The election of Donald Trump as president has sent shock waves through Garner’s Latin American community. Because Trump ran on the promise to deport all undocumented people (estimates cite the number of undocumented people in this country in the tens of millions), those who live among us “without papers” or with expired visas are living in fear that they might be rounded up, put in jails and prisons and deported – in most cases leaving their families behind.
While there is wide-spread anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, it is often forgotten that the people some call “illegals” are our sisters and brothers made in the image and likeness of a merciful and loving God.
Latinos make up a significant percentage of Garner’s population. According to 2015 Wake County Public Schools statistics North Garner Middle School has 830 students. Of those, 171 – 20.6 percent – were Latino. Garner Magnet High had 2,649 students, including 486 Latinos – 18.3 percent. Countywide there were 157,180 students - 26,565, or 16.9 percent, Latino.
Ironically, the entire discussion of immigrant rights is, for the most part, being undertaken by those of us who are also descendants of immigrants. Richard Twiss, a Native American of Lakota/Sioux heritage, speaks on the “implications of post-colonial Christianity.”
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“We should have had stricter immigration laws (for) that first boatload at Plymouth Rock,” Twiss said during a religious conference I attended in Chatham County a few years ago. “That’s where it all began. We gave them an inch and they took 3,000 miles.”
Despite that reality, our nation has not done right in our treatment of Native Americans, or of Africans who were kidnapped and brought here as slaves, or toward every group of new immigrants who have come to our shores seeking better lives.
The fears of Garner Latinos is palpable. Nancy Benitez is a 13-year-old Garner resident who is a 7th-grader at West Lake Middle School. Due to a congenital disorder, Nancy’s four older siblings all died shortly after birth. She is alive thanks to the grace of God and the miracle of medical science.
“I’m the fifth child,” she told me as she sat in the back pew of St. Mary, Mother of the Church Catholic parish on Vandora Springs Road following last Saturday night’s vigil Mass in Spanish. “Four of them already died. I’m the only one who survived. I had a kidney transplant, liver transplant. I have 11 medicines.
“In third grade I missed half the year for my kidney transplant. In fourth grade I also missed half the year for my cancer. And in fifth grade I had a liver cyst, and in sixth grade I had a liver transplant.”
Nancy, who was born in the U.S., had three operations at Duke Medical Center that have thus far saved her life. Her parents, who are both undocumented, are worried about being deported to Mexico, because if they are, Nancy would be unable to get the medical care she needs to stay alive.
“I’m just scared if Trump wins we’ll have to go back to Mexico,” Nancy said, perhaps not understanding that Trump did, indeed, win.
Yahir Romero-Marin, 13, is an eighth-grader at North Garner Middle School. A life-long Garner resident, Yahir dreams of being a “a professional skateboarder, but as my back-up I want to be an engineer.”
Rosa Marin, Yahir’s mother came to Garner from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant when she was just 20 years old in search of a better life, leaving behind her family and the poverty of her upbringing. Today, Rosa, 37, earns a living as a housekeeper. Her husband, also undocumented, works in construction.
Rosa, who has seen huge growth in Garner’s Latino community in the last 16 years, says she is scared that her family may face deportation, and have to go back to Mexico, surely depriving her U.S. citizen child a chance at a college education.
After Trump’s election Yahir said some of his non-Latino school friends said, “I’m surprised you’re still here.” He said he told them: “We might go back to Mexico. We might not see each other anymore.”
Yahir said he would not stay behind in his native country if his mother is deported.
“This could change my life,” he said. “She raised me. I love her. She loves me. I wonder what the next year will be like.”
While immigration policy is under the purview of the federal government, there are still things the Town of Garner can do to show solidarity with our large immigrant population.
Firstly, I call on the Garner Town Council to pass a resolution in support of all of our Latino residents, regardless of immigration status. The resolution should also oppose any efforts by the Trump administration to deport law-abiding undocumented people who are living in our town, most of them hard-working people who are doing just what the rest of us are doing – trying to give their families a decent life. The resolution should also oppose any discrimination against our local Muslim community, another group that feels threatened by things Donald Trump has said.
Of course, the resolution would have no jurisdiction over the federal government, but it would send a message of welcoming support to our Latino neighbors.
Secondly, I call on our honorable Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams to ask Wake County Sheriff and Garner resident, Donnie Harrison, and Garner Chief of Police Brandon V. Zuidema, to pledge that their departments will not issue deportation orders to any undocumented immigrants who commit minor traffic violations or any other nonviolent offenses.
For years, the Garner Police and the Wake County Sheriff’s Department have set up license check points that have sometimes led to the deportation of some of our undocumented neighbors for minor offenses, such as driving with an expired driver license.
Unfortunately – and foolhardedly – the N.C. General Assembly passed a law that prevents undocumented people from getting a North Carolina driver license, a law that makes our roads less safe.
Lastly, all of the rest of Garner’s residents should pledge to treat our Latino sisters and brothers with love and respect. The influx of Latinos to our town has brought us a rich diversity of wonderful people, many of whom work tirelessly at thankless jobs that make our lives better. The economic contributions of Latinos to our community far outweigh any liabilities.
Sacred scripture also makes it clear how people of faith should treat each other: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And: “Love one another.“