Catholic Courier

Posted: December 21, 2009

Last Updated: February 2, 2010

Church Watch group in Sodus seeks justice for migrants

By Annette Jiménez/Catholic Courier

SODUS -- Church of the Epiphany -- which for more than a decade has served as a spiritual sanctuary for migrant-worker families with and without documents -- sat largely empty this summer during its weekly Spanish Masses.

In the past, about 200 to 250 people would attend the Spanish Mass each week, remarked Sister Luci Romero, the diocesan migrant minister for Wayne County. At times this summer, there were only about 10 to 15 people.

The migrant workers who usually filled the pews had been warned against traveling to the one place they could count on for spiritual enrichment and community support. The workers have been on high alert since the beginning of summer when U.S. Border Patrol officers arrested a bicyclist who stopped at the supermarket across the street on his way to church.

Dr. John "Lory" Ghertner of Sodus, who began working with migrants during his public-health career, has become close to the migrant families who are subjects of a documentary being filmed by his wife, Nancy. During a Sept. 14 interview at the church hall, Ghertner rhetorically asked what type of traffic infraction one could commit on a bicycle to warrant being pulled over, contending that the bicyclist likely was stopped simply for having brown skin.

The injustice of scaring away from church migrant workers, who largely hail from Mexico and Central America, was too much for Ghertner, who noted that the church should be an oasis from the fear that permeates workers’ daily lives due to increased immigration crackdowns and raids.

Ghertner decided to recruit friends and community members for a Church Watch that would enable migrant workers to attend Mass with peace of mind. The group, which has varied in size from week to week and has included members of other faith communities, has stood guard during Epiphany's Spanish Masses all summer.

The church, he said "is not just church, it’s a community. It’s where they meet people from home. It’s where they meet new people. ... Basically, I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore, particularly when a lot of (the migrant workers) have become friends."

Just weeks after Sister Romero said that some workers were starting to feel more at ease and trickling back to church, immigration officers conducted another major raid at a farm on Ridge Road in Sodus during the early morning hours of Sept. 28.

Michael Gilhooly, communications director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's northeast region, said that agents were seeking out fugitives who had been ordered deported to their native countries. He said that 20 people were arrested, and three women, who were charged with being in the United States illegally, were released for "humanitarian reasons."

Ghertner, who was on the scene at the tail end of the raid, said that he saw agents dressed in black who had the words "federal agents" on the backs of their jackets.

"The officers (who conducted the raid) clearly identify themselves as ICE officers," Gilhooly noted. "But we are like any law-enforcement agency, we don't discuss operational issues."

Ghertner said that he feels the raid was abhorrent.

"This was a SWAT team that invaded this community," he said. "They terrorized this entire community."

Following the Sept. 28 raid, Ghertner said that Epiphany's parking lot was empty at the start of that day's Spanish Mass and was filled up with a few cars by the time Mass ended.

Several years ago, fear kept workers away from Masses at Brockport's Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as reported by an article in the Catholic Courier in 2001. Since then, parishioners reported fewer border-patrol car sightings. But in recent months such patrols again have been spotted passing the church, and parishioners believe this deterred migrant workers from attending the annual welcoming celebration in June.

Ghertner said that immigration officials should be taken to task for targeting churches, a move he sees as unconstitutional. The practice also is garnering national attention. In light of arrests this summer at spiritual retreats, pastors in Arizona now fear the unofficial policy of immigration officers staying away from schools, churches and playgrounds has gone by the wayside, according to reports by The Arizona Republic. Gilhooly said that ICE generally does not operate "in or around churches or schools." Officials from the U.S. Border Patrol office in Buffalo did not respond to requests for comment.

"The Bill of Rights is not just for citizens, it’s for anyone," Ghertner remarked. "If you are in this country, you have basic human rights."

Wally Ruehle, director of the Legal Aid Society Immigration Program in Rochester, likewise asserted that the right to freedom of religion under the First Amendment does not just apply to citizens. Information from the National Lawyers Guild Web site at www.nlg.org also states that immigrants have constitutional protections.

Migrant workers also should be allowed to worship because all humans -- from the richest to the poorest -- are sacred in the eyes of God, said Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester's Catholic Family Center.

"It is an affront to God and his children when anyone is harassed or worse when he or she chooses to worship," agreed Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator. "When people see fit to interfere with the free exercise of religion, regardless of the reason, we disregard the dignity of our humanness given to us by God."

Undocumented workers risk their lives to reach this country because they also have the right to survive, which should supersede human laws, Mich added.

"The right to sustenance is higher than the right to private property and everything else," he noted. "If you are starving, you have to find ways to feed your family, and that’s a life question. We need to settle this as a country."

Since comprehensive immigration reform has yet to be adopted, fear stemming from the bicyclist’s arrest in Sodus kept even documented workers away from attending Mass to avoid being questioned, Ghertner noted. About 300 migrant workers have been detained thus far this year, Sister Romero said.

"The church was always full (in the past)," noted Maria Olivera, who moved to the area with her husband, Francisco, who could not join her at Mass Sept. 14 because he was picking apples. Both Maria and Francisco are citizens. "Now, we are seeing very few (migrant workers). ... It’s unjust. They are here working. They’re not doing anything bad."

The situation had begun to improve in July following the posting on YouTube of a video showing a border-patrol car driving past the church, Ghertner and Sister Romero said. The video, created by Ghertner's wife, may be viewed at www.justiceforimmigrants.org/new.html.

Before the video was posted, Sister Romero that said patrols would continually drive past the church and around the surrounding neighborhoods. She added that some cars would even park at the intersection of routes 88 and 104, which is just a few blocks away from the church.

In the past month "we had had a reprieve (from patrols)," Sister Romero added. "We thought they would leave us in peace."

Sister Romero said that the Church Watch effort has been fruitful and that people have begun returning to Mass. By the second Sunday in September, about 40 people attended, although Ghertner pointed out that most in attendance had documents or were citizens. But with harvest season in full swing, workers have begun reporting more sightings of border-patrol cars, and Sister Romero said she fears people will have to stay away from Mass again.

"They should not be around here," Sister Romer said of border patrol. "But better that (workers) not come if they don't feel safe."

Ghertner said he will continue finding others in the community to work together and create a safe environment for the migrant workers. The Church Watch group also will strive to connect people to community resources.

Ghertner said that he will continue finding others in the community to work together and create a safe environment for the migrant workers. The Church Watch group also will strive to connect people to community resources.

"I’m not looking for change," he remarked. "I’m looking for agents of change."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Members of the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights is planning to hold a rally at Church of the Epiphany, 105 W. Main St., Sodus, on Oct. 12 as part of a National Day Against Raids and Oppression. For more information, call 585-454-7932 or e-mail nghertner@verizon.net.