After the largest workplace immigration raid in the nation’s history broke up hundreds of Mississippi families, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials made it clear the lives they left behind were of little concern to the government.
“We are a law enforcement agency, not a social services agency,” one ICE official told NBC News.
Neither is St. Anne Catholic Church in Carthage, but that hasn’t stopped the Rev. Roberto Mena from filling the void left when ICE detained nearly 700 agricultural workers across the state.
St. Anne is one of several Mississippi churches which have used their network to provide a lifeline to the families who suddenly found themselves in crisis following the raid. Coordinating with local nonprofits, legal organizations and even other religious institutions, Mississippi churches are providing legal services, trauma counseling and hot meals for churchgoers whose families are grieving the potential deportation of a loved one.
“We are kind of a network of all the parishes,” Mena, pastor-in-residence at St. Anne, told The Daily Beast. Working with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and other parish churches in the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, Mena said, St. Anne has been able to provide parishioners with pro bono immigration attorneys, daily legal clinics, and letters of recommendation for immigration judges, citing the church membership and character of people seized in the operation.
“We want to let them know the good behavior of the people that belong to our churches,” said Mena, who like St. Anne’s pastor, the Rev. Odel Medina, is a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, a Catholic order with the social mission of serving poor, rural, and immigrant Catholics, like those in Carthage.
With its focus on services for immigrant worshippers, St. Anne, which holds two Spanish-language mass services on Sundays and a bilingual service on Tuesdays, was hit hard by the raids. Mena estimated that more than 100 parishioners were detained in the operation, nearly half of its weekly attendees.
“Only half have come back,” Mena said.
Even those lucky enough to be released pending immigration proceedings are in dire need of assistance from the church community, which means that some churches have effectively been converted into triage centers for those affected by the immigration raids, a function that most churches only serve during natural disasters.
“We are now running a crisis center in our parish hall,” said the Rev. Michael O’Brien, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Canton, where an ICE operation targeted employees of a Peco Foods poultry processing plant. “We have lawyers, counselors—for children and adults—and social workers meeting there with impacted families. Our parish hall is also the collection site for donations of food, personal care items and school supplies.”
Sacred Heart has confirmed that all the children in its congregation have at least one parent at home—a burden shared with local school districts, which were celebrating the first day of the school year as the raids began. But even with a parent at home, O’Brien said, “these children are sad, traumatized and scared.”
The church is now making plans for a temporary daycare ministry to assist now-single parents, many of whom have lost their jobs following the raids.
“The concerns are of their bills, because some of them, they were already fired when they came back to their homes,” Mena said. Pearl River Foods, which owns the Carthage poultry plant, fired as many as 200 employees after the raids exposed the widespread hiring of people forbidden from legally working in the United States.
“Since they lost their pay, what we are doing is more coordinating groceries for people, so they can cook at their own homes,” Mena said. To ease the financial burden on small parishes like St. Anne, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson is helping coordinate donations made through Catholic Charities of Jackson.
Counseling sessions, led by volunteer social workers and child psychologists, have also become a critical service, Mena said, particularly for parishioners shaken by the timing of the raids. ICE’s operation was launched only a few days after a white supremacist opened fire on Latino shoppers at an El Paso shopping center who cited racial paranoia about a “Hispanic invasion.” The attack left 22 people dead.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan called the timing of the raids “unfortunate,” but many of St. Anne’s worshippers see the two events as inextricably linked.
“These events are connected, because of the racism and the white supremacist ideology,” Mena said. “This is all related, how this is happening at the same time.”
Mena worries that the compounded stress of targeted violence and targeted immigration raids could take years to heal, particularly for young children.
“A lot of children were traumatized because of what happened on their first day of school,” Mena said. “They will remember that for all their lives.”
As fears of more raids have spread through immigrant communities across the country, other religious organizations have decided to take active measures to ensure the safety of parishioners and their families.
At a religious vigil at the NAACP’s Jackson headquarters last week, leaders from both Protestant and Catholic denominations condemned the raids, calling the operation “appalling and reprehensible to all Christians.”
“Those detained were decent, hard-working families just trying to do their best,” said Jason Cocker, field coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “Now they have to wonder, what are their children going to eat?”
Brian Seage, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, called the spectacle of hundreds of immigrants being forced into buses destined for detention centers “horrifying.”
“I’m glad we can come together with open arms and get the families back together,” Seage said. “Three hundred have been released. That’s not enough.”
One day after the Mississippi operation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America even voted to declare itself a “sanctuary church,” the first North American denomination to do so.
“Becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith,” Candice Hill Buchbinder, the ELCA’s public relations manager, told The Daily Beast, noting that the church has a network of 151 sanctuary congregations. “It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers.”
But not all churches have the resources to provide sanctuary—particularly in small, rural congregations like St. Anne.
“As a Catholic church, we provide the legal assistance or the counseling, but we do not act as sanctuary,” Mena said, primarily due to logistical constraints.
“Almost all of our Catholic churches [in the Jackson diocese], we don’t have enough space,” Mena said. “It’s not that we don’t want it, but the security of the people that come to our church has to come first.”
In the meantime, churches are now faced with dwindling funds to pay for the critical services their parishioners need.
“Emergency funds are needed, as well as money for rent and the most basic household expenses,” said O’Brien. “Much help is needed and will continue to be needed.”