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UUs share their own immigration stories

Immigration problems beset ministers as well as lay people.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
11.8.10

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The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister of the UUs of Clearwater, Fla., speaks at the 2010 General Assembly about his own experience with immigration authorities. (Nancy Pierce)

The Rev. Martin Woulfe remembers it as the worst day of his life.

He had arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to pick up his wife, Angela, and their two-year-old daughter, who were returning from a two-week trip to visit Angela’s family in Spain. Woulfe watched as the line of passengers from their flight slowed to a trickle and then stopped. His wife and daughter were nowhere among them.

As his worry increased, he got a call from Angela and learned that she had been detained by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services). Angela and their daughter were in the process of being deported back to Spain.

Woulfe felt helpless. He was not allowed to see his family, and he was not allowed to speak to any INS agents to plead his wife’s case. He wanted to explain to the agents that she had a resident alien card and that she had a receipt from the INS showing that she had already applied for an extension visa. The INS maintained that because the visa had not yet been granted, she was under suspicion. The agents seized her green card and deported Angela and their daughter.

Woulfe drove home alone. He gripped the steering wheel tight so the car wouldn’t shake from his trembling hands. Then he began making phone calls to try to get his family back together.

That incident happened to Woulfe and his family in 2001. He serves now as the minister of the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield, Ill. Like other Unitarian Universalists who have been caught in the maze of the immigration system, he has particular antipathy for the bureaucracy and intolerance that many immigrants are facing.

Immigration has become a front-burner issue in many congregations. In June, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly selected immigration reform as the new four-year Congregational Study/Action Issue, and it endorsed holding a special “justice” General Assembly focused on immigration issues in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2012. Unitarian Universalists have also been active and vocal in demonstrations protesting Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, an anti-illegal immigration law that took effect at the end of July.

As these public actions unfold, some Unitarian Universalists are wrestling quietly with their own struggles with the immigration system. For them and their congregations, the immigration laws are deeply personal, disrupting lives and splitting families apart.

As minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix in the border state of Arizona, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray has several parishioners with family members who are struggling to achieve legal immigration status.

“These personal stories of people who are caught in our broken immigration system and whose lives are torn apart remind us that we are talking about people. Human beings,” said Frederick-Gray. “The rhetoric in our country around immigration dehumanizes people. It focuses on criminalizing men and women, mothers and fathers, and children. They have the same hopes and dreams and desires for their families as any people do.”

One family in Frederick-Gray’s congregation witnessed their mother being seized by Homeland Security officials last year and deported. The mother had lived in the United States for 20 years and had two adult children in the United States who were both citizens.

Many people are reluctant to share their stories publicly for fear of angering immigration officials who control their fate or the fate of a family member. Some ministers acknowledged that they had people within their congregation with unresolved immigration issues. However, they were not able to comment because of confidentiality concerns.

Ivan Mendez shared his story with his congregation, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, after he became a legal resident of the United States. Prior to that, he lived in fear in Overland Park, Kans., with his wife and son, both U.S. citizens.

Members of his congregation knew Mendez as an active volunteer in the church’s Sunday school and a fixture, with his wife, Sarah, in the back row of the Fellowship Hall where the couple sat together each week. What they didn’t know was that Mendez had walked across the desert at the Mexican-U.S. border at 5 a.m. one March morning in 2000. He worked multiple, menial jobs, many days from 8 a.m until 11 p.m., catching catnaps in a bathroom stall on his occasional 20-minute breaks. He sent his money home to Veracruz, Mexico, to support his mother, sister, and brother, who were living in a dilapidated house with a dirt floor, crumbling roof, and no indoor plumbing.

The Rev. Thom Belote told Mendez’s story to the Overland Park congregation in a sermon on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2008 as Mendez sat in the pews, surrounded by his church community. Belote detailed the danger Mendez faced when, after eight years of living in the United States, he decided to return to Mexico so that he could legally apply for residency with his wife in the United States. Belote was among the 17 people who wrote letters on Mendez’s behalf.

Mendez returned to Veracruz and saw his mother and siblings for the first time in eight years. The house had been renovated with the money he had sent home, and both his brother and sister had used the money Mendez earned in Kansas to attend college. Mendez’s chances of gaining legal residency were about fifty-fifty. If he succeeded, he would be granted permission to re-enter the United States for two years. If not, he would be banned from entering the country for 10. “Fortunately,” Belote told the congregation, “Ivan won his appeal.”

Mendez got his green card in 2009. And in 2011, he can start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “I decided to tell everyone in church about my travel here,” said Mendez, in a phone interview. “I wanted to bring it to people’s attention in case we had people in the church who are illegal.”

Mendez said that for eight years, he was scared all the time. “I was scared of looking into people’s faces. I put my head down. I felt I wasn’t level with them.” Gaining a green card has changed his legal status and his sense of self-worth. “I feel more safe and proud,” he said. Mendez cares for his son during the days, and takes classes in the evenings, as he studies to perfect his English and trains to be an electrician. He is putting aside his old feelings of fear now that his legal status has changed. “If somebody beat me in the street two years ago, I could not call the police,” he said. “Those kinds of things happened. People see the color of my skin, and because I am brown they give me a look. But I’m not scared anymore.”

“It is absolutely clear to me that our immigration policies and enforcement in the United States are profoundly broken,” Belote told the congregation in that Thanksgiving service. “They are destructive to communities, offensive to human dignity, and entirely lacking a moral compass. Our immigration system hurts families, hurts the lives and livelihoods of immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, and does not reflect the best of what our nation aspires to be.”


At the General Assembly in Minneapolis this past June, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi shared his own struggles with the U.S. immigration authorities. Senior minister of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Fla., Janamanchi told of his many “dehumanizing experiences” with the INS as he endured the bureaucracy to obtain a religious professional visa, a green card, and ultimately permanent resident alien status.

Even still, Janamanchi, who was born and raised in India, says that he and his wife and son endure “regular pat-downs at airports” and people yell at him and his family to “go back to Iraq.” They live, he said, “with constant reminders that we are outsiders, foreigners, people who don't belong.”

He told the General Assembly that it is painful. But what helps him find balance and calm is his Unitarian Universalist faith. “By affirming my inherent worth and dignity as a human being, by accepting me for who I am, as I am, my faith gives me the strength to work through the pain and anger of these experiences. By showing hospitality of the heart and hand, our Unitarian Universalist faith community helps my family and me feel at home in this country.”

Janamanchi continued: “This call to welcome the stranger, the alien, the immigrant is also an ancient precept of many religions. Yet it is desperately needed in today's world, which is so infected by xenophobic fears. Failure to adequately deal with this fear at many levels has led to what recently happened in Arizona.”

“Today’s world desperately needs to hear words of welcome spoken across dividing lines. Today’s world needs to see examples of strangers being welcomed as guests. Today's world needs religious communities, such as ours, responding to the call to practice radical hospitality.”


Back in Springfield, Ill., Woulfe and his wife and daughter were reunited about three weeks after she was deported to Spain. After years of wrangling with the INS, the U.S. State Department, and Homeland Security, Angela is now a legal resident alien. But her name will forever raise a red flag with immigration officials when she returns to the United States. And the family has grown accustomed to her being detained by officials each time she reenters the country.

Despite the nightmare his family survived, Woulfe counts his family among the lucky ones, as they were reunited, and his wife gained legal status. “Our situation was relatively painless when we look at what other families are enduring.”

Woulfe’s congregation recently hosted a speaker from the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, which is advocating for Latino and African immigrant families who are living in Beardstown and Rushville, Ill., and working at meat packing plants there. Woulfe believes it is important to keep the issue in front of congregations and remind members of the denominational commitment to speak out against oppression. “It’s an opportune time to remind ourselves about Standing on the Side of Love,” says Woulfe.

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