families hope. But for a migrant farmworker toiling 60 hours a week in the fields outside of Clewiston, the daily struggle is difficult and very real.
The backbreaking work is just one part of his struggle as he lives in constant fear that U.S. Customs agents will break apart his family. Through a translator, Garcia explained that he has a valid Work Visa. However, his wife and three children do not. Two of his children were born in the United States since 2013, and the whole family has been going through the process of getting the proper documentation for everyone for several years to ensure they can all stay together.
“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to work and care for my family in this great country. Yet each day I’m afraid to hear that my wife and children are being deported while we wait for the paperwork that says they are okay to stay here,” Garcia said. “It’s very scary. And I know I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Father Jiobani Batista, Pastor of St. Margaret Parish, said there is great fear within the Clewiston migrant community and his parishioners have been helping the needy whenever possible.
“It has reached a crisis point,” Father Batista explained. “Families have been broken apart. There are many cases where the father was deported, leaving the mothers and children behind with no means of support. They are human beings and need to be treated as we would want to be treated ourselves — with dignity and compassion.”
In one effort to assist these families, the Parish hosted a Sept. 9 information session and distribution of basic essentials for migrant workers. The session included legal advice by an attorney from Americans for Immigrant Justice. In addition, Philomena A. Pereira, Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc.
CEO, was there to learn firsthand about the local needs and offer words of encouragement. Also present were representatives from the Hendry County School District who explained that enrollment in school was free and that all children aged 5 or older need to attend school. They stressed that immigration status made no difference and their children would be safe while at school.
Following the session, Catholic Charities staff and St. Margaret Parish youth assisted in distributing food and clothes to the 40 in attendance. Additional items were brought directly to those who were unable to attend the information session. St. Francis Xavier Parish in Fort Myers generously donated items which included backpacks and gift cards to Walmart.
The information session and distribution were done in cooperation with Catholic Charities and the Parish, and is just one aspect of that ongoing effort. Catholic Charities also operates a food pantry at the Parish on the second and fourth Fridays of each month, and has a part-time office which provides additional services. While those services help, Pereira said she will remain in close contact with Father Batista and address any urgent needs as they move forward. “This is not a one-time event where we come in and go away,” she explained. “We are here to help meet the needs of these families going forward”
During the information session, Attorney Adonia R. Simpson, the Director of the Family Defense Program of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, provided basic information as to what to do if they are confronted by U.S. Customs or other law enforcement officials for any reason. This is a constant fear which became very real in July when dozens were detained in Clewiston, Immokalee, Naples, Fort Myers and Bonita Springs, in a targeted enforcement operation after which many were deported.
“We want everyone to know their rights,” Simpson said. “There is a clear push for expedited removal. Therefore, without knowing what to say and do when you are detained, you will be deported.”
While Simpson spoke in generalities, as each immigration case is different based on several factors, she did stress that if detained, everyone needs to ask for an attorney immediately and then remain silent. By invoking this right to an attorney, which is granted under the U.S. Constitution to everyone —no matter their immigration status — the entire legal process is slowed, allowing precious time before any deportation can take place.
“Don’t run; don’t show false documents; don’t sign anything without an attorney present, and remain silent,” Simpson said, if confronted. “Make sure you have all of your important documents in a safe place and keep an attorney’s information with you at all times.”
The goal of the information session was not to usurp the law, Simpson explained. If people are here illegally and detained, they will likely be deported at some point.
“Immigration law is complicated, so all non-citizens need to consult with an immigration expert to learn about their rights to deal with any immigration crisis directly,” Simpson said. “There are many cases in which people with the proper documents have been deported simply because they didn’t ask for an attorney to help them.”
Garcia said the information session cleared up several concerns he had and noted he will share what he learned with others. “It is about knowing that you have legal rights. I feel I’m fortunate and will continue to pray that my whole family continues to stay together.”