Taking on immigration
Pastor begins discussion series with focus on the plight of foreign-born residents, common ground
After giving birth to a baby with several birth defects, Griselda Hernandez could find neither proper medical care for her daughter nor help from neighbors in her home country of Mexico.
The community in the state of Michoacán shunned the new mother, and she subsequently sought help by seeking asylum at the United States border.
“[Hernandez’s family] thought they couldn’t get … medical care for the situation because the doctors treated them badly,” said Andrew Holley, a Chico-based immigration attorney who took on Hernandez’s asylum case. “They felt like they couldn’t get a fair shake in their neighborhood and they couldn’t raise their daughter the way that they hoped to.”
Several years later, in 2017, Hernandez was granted asylum in San Francisco Immigration Court.
It was “one of those cases where you walk out a courtroom and you go to your car and you just cry when you [get] in,” Holley told the CN&R. He added: “This … is a real honest-to-goodness person who was living in Mexico, who came to the border and said, ‘I need to come into the United States. I need to flee my country because of the persecution I’m suffering.’ And now we can hear her … rather than some video that flashes on the TV that you know is great for the eyeballs and great for clicks and great for the passions but doesn’t really give you a three-dimensional portrait.”
Hernandez is one of several panelists scheduled to speak at a discussion on immigration at 12:30 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 28) at Faith Lutheran Church in Chico. Pastor Benjamin Colahan, who arrived at Faith Lutheran about three years ago, told the CN&R that the event—the first of a new series called Sacred Conversations—is intended to give people a better understanding of complex issues, a forum to hear a range of opinions and the tools to take action.
The discussion is free and open to the public.
“I have noticed in my own congregation and [among] friends … that, in our climate of such stark political division, people are afraid to talk about the issues that matter most to them,” Colahan said. “But when people talk to me one-on-one, what I hear from them—across the political spectrum—are common concerns and values.”
Panelists include the Rev. Robin Denny, rector of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Napa; Chico State geography and planning professor Naomi Lazarus; Holley; and Hernandez.
Immigration, Colahan said, is one of those incendiary topics that elicits passionate feelings in private conversations but is avoided in group settings. Part of the reason for that, he said, is the fear of offending someone.
But it’s also a topic in which, perhaps, common ground can be found. Each panelist, Colahan said, will be asked to state several values that shape their understanding of immigration. The idea is to base the conversation around those shared values, to which he said he believes attendees will relate.
Colahan’s mother and grandmother emigrated from Mexico under a context “very different” from what’s been reported in the news over the last several years, he said, adding that today’s inflammatory immigration rhetoric is “unhelpful.”
“The values for me around immigration: Each and every person is a beloved child of God,” he said. “The scriptures are clear—we are called to love and serve the orphan, the widow and the stranger. … It is good to have an organized and legal system by which people enter into our community.”
There are two questions Holley regularly fields: Why can’t undocumented immigrants “get in line” and enter the country legally, and why should taxpayer dollars go toward immigration services instead of something such as veterans affairs?
“There’s very little tax dollars [that] go toward funding an immigrant or detention processing center and letting them in,” Holley said. “It’s marginally nominal for every additional immigrant we let in.”
Further, according to the nonprofit American Immigration Council, there is no “line” available to most undocumented immigrants. Immigration to the U.S. is generally limited to employment, family reunification or humanitarian protection.
“Most unauthorized immigrants do not have the necessary family or employment relationships and often cannot access humanitarian protection, such as refugee or asylum status,” according to the organization.
“A lot of people come from Mexico seeking asylum in the United States, and they come from rural areas and they’ve been mistreated, persecuted, harmed, hurt,” Holley said. “And they’ve come to the United States [to] seek a better life.”
Holley’s caseload largely consists of asylum cases, though a significant portion of his work also includes immigration status cases, deportation defense, and marriage and finance visa litigation.
The attorney takes cases from Red Bluff to Sacramento, a region comprising a rich agricultural community that relies on migrant workers.
In 2017, 27 percent of California’s population was foreign-born, accounting for about 11 million immigrants, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit think tank. Estimates peg about 2 million immigrants as residing in the state without legal status.
The immigration discussion Saturday, Holley said, will be a place where folks can engage with each other and share facts about the country’s immigration system. Attendees also will hear firsthand accounts about navigating that system. The attorney described the event as a place where people can bring forward questions they have been afraid to ask.
“So many people are just afraid of opening themselves up and looking dumb or learning something, and they’re afraid to ask questions,” he said. “This is a church. … It’s a safe place.”