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Deportation fears prevent some Latinos in Cache Valley from going to church

By Zachary Aedo | April 22, 2017

When Francisco Javier Lagunas steps out of his home to attend church, he understands the risks he takes.

The devout Catholic from Cache Valley knows the United States government is increasing its efforts to find and deport undocumented immigrants. But Lagunas believes his faith will protect him.

“I believe in God,” he said. “My faith in God is enough for me to know that nothing will happen. Coming to church is all to me. It brings peace.”

As undocumented immigrants in Northern Utah anxiously wait to see what the new administration’s focus on illegal immigration will mean for their lives, many Latinos in Cache Valley are turning to their churches for comfort. Others, though, are too afraid to even attend.

Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has policies discouraging the arrest of undocumented immigrants inside or near “sensitive locations” such as churches, courthouses and schools, arrests in these locations have been reported before. 

And so Bishop Marvin Morales, who presides over a Spanish-speaking ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said some of his church’s undocumented members have been afraid to participate in services.

“The hardest part of my calling has been to see the brethren desperate because they’re unsure of what awaits them the following day,” Morales said. “They’re scared of renewing their covenants.”

Morales understands their fear. He immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 24 years ago under a work permit. He overstayed his visa — putting himself at risk of deportation — but ultimately was able to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States and is working toward becoming a U.S. citizen.

“When I was undocumented I was just as afraid as they are,” said Morales, who was called to be the bishop of the ward in October of 2016. “You’re always uncertain of what will happen.”

He said Latino LDS members have come to him hoping he would sign power of attorney papers, which would grant him the legal permission to make school, medical and other decisions for their children in case they are deported. 

“There isn’t much for us to do as a church because we too have to respect the law,” he said. “We know our Heavenly Father has different purposes for each of us but it hurts us to see the people with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen.”

Rev. Fernando Velasco, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park, said a wave of fear among undocumented immigrants was created when President Donald Trump signed executive orders cracking down on illegal immigration.

Under former President Barack Obama's administration, priority for deportation proceedings was given to undocumented immigrants who had committed a felony. However, Trump's executive orders have broadened the scope of people who are targeted by ICE officials.

As Trump approaches the 100th day of his presidency, on April 29, Velasco said the initial fears have dissipating — albeit slowly — and parishioners are faithfully attending services.

“Many take the risk of coming because of conviction and necessity,” Velasco said. “But I have no doubt that those undocumented immigrants live with that fear of deportation.” 

Velasco said the uncertainty of the members stirs “a psychological war” in them.

“It gives me sorrow because they’re human beings,” he said. “They’re people with the same feelings, necessities and rights that every human being has. To see them with that fear and uncertainty hurts. It hurts because you ask yourself ‘What difference does this person have from the other? Why deny them?’”

Undocumented immigrants may be able to attend their places of worship with more ease if the Republican-controlled Congress passes the “Protecting Sensitive Locations Act.” The bill would expand the definition of “sensitive locations” including churches. It would also make a federal law preventing ICE officials from detaining undocumented immigrants within 1,000 feet these areas except in circumstances such as the pursuit and arrest of dangerous felons and terrorist suspects.

The bill has not yet been reviewed in committee, but it already has at least one vocal Republican opponent.

The bill, filed by House Democrats, “is just another example of their desire to turn America into a sanctuary country,” U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee wrote in a Facebook post on April 3. “It is the job of Congress to create laws, not encourage disregard for them.”

Still, Velasco has hope.

“It would be a relief for those undocumented immigrants,” Velasco said. ‘It’s creating hope for these people.”