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Faith networks in Florida strain to aid migrants

by GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO The Associated Press | March 6, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Jorge Hernadez serves water to Yorgessis Ollerve and her one-year-old son, Liam Centeno, at the Iglesia Rescate, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. Border and sea crossings surged earlier this fall and winter, and new programs like the humanitarian parole for four nationalities that are already prominent diasporas in Florida are likely to bring in even more people in temporary status, with no federal programs to help most migrants settle or quickly get legal jobs. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

HIALEAH, Florida -- In the past 18 months, an estimated 250,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have arrived in the Miami area after being granted only precarious legal status that often doesn't include permission to work, which is essential to building new lives in the U.S. This influx is maxing out the migrant social safety net in Miami's faith communities, long accustomed to integrating those escaping political persecution, a lack of freedoms and a dearth of basic necessities.

Cubans were the first to arrive during the island's communist revolution 60 years ago, and they're still fleeing here alongside Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

"The Lord says to welcome the stranger. It's the saddest thing, the quantity of people who come and we can't help them," said the Rev. David Monduy, Iglesia Rescate's pastor.

Miami's faith leaders and their congregations remain steadfast in their mission to help settle new migrants. But they're sounding the alarm that the need is growing unmanageable.

"We can get a call on a Saturday that 30 migrants were dropped off, and two hours later all have been picked up," said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, the CEO of Catholic Charities in Miami. "But the challenge is at what point you reach saturation."

The number of arrivals, by sea directly to Florida and from those heading here from the U.S.-Mexico border, surged earlier this winter. For most newcomers, the best hope to settle in the U.S. is to win asylum, but immigration courts are so backlogged migrants can be in limbo for years, ineligible to get a job legally.

Advocates say that makes them vulnerable to criminals, puts an impossible financial burden on existing migrant communities that try to help, and slows down integration into U.S. society.

"It's completely irrational that they're not giving out work permits," said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, whose Catholic archdiocese has long helped welcome migrants. "Because of that, the government can make a situation that's not too bad yet, become worse."

Many migrants are already homeless due to soaring rent and motel rates.

"Every day, people knock on the doors of our parishes, saying they have no place to sleep," said the Rev. Marcos Somarriba, rector at St. Agatha Catholic Church on Miami's outskirts.

In addition to providing food, clothes and some housing relief, churches are helping educate migrants about their legal options.

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church put together a migration forum with Catholic Legal Services in mid-February about a new humanitarian parole program that allows 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans into the U.S. each month if they have a sponsor who assumes financial responsibility for them for two years.

Parishioner Dalia Marrero attended to learn about sponsoring an uncle in Nicaragua, where many are fleeing President Daniel Ortega's crackdown on opponents.

"I don't want to fail him or U.S. law," she said, worried about how long she'd be required to support her relative.

Miami's established diaspora communities know all too well the hardships that migrating entails, and that motivates many to help. But there also is mistrust among some old timers who remain active in opposition to autocratic regimes like Cuba's and view some new arrivals' politics with suspicion, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

That underscores the potentially crucial role for faith leaders -- to preach forgiveness and build a sense of shared experience.

"That's it -- to unite," said the Rev. Elvis Gonzalez, pastor at St. Michael the Archangel, a historically Cuban church that welcomes faithful from across Central America. "They have seen the church as the only institution that can give some hope."

A few miles south on the seashore stands La Ermita, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Charity that's long been a beacon for Cuban exiles.

Migrants from all over Latin America come to bring sunflowers to the Virgin, to cry in gratitude for having made it and to ask for help with food and clothing, said Sister Consuelo Gomez.

"Jesus also was a migrant," said Gomez, who helps many newcomers find jobs and decent housing, often with the aid of diaspora members. "We try to help so that they can get ahead on their own."

Among them were two Venezuelan sisters Gomez helped get their own place as well as jobs that allow them to send money back to their ailing mother.

"Here I motivate myself, even though, yes, I miss my family," said older sister Daniela Valletero, who works two jobs, six days a week. "Here I feel that I'll make it."

  photo  Roberto Sotolongo prays after dinner at the Iglesia Rescate, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. Sotolongo, from Havana, Cuba, crossed the U.S. Mexican border into the U.S. in November, leaving behind his wife and children. Sotolongo, a carpenter by trade, finds himself in limbo without a work permit to sustain himself and help his family in Cuba. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
  photo  Daneilis Tamayo listens to her son Daniel, 3, in the Iglesia Rescate church school classroom her family uses overnight, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. Daneilis arrived in the U.S. with her three children on an overcrowded boat from Cuba. The family wonders the city during the day until they are able to rest in the classrooms in the evening. The church supplies portable showers and toilets. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
  photo  Daniel Monduy leads a group of newly arrived migrants in prayer before dinner at the Iglesia Rescate, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. The church provides the migrants a place to sleep in their school classrooms and offers portable showers and toilets for them to use. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
  photo  Delmis Benbow Tamayo, 8, finds a pair of children's scissors in a backpack with school supplies that was donated to her family, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. Delmis, her mother and two siblings arrived by sea to the U.S. from Cuba. Delmis started school the following day. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
  photo  Isabel Bembow Tamayo holds Liam Centeno, 1, in the Iglesia Rescate school classroom that is converted into a bedroom for her family, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla. Isabel, her mother and two siblings arrived on an overcrowded boat from Cuba. In the last 18 months, an estimated 250,000 migrants and asylum-seekers like her, mostly from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti, have made their way to the Miami area, with only precarious legal status and often without work permits. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
  photo  Sister Consuelo Gómez, left, talks with Daniela Valletero, a Venezuela migrant that Gomez helped settle in her new U.S. life, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023 in Miami. Valletero and her younger sister met Gómez when they went to mass at La Ermita, a shrine to Our Lady of Charity, that's long been the first stop for many fleeing Latin American countries. Many migrants go to the church to thank the Virgin Mary for safe passage and a chance for a better life in Florida. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell"Orto)
  photo  The Rev. Marcos Somarriba, left, pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church, and the Rev. Elvis González, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church, talk in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary on the campus of St. Agatha, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023 in Miami. The two Catholic priests, originally from Nicaragua, have been helping those fleeing the Central American country and settling in the Miami area by connecting them with legal, housing and humanitarian resources. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
  photo  Roberto Sardiñas unwraps a statue of Our Lady of Charity that he and his wife purchased at La Ermita de La Caridad, a shrine to the Virgin Mary that's long been a beacon to Cuban exiles in Miami on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Sardiñas left Cuba seven years ago and recently managed to get his wife to immigrate legally through family reunification. Like many in Miami's diasporas, the couple is supportive of new arrivals but also wishes for freedom and better conditions in the countries they fled. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
  photo  Catholic Legal Services' executive director Randy McGrorty, left, and staff attorney Miguel Mora talk to three dozen people interested in sponsoring relatives who want to come to the United States at a legal clinic hosted by St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Miami. Many churches in the area are helping educate South Florida's large diaspora communities as well as new arrivals about legal migration options. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)

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