Pastors often ask me how they can best help the undocumented immigrants in their congregations.
â— “What advice should I give to a father who is worried about immigration officials showing up at his family’s house?”
â— “What should I say to the mother who wants to apply for public benefits for her children?”
â— “What am I allowed or not allowed to do within the sanctuary of my own church?”
They also want to know what legal services can be provided to the undocumented by an attorney like me when limited options exist for this immigrant group to change their status in this country.
Without comprehensive immigration reform, most of the undocumented are ineligible for legal services.
Even so, there is a lot that pastors and community leaders can do to help.
Immigrants are among the most vulnerable members of our society. Until they become U.S. citizens, they cannot vote and do not have direct representation in our government.
As newcomers, they often don’t speak perfect English, and they have limited understanding of our country’s complicated laws.
As a result, many live in fear and experience exploitive conditions, discrimination and abuse from employers, neighbors and predatory criminals.
They need trusted faith and community leaders to offer reliable information about what rights they do have in this country.
Immigrants don’t always trust what they hear because many have been taken advantage of in the past.
One institution they often do believe they can trust is their church.
It is essential that faith leaders equip themselves with an understanding of immigrant rights, so they can share information with their congregations and provide immigrants with the confidence to regain control over their decisions and affirm their human rights.
Here are some key facts that every pastor should know:
- All children have the right to attend public schools, no matter their status. Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional for states to deny any student – including the undocumented – access to public schools. Parents cannot be required to have a green card or Social Security number in order to enroll their children. The same is not true, however, for many colleges and universities or for federal financial aid programs.
- Children of undocumented parents who are U.S. citizens are eligible for the same public benefits as any other U.S. citizens. Birthright citizenship still exists in the United States, contrary to recent efforts to repeal it. This means that all persons born in the United States are automatically citizens and are eligible for all the benefits of citizenship, including, but not limited to, public benefits.
- Undocumented immigrants are eligible for certain public benefits. Undocumented immigrants cannot receive food stamps, supplemental security income or Medicare/Medicaid. However, they are eligible for HIV/AIDS-related care and communicable disease testing and treatment. Also, children and pregnant women have access to medical assistance – including immunizations for children – and they are eligible for supplemental food programs. In general, receiving these benefits will not affect an individual’s ability to adjust his or her immigration status in the future.
- Everyone in the United States is entitled to emergency medical care. No one should be turned away from the emergency room in an emergency situation for being uninsured, not having a Social Security number or being an undocumented immigrant. Also, by law, emergency staff are not allowed to share patient information with immigration officials.
- Everyone has the “right to remain silent.” Undocumented immigrants do not have to answer a police officer’s or immigration agent’s questions. They do, however, need to answer questions about birthplace and immigration status carefully because such information could be used against them in immigration proceedings. An immigrant who does not speak English can carry a “rights card” explaining that he or she does not want to answer any questions. Pastors can create wallet-sized cards for these parishioners that read: “I am giving this to you because I don’t wish to speak to you. I choose to exercise my right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. I want to speak with a lawyer before answering any questions.”
- Immigrants have the right to an interpreter if they don’t understand a police officer or immigration agent. If an immigrant does decide to speak with law enforcement agents, he or she has the right to ask for an interpreter. Such a notation could be added to the rights card, along with identification of the person’s primary language.
- Everyone has the right to privacy in their own home. If a police officer or immigration agent wants to enter an immigrant’s home, they must have a valid warrant or the individual’s permission to enter. This is true regardless of immigration status. The individual should ask to see the warrant through the closed door because once the door is open, the officer or agent has consent to enter their home. Individuals are required to open their doors only if the officer has a warrant signed by a judge that correctly states either the individual’s name or the address of the home. Even when a valid warrant is presented, the individual still has the right to refuse entry and to answer the officer’s or agent’s questions outside instead.
- “Notarios” are not lawyers, and they are not authorized to practice law. In many Spanish-speaking countries, a “notario” is a specially trained lawyer, so Hispanic immigrants often think they can get legal help from one here. In the United States, however, notarios cannot legally provide immigration assistance. People seeking to defraud the Hispanic community can take advantage of this misunderstanding by advertising unauthorized legal services under the title of notario.
Operators of these illicit businesses often charge high fees, disappear with clients’ money, and file fraudulent paperwork that can lead to clients being accused of fraud and even deported.
Notarios cannot provide any legal advice and should only translate and certify documents, refer individuals to an attorney or complete preprinted immigration forms using information provided to them by clients.
When faith and community leaders educate themselves about these and other immigrant rights, they take a key first step toward empowering immigrant communities.
Mary R. Clark is the director of EsperanzaImmigrationLegalServices in Philadelphia. Copyright 2012 American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Used by permission. Download a copy of TheChurchandtheChallengeofImmigrationReform today.