An Uncertain Future

June 26, 2011

An uncertain future: Will we lose people?

Six months ago, Mario Reyes’ prayer group at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church filled the sanctuary with just more than 500 people, many of whom stood because they couldn’t find a seat.

Now, everyone sits comfortably, and participation has dropped to about 300. Reyes believes a heightened crackdown on undocumented immigrants is to blame as many of the parishioners have either left the state or are afraid to get out in their vehicles for fear they could be caught at a roadblock and deported. Getting caught going to or from church is not unheard of.

“Families don’t often go places other than their own houses because they are afraid of encountering the police,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “The problem undocumented residents face is there are repercussions in all aspects (of life) — social, political, economical, recreational, family-related and cultural.”

Some argue House Bill 87, the state’s new immigration law which begins going into effect on July 1, is unfair to undocumented residents who have lived nearly their entire lives here or that it is unconstitutional because it usurps federal law. Others say it is a long overdue response to years of looking the other way while immigrants enter the country illegally.

Regardless of the politics involved, one thing many say is certain is the crackdown is sending a large number of Hispanics packing.

Reyes attributes their leaving to fear of House Bill 87, as well as a new interpretation of an old law that now means a person caught driving without a license can be taken to jail and fingerprinted, thus cueing police to his or her immigration status.

Many church members have fled the Dalton area for Illinois, Washington state or their native country, he said. Those who are staying often avoid going places that require them to be in a vehicle, he said.

Elizabeth Velasquiz, who is a member of St. Joseph’s, struggled through tears to explain her own family’s situation — and her fears that her loved ones will be divided across the Western Hemisphere as the state cracks down on undocumented immigrants.

“We’re very family-oriented and that’s our culture, we tend to stick together and bond. So if one has to leave, probably the other one will have to leave,” she said. “See, because I’m legal but my husband is not, and we will have to go back to our countries. His country will be Guatemala and mine will be Mexico, and we’re growing a family here, so we have that fear. We’re staying here to see what happens, but (if he is caught) ... I know he will have to get deported.

“I’m living my life right now with that fear that that will happen, and I know my husband has not done anything wrong. I know he came illegally here, but he is a hard-working man and he has not done any harm to the country in any way.”

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An Uncertain Future