ICE Raids Spur Fear, Activism in NYC Churches

Some churches have seen a decline in attendance over fears of Donald Trump’s immigration policies. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

Just as he has every Sunday for the past six years, Ecuador native Raúl Morán attends mass with his family at Sunset Park’s St. Michael Catholic Church. Hearing the sermon is a tradition he has kept since he was a child. Still, he is worried about the diminishing number of Hispanic churchgoers he has seen in the last few months.

Morán, 57 years old and a resident of Rego Park, said that he has noticed fewer parishioners in Spanish Sunday mass ever since President Donald Trump won the November election.

“Many people became disappointed. What was in store for undocumented people was clear from the moment Trump won. The church has done a lot to keep Hispanic families united and calmed. Misinformation has created a great deal of fear. There are people who believe that immigration agents will carry out operations in our churches, even though our temples are the safest places right now,” said Morán, born in the Cañar province.

A father and grandfather, Morán lamented that the church’s benches are not being filled during Sunday mass even though St. Michael’s and the Brooklyn Defense Committee have held forums with parishioners regarding the policies promoted by President Trump.

His wife, Lourdes Segundo, believes that the decreasing numbers are linked to the fear generated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations carried out in New York, although the federal agency has made it clear that the arrests are planned and specific, not random.

“We know that many immigrants avoid going out. The fear is so great that many do not even dare to come to mass. However, many more of us are convinced that churches will not be violated by immigration agents. I, at least, don’t think that they will dare to come in by force looking for immigrants who have sought refuge in churches,” said Segundo.

Notices with information on ICE’s new deportation priorities stand out among the religious posters displayed at St. Michael’s. The church is offering its parishioners a packet called “Family Plan in Case of Emergency,” published by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

“We understand that we are living a moment of extreme tension. Our office believes that the most important thing you can do is remain informed and prepared for what may happen, and find competent legal counsel,” states the Catholic Migration Service, an organization offering free legal services in Queens and Brooklyn.

Catholic churches not the only ones affected

St. Michael’s is not the only church in Sunset Park seeing a drop in attendance at their Spanish masses. In a neighborhood with a population of 130,635 in which 44 percent are Hispanic, the fear is evident.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, a reverend with the St. Jacobi Lutheran Church, said that attendance to their Spanish masses has dropped 20 percent since Trump took office as president of the United States.

Mexican-born María Inés Cordero, 42, has also noticed more empty benches in the last few months.

“The absence of parishioners has been noticeable since the first days of the Trump administration,” said Cordero, a regular at St. Jacobi. “The leaders of the church always comfort us and keep us posted on what the White House is planning. Still, many people stopped coming. It’s no wonder; people think that not coming out of their homes and avoiding public places are ways to reduce the risk of being detained.”

Rev. Ruiz is one of the religious leaders in charge of the New Sanctuary Movement in New York, which plans to bring together Christian, Jewish and Muslim places of worship to provide shelter to undocumented people persecuted by ICE and facing imminent deportation.

“It is inevitable that fear will translate into an absence of parishioners. However, organizing our immigrant communities is a way to tackle a situation that has created tension, uncertainty and anguish in our families,” said Ruiz.

The opposite effect: More parishioners willing to fight

Not all churches in the area report dwindling numbers of parishioners at their services. On the contrary: At some, attendance is more active than ever before. Rev. Fredy Patiño, from the St. Mary, Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph churches on Staten Island, said that the country’s current sociopolitical climate has fueled the faith and hope of many believers.

“We have continued to see massive attendance to our masses, particularly among Hispanic parishioners, and it is fundamentally due to the Catholic Church’s support and its mission to always help the neediest. (…) Jesus was an immigrant; Our Lord endured the calamities of immigration,” said the priest, who heads the advisory council of the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of Hispanic Ministry.

The priest emphasized that community forums are being held at parishes in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island to inform churchgoers and the general public about President Trump’s immigration policies.

“The Catholic Church is a mother that takes care of its children at a time of extreme confusion,” said the cleric.

Rev. Patiño said that the St. Mary, Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph churches have kept a stable attendance of between 400 and 500 faithful at their Sunday masses.

“Believers turn to God in these challenging days,” said Patiño.

The religious leader pointed out that Catholic priests in the area are quite interested in helping out and finding ways to respond to the needs of parishioners and their families. So far, spreading information and clarifying questions have taken priority over addressing Sunday mass attendance.

Rev. Patiño added that they will be holding forums at the Archdiocese of New York’s parishes. He recommended calling your local church in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island to obtain information on upcoming events.

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