One immigrant's path
CLAMPING DOWN: Carcieri says a lack of federal action on illegal immigration is forcing his hand.
Carrera knows better than most how complicated the US immigration system can be. She came here, from Colombia, with a visitor’s visa in 1973 and overstayed her visit.
She moved to New York to be with her older brother and sister, and worked in a cosmetics factory, filling nail polish and mascara bottles, for minimum wage with no benefits. Carrera says someone from a local union heard about the mistreatment of the workers and he came around with some fliers. The owner caught wind of it and called immigration authorities.
When Carrera went outside for a cigarette and a coffee that day, she saw the cars and the officers. Immigration authorities shut the doors, herded everyone into a room, and asked them, one by one, for their paperwork.
Carrera remembers helping a woman who was several months pregnant, and who began to hyperventilate. Another woman curled up inside a cardboard box for two hours, praying to God she wouldn’t sneeze, while authorities combed through the factory. There were probably 10 cars, Carrera says. They probably took away 100 people that day.
At least 300 workers were detained after a similar raid last march in New Bedford, Massachusetts. History repeats itself, Carrera says. “Nothing changes.”
Carrera went home after she was discovered by the authorities. She told her husband, Jaime, who was also a factory worker. The couple had a daughter, Jennifer, who was born in the US. Carrera dressed the baby up and brought her to court to plead for permission for the whole family to stay. But the court didn’t even look at Jennifer, Carrera recalls with disgust. The family of three went back to Colombia in 1975.
In 1979, Carrera applied for a green card and moved back to the US with her family. She was able to get a green card because her daughter was born here (the law that allowed for this has since changed). She and her husband moved to Lincoln, and Carrera found work in a factory.
A fire in their apartment then destroyed the couple’s possessions, and they had to work long hours to save for new furniture and a new home. They lived from check to check, eating macaroni and cheese and Chef Boyardee.
Eventually, Carrera began volunteering at Progreso Latino, the social service and advocacy organization. In 1986, she became the director of Central Falls-based Project Esperanza, which is part of the Diocese of Providence and which provides assistance to immigrants.
An ongoing story
The Immigration and Refugee Services Office, where Carrera has been in charge since 1999, is composed almost entirely of immigrants. There are seven people in the small, carpeted office, each in their own cubicle. They come from Laos, Colombia, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and the US.
The office is one of 39 social ministries funded by the Diocese of Providence. Last year, the Diocese spent $3.5 million on social programs related to HIV/AIDs, elder and childcare, emergency assistance for heat, rent, and medicine, and other issues. Tony Gwiazdowski, the diocese’s director of Stewardship and Development, says that helping immigrants “is part of what Christ has asked you to do.”
Though liberals rap the Catholic Church for its conservative stance on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, Gwiazdowski says, “We do a lot of stuff that people don’t know about.”
While critics fault illegal immigrants for running up the cost of government social programs, among other things, Gwiazdowksi explains in his Boston accent that waves of newcomers have entered the US since the nation’s beginning. His own grandmother was born on a ship coming here from Poland about 100 years ago. Because the ship flew an American flag, she was considered an American citizen.
Gwiazdowski considers Stella Carrera’s work to be very important. Working with her, he says, her clients learn that they are not alone.
A study last year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that there are 68,951 non-citizens in the Diocese of Providence, an estimated 30,892 of who are undocumented. Many are from Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia, though Portuguese immigrants compose 11.5 percent of non-citizen Catholics in Providence.
Carrera meets with hundreds of “non-citizens” each year. She encourages her friends and clients to tell their stories, helping others put a face on the law.
Seated in an office at Project Esperanza, where Carrera still visits, she prompts her friend Claudia Márquez (not her real name), to talk. In 2000, Márquez, her husband, and their young daughter came to the US from Colombia without documentation. Márquez’s younger daughter was born in the US.
A few months ago, Márquez went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to ask a question about driver’s licenses. Instead of answering her question, officials there asked her about her immigration status. When they realized that her tourist’s visa had expired, they called Immigration, and Márquez was detained for 19 days by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Her family could not visit, and telephone calls were expensive.
It was okay being in prison, she says. The guards were very nice to her. They would ask her if her handcuffs were too tight, which was more than they did for some of the other women. Márquez remembers seeing blood on the wrists of some of the women who were detained with her.
The worst part, Márquez says, was the psychological effect the separation had on her daughters. They remain terrified that their mother will leave again. Carrera has heard the story before.
Márquez says she still does not know what will happen to her. She does not know when and if she might have to go back to Colombia. She does not know how much the fight to stay here will cost. And she does not know if telling her story will make any difference.
Carrera tells her, vehemently, that it will.
The struggle for citizenship
Carrera brings this determination to work with her every day. On another day, her client is Elena Zamora (not her real name), 30, a Salvadoran woman who does not speak English and needs help renewing the forms for her Temporary Protected Status, a status granted to immigrants from seven countries, including Liberia, Sudan, and Nicaragua, that the US government deems unsafe.
Zamora works in a plastics factory in Bristol. She makes about $300 a week and sends about $50 home each week to the son she left in El Salvador with her mother when she left in 1996.
She says it cost her about $3000 to pay someone to guide her, along with a group of other immigrants, into the US through the desert. She moved to Providence, where she has siblings, to find work that paid well.
Zamora married a Guatemalan man who she had met at the factory where they worked painting jewelry. In 2005, her husband was deported to Guatemala, where he was assaulted by robbers and killed. Zamora now supports her two children, 10 and six, in addition to her 13-year-old son in El Salvador. She says she would like to go home to visit her son, but Carrera tells her it’s too risky.
Zamora sits in a chair in Carrera’s cubicle as Carrera types away on the forms, asking Zamora questions in Spanish.
“You’re a widow?” Carrera asks. Zamora nods. Carrera shakes her head. “You will cry every day with this job,” she says.
“I love my job, and I think that’s what’s important” she tells Zamora some time later, talking as she types. “I was deported,” she adds.
Zamora raises her eyebrows and whistles quietly under her breath.
Another day on the job
The mood becomes quiet. There is only the sound of Carrera’s keyboard as she types Zamora’s age, the names of her children, and the date of her husband’s death.
But Carrera does not allow things to stay somber for long. She tells me I had better practice my Spanish, and Zamora laughs. She laughs through much of the visit, leaning forward toward Carrera, watching as she fills out the form that will allow her to stay in the US for at least another 18 months. The two of them joke about who speaks the fastest.
Carrera is amusing, Zamora says. She makes her laugh. She is more fun, perhaps, than the notary Zamora had been paying $150 for the service. Carrera, through the Diocese, will charge only $60, though the forms cost $420.
Gregory Pehrson, the director of Fuerza Laboral, a workers’ organization in Central Falls, comes in for a visit while Carrera is finishing up Zamora’s form. He calls Carrera a superstar. When she came in to visit his office recently, he says, “It was like a firebomb — kisses to everybody.”
Carrera greets Pehrson warmly and then offers to make coffee, though she hardly needs it. She is moving, all of the time.
When she goes to the Providence office of US Customs and Immigration Enforcement on Dyer Street, more than a mile from her office, she always walks. She is proud of that. And sometimes she reminds the people working there, “I was deported by you guys.”
Amy Littlefield can be reached at email@example.com.
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