Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Father Jim

Father Jim performs first communion at Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.

By Damian Ghigliotty, Clark Merrefield and Mathew Warren

Before Father James K. Cunningham relocated to Far Rockaway in 2001 he barely spoke Spanish and had served a predominantly white congregation in his six years of priesthood. Now the 39-year-old pastor, known as Father Jim, leads a multi-ethnic parish at Saint Mary Star of the Sea with a growing number of families from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

And as a leader among Catholic immigrants he now performs his services in Spanish as well as English.

“When they first sent me here I thought they made a mistake,” Cunningham said with a laugh as he sat inside the 88-year-old rectory. “You usually had to be 25 years a priest and I was only six years ordained at the time. But I guess they figured I could adapt – that adaptability was one of my strengths.”

Saint Mary embodies the sea of cultural and economic changes that have occurred on the Queens Peninsula since the early 1970s. As the bulk of second- and third-generation Irish, Germans and Italians packed up and left over the past four decades, a growing number of Hispanics and Caribbean Islanders have made Far Rockaway their home.

Today, the most recent immigrant groups – including Guatemalans, Mexicans and Guyanese – make up more than 70 percent of the 1,400-member congregation.

During a recent Mass, as Cunningham alternated between English and Spanish, more than a dozen children lined up to receive their First Holy Communion. Flags representing 37 different countries lined the inside of the church.

“The parish has had two or three turnovers since I’ve been a member,” said Josephine Kelly, 81, who moved to Far Rockaway from Buffalo in 1964. “Each turnover has caused a bit of an exodus among older members.”

And as those new members came in, so did new customs: from clapping and cheering to outward displays of affection among families.

“Back when it was predominantly white and European families the most you would hear was an occasional whisper,” Kelly added. “Now during services people tend to be a lot more expressive. You’ll often see a son put his arm around his father without giving it a second thought.”

While those changes have helped redefine the church’s inner-culture and the way in which the priests perform their sermons, they have also impacted on the parish’s finances. New groups appeared, but old money faded.

“Far Rockaway has faced the classic phenomena,” said Joseph Barden, executive director of Margert Community Corp., a neighborhood preservation group dedicated to helping struggling homeowners in the area. “In the 1970s there was a lot of white flight followed by a high concentration of poverty and a growth in public housing. Those forces plus immigration drove the original people who used to live here out. The problem for the church has been that most of the new immigrants don’t have the same economic base.”

One of the most apparent cultural and economic shifts can be seen in the fall off of donations given to the church.

“A lot of the churches in South America and the Caribbean are supported by their governments,” Cunningham said. “In the United States, that’s not the case and people aren’t as accustomed to tithing. A lot of the new members put a few dollars in the basket a week and think that’s enough of a donation. As a result, it’s become hard to pay bills when our collection is good, but still not good enough.”

Raul Hernandez, a 33-year-old construction worker who came from Mexico with his wife and two children, is part of the newest wave of immigrants to join the church. While some of the congregation members see a link between their parish’s financial struggles and the growing proportion of immigrants, Hernandez links it to external forces.

“Today things are really difficult,” he said. “The economy is really bad. Before maybe I could give $10 a week, now it’s $5.”

Jason Fernandez, 7, was one of the first children in line to receive communion. After Mass, his mother, Maria, shed tears of joy while the rest of her family waited to take pictures with Cunningham.

“When I have, I give, and it’s from the heart,” she said. “Without the church and without God, I don’t think we could survive in this country.”

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By Damian Ghigliotty

(Photo by Michael Hicks)

There have been enough arguments over the immigration debate post-2004 to make a pie chart look like a kaleidoscope. Every dispute from how unwanted immigrants (typically those from Central and South America) help our economy and sense of cultural diversity— bringing little crime with them —to arguments concerning overpopulation, language changes, and national security in post-9/11 America. Even the weighted statistic that 85% of current child predators are criminal immigrants. What interests me though is what motivates the different points that people, including members of the federal government, make, regardless of their actual stances.

Nina Bernstein, an immigration reporter for The New York Times, covered a local story on April 10th about a raid against a family of legal Ecuadorian immigrants in East Hampton by federal agents searching for one illegal immigrant, Patrizio Wilson Garcia, who was ordered to be deported back in 2003.

The Leon family’s story is one of several thousands that have been occurring around the country— especially in small suburbs near larger cities —increasingly since Bush proposed his 2004 immigration reform plan. The questions it raises now are not only how accepting we should be of illegal aliens in our country, but also what procedures our federal government is taking to find them. On a slightly more suggestive level, it brings up the question of whether or not illegal immigration takes precedence over crimes, such as domestic violence, murder and rape, committed by fellow American citizens.

Of the 600,000 fugitive immigrants being targeted by federal agents, which is about 5.4 percent of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, some, perhaps the majority, were convicted of serious offenses such as rape and murder. The rest were labeled as felons after they re-crossed the border having once been removed for minor infringements. However, Garcia’s only known offense was the divorce between him and his wife, Adriana Leon, which instantly made him an illegal alien in the United States. The rest of the Leon family is a three-generation immigrant household, where every member is a legal citizen by naturalization or birth.

Quoting Christopher Shanahan, the director of deportation and removal for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York, Bernstein wrote that “unlike a criminal search warrant, which requires a judge to review the evidence and find probable cause for a search, the ‘administrative warrant’ used by immigration agents is approved only by the team’s supervisor – and is valid only with the consent of the occupants.”

“Valid with consent” translates to the fact that when federal agents appear at the suspected home of an illegal immigrant, they must first receive permission from one of the household members before they can enter. The grandmother of the Leon family ostensibly said “yes”, which gave Shanahan’s team the immediate go ahead. Perhaps Mrs. Leon is an informant for the FBI; but in all seriousness, restrictions on federal warrants for non-citizens are proven to be more liberal and less conscripted than the restrictions on warrants for suspected murderers, rapists, and crime organizers. The argument against that is that federal warrants for American criminals are restricted under the maxim “innocent until proven guilty”, while the 600,000 fugitive immigrants being targeted have already been proven guilty of illegal citizenship.

An interesting socio-economic factor behind the Garcia situation is that what happened on April 10th in East Hampton, a generally white, upper-middle class suburb, has been linked to long running complaints from neighbors about Leon family barbecues, where, as with most other Latin American parties, noisy outdoor games, loud music, and booty shaking can often be found. At the same time, those neighborhood complaints have led to over eighteen inspections by local code enforcers. Other common complaints about immigrant families around the U.S. include: sanitation, overcrowding (especially in the realm of education), language barriers, the deflation of property values, and the exploitation of social assistance.

It’s hard not to see the issue of legal citizenship as being a bit more culturally affected than our federal government is willing to admit. Would Mr. Garcia be as much of a priority if the Leon family lived in the middle of Sunset Park, Brooklyn? Doubtfully. Then again, to paraphrase something my father once told me, suburbs like East Hampton have their defining characteristics just as much as neighborhoods like Sunset Park. From that point of view, urbanization is no better or worse than gentrification. It just depends on your outlook and how unused to change you are.

 

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