NEXT WEEK, Savannah’s Irish will carry on a tradition that goes back 194 years. The St. Patrick’s Day parade and the formal Irish societies that go along with it were all about an immigrant community, at the time, coming together to help their own people.
There’s a building on Pulaski Square, the former Jewish Educational Alliance, built in 1915, that speaks to the same idea. A different set of immigrants that time, Germans and Russians, but also an immigrant community coming together to help their own people.
Today’s immigrants from Latin America don’t have a formal society or building. But the ethic of compassionate help is certainly there for the great number of Spanish-speaking migrants who are here, working and asking questions.
“They ask me, ‘Father, is this true?’” says Pablo Migone, a priest who fields lots of questions as head of the Catholic church’s office that coordinates immigration activities across 90 counties where immigrants enrich Georgia’s $13 billion agriculture industry.
“‘Will this work?’ ‘Is there a risk?’” he continues, speaking of DACA, or Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, the Obama-era policy that’s now in limbo as the White House, Congress and the federal courts weigh in on an issue that no one wants to touch.
Every week there are new questions, new rumors and new bits of information to decode into real life. For instance, a deadline for Congressional action on DACA seems likely to pass this week, no surprise, without action. What will happen on March 5?
And the Georgia State Senate just last month passed a bill that would force local police, Sheriff’s deputies and highway patrols to act as deportation officers. How would that affect people? Honestly, Migone and the church handle questions that are more intimate.
“When a relative gets picked up, the wife comes to church. There’s children. There’s no food. The husband works. So now there’s no money. So the church steps in to help in concrete ways to help the family and then to get them legal help they need,” Migone says.
About a year ago, the phone lines of migrant worker advocates buzzed for weeks when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted raids around the Savannah area, hauling people off, the agency told us, because they committed some crime or other.
It turns out that many of those crimes appear to be simply existing in this country without legal papers. That’s what keeps Daniela Rodriguez up at night. A senior psychology major at Armstrong, she fears an auto accident, a broken tail light or a knock at the door.
As head of the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance (SUYA), she fields questions like, “How do I pay for school?” or “What does this document mean?” Her group works locally across colleges and high schools to help undocumented youth steer their futures.
“It takes a lot of courage to tell someone that you’re undocumented. Most of the time, people don’t want to come out of the shadows,” Rodriguez says. “So when that happens, we tell them, ‘You’re not alone. We’re just like you. And we’re here to support you.’”
Migone’s family came to the United States fleeing violence in Peru. Rodriguez’ family brought Daniela to the United States when she was 13 years old. They are part of a large and informal network of people helping Latin American immigrants throughout Georgia.
The non-profit Georgia Legal Services also does some work in this field.
The Atlanta-based Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) has developed “comites populares,” or grassroots committees, throughout the state, including Savannah, to connect people to resources. GLAHR operates a hotline to make those connections.
English classes are everywhere. But the first point of contact always seems to be a friend of some sort, anybody (“I know someone who can help”). When the need is more serious, like reports of detention, abuse or mistreatment, an expert referral can be life-changing.
In our larger community, these groups like SUYA, church allies of all denominations and non-profit helpers, serve as a conduit through which immigrant voices, and the voices of their allies, can be amplified politically where it has the potential to help millions more.
“This is not the time to stay quiet,” Rodriguez says. “Silence isn’t going to bring anything good. This is the time to fight for our rights because if we don’t do it, no one else will.”
“It’s done out of the recognition of the dignity of the human person, that you don’t need papers to be affirmed as a human being,” Migone says. “So when we’re talking about immigration reform, we’re talking about human beings. We can’t just dispose them.”
These groups hopefully get us asking questions.