Immigrants founded St. Patrick’s Church in Fells Point almost 250 years ago, as they sought to start a new life in Baltimore. On Sunday, some of the nation’s most recent refugees gathered in the church in hopes of keeping their lives here.
Many of them have been concerned, and confused, in the days since President Donald J. Trump’s administration announced that about 200,000 Salvadorans will have to leave the United States next year, as leaders in Washington debate whether to allow other protected immigrants to remain here. Their anxiety increased last week when Trump reportedly disparaged El Salvador, Haiti and Africa, and asked why the United States would want their peoples here.
The Esperanza Center, a program of Catholic Charities of Baltimore that provides free legal services and health care to immigrants, launched the first of a series of informational sessions at St. Patrick’s on Sunday about the complicated and fast-changing policies of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.
Even as it appears that many could be forced out of the country, Heather Benno, the center’s managing attorney, told Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Hondurans that they should wait, stay apprised of any new developments and stay in touch with the center’s lawyers.
“Nada es cierto,” she told them — nothing is certain.
The Trump administration said Jan. 8 that it would not renew Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans. The program has given legal status to immigrants from the Central American nation to live and work in the United States since a pair of devastating earthquakes hit the country in 2001, but it is set to end in September 2019.
For one attendee, a 27-year-old Randallstown woman who arrived in the country from El Salvador 18 years ago, the news was troubling. She attended the session hoping to learn whether she would still be able to enter the United States if she goes back to El Salvador — a trip she has to make to start the process of gaining legal permanent residency through her employer, a physical therapy practice.
She was relieved when Benno said reentry was indeed allowed.
“I’ve been here for so long,” said the woman, who declined to share her name with The Baltimore Sun. “I thought you couldn’t leave.”
Another Salvadoran who requested anonymity, a 33-year-old Greektown man who works in construction, said he is no better or worse off because of Trump’s announcement because he did not have temporary protected status. He made the trip to the United States alone six years ago, going from the Salvadoran city of Usulután to Baltimore with no friends or relatives. He went days without food and slept in trash.
He was eager to learn more about the policy changes nonetheless — because now, he has friends.
“The information is not for me,” he said in Spanish. “It’s good to know what happened.”
The administration has also declined to renew protected status for Nicaraguans, and is considering the same for Hondurans.
Benno said the angst is compounded by pronouncements from immigration officials, often at the last minute, about work permit renewal periods. For example, the permits that allow Haitians to work in the United States all expire Jan. 22, but there has been no announcement about how they can renew the documents to work until protected status ends in July 2019. The process can take weeks and require immigrants to quickly come up with as much as $600.
“There are serious consequences, but they’re not giving the adequate instructions so people who have followed the rules this entire time can continue to follow the rules,” Benno said. “It really is a way of weeding out the people who don’t have the money to do this.”
Fears in immigrant communities spiked last week when immigration officials raided nearly 100 7-Eleven stores across the country.
Giuliana Valencia-Banks, a legal administrative assistant at the Esperanza Center, reminded the attendees of Sunday’s session that they have some power to protect themselves from such prosecution.
She told them they had the right to refuse to provide their names, fingerprints or documents to police unless they are being arrested, in which case they can exercise their rights to remain silent and to ask for a lawyer. She reminded them they don’t have to open their doors to immigration officials who lack a judge’s order.
Valencia-Banks then asked the group, why did raids of so many 7-Eleven stores result in only 21 arrests?
“Because the immigrants already knew their rights,” she said in Spanish. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or your country of origin — the Constitution of this great country protects us.”