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September 6, 2022

The shadows and fears cast by US immigration policy

By Maria Teresa Gastón

Managing director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

Maria Teresa Gastón is the managing director of Foundations of Christian Leadership. Originally from Havana, Cuba, Maria Teresa is an organizational psychologist with rich experience training and coaching innovative leaders in educational, faith, corporate and community settings. She enjoys researching, designing, and facilitating group processes for collaborative discernment and decision-making. Other research and practice interests include career development, motivation, organizational mission morality and engagement, organizational creativity, teambuilding, program evaluation and immigrant integration. Her formal education includes a master’s in Hispanic/Latino theology and ministry from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, and a master's and Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

iStock / Lux Estudio

We should recognize the dignity of those in the informal economy and encourage legitimate paths for their financial stability and self-determination, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

While visiting Durham for job interviews in February 2015, I needed a haircut. I sought out the local Latino center, hoping to learn a bit about programs that I might support and to get a recommendation for a stylist as I scoped out the area.

Despite a rare snow, the center was open, although lightly staffed. Alex, the Central American facilitator of LGBTQ support services, greeted me kindly and gave me a brief tour, introducing me to the center’s work. When I asked for hairstylist recommendations, he pulled out a card and made a phone call.

“Yes, she is a woman,” I heard him say in Spanish. He gave me the address and directions and sent me on my way with a warm embrace.

The bells attached to the glass door rang as I pushed it open. Paco, a Mexican in his 40s, welcomed me warmly to the peluquería and then tastefully trimmed my short hair as we exchanged stories about each other’s families and day-to-day lives.

I continued making appointments with him for the next five years. I marveled at his social skills and styling talent while also gaining a sense of his insecurities and limited circles of trust.

When the pandemic began, I told Paco (whose name I have changed to protect his anonymity) that I would not be coming in for a while but would be sending him some money. I asked him to call if he needed me. It was as if we both understood that I was more than a customer; I was also a friend with documents and with mutual concern for his safety and well-being.

One day, some months later, he did call. I was gardening in the front yard and put the spade down to give him my full attention. Paco was worried, speaking fast. An immigration officer had come to his door, and now Paco was convinced he could be deported soon. He told me where to find his cash in his apartment and asked whether I would be willing to wire it to a cousin in Mexico if he were to be picked up.

Gratefully, his fears were not realized. He continues to work and live locally but with the precarity shared by an estimated 10.5 million of our Mexican siblings in the U.S., fully one-fourth of the U.S. foreign-born population.

How is this possible? Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades. A recent Pew research survey found that 4 in 10 Latinos worry that they or someone close to them could be deported, even though only one-third of Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants.

Our nondocumented sisters and brothers are not “in the shadows” so much as in a cage of fear in a land where they give so much while often suffering wage theft or enduring harassment and threats.

Latinos, for a long time primarily clustered in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas), are now dispersed throughout our nation, joining and leading us in worship, fixing our roads, remodeling and landscaping our houses, caring for our elderly and our children, finding scientific cures, gifting us in all of the arts, and solving our tech problems. As the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and Prospera emphasize, Latinos are not taking jobs; they are creating jobs, yet “there is an increasing hostility toward immigrants in our workforce and in our communities.”

Advocates in some states are combatting hostility with welcome campaigns. In Nebraska, an effort entitled “We Are Home” shares the message “Immigrant Nebraskans are lights in our families and communities.”

The message continues: “Congress has not meaningfully updated our immigration laws in more than 35 years, causing unnecessary harm to local families and communities. It’s time for full inclusion of family and longtime community members.”

The FaithAction ID initiative and similar parish identification card programs bring together churches, nonprofits and police departments to foster greater security and avenues for immigrant participation. Efforts supporting dignified work are especially life-giving.

Immigrant entrepreneurs in rural communities are finding support with bilingual business development specialists at the Center for Rural Affairs, with links to banks where business owners can open accounts with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the IRS to those with documents to prove their identity and foreign status.

In North Carolina, the Cooperativa Latin@ Credit Union offers microbusiness savings accounts for those with a government-issued ID from any country and a valid ITIN.

Groups like Prospera in Oakland, California, help enterprising immigrant women learn how to overcome internal and external barriers and launch successful cooperative enterprises. Interest in this business model is growing, according to the SELC. To fill the gap in bilingual legal and technical help, they are partnering with Prospera to offer training and resources, including this website with state-by-state legal information for cooperatives.

The SELC and Prospera have a vision of building a national ecosystem to support immigrant-owned cooperatives. “Why immigrant-owned cooperatives?” they ask. “To address the root causes of wealth inequality and institutional racism, we need to put ownership and control back in the hands of those most marginalized by the dominant economy.”

What would it look like if churches helped realize this vision and collaborated with community partners promoting kin-dom values? One exemplary effort is Omaha Catholic Charities’ immigrant microbusiness training and startup loan program. In 2020 it received an innovation challenge grant to share its training model and curriculum with six other Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S.

I pray that more of us in Christian leadership will seek out ways to support local immigrant businesses, prioritizing them and partnering for organizational vendor and service needs, including catering, translating and tech, while also staying attentive to — and participating in — needed advocacy for just and humane immigration reform.

As a personal solidarity exercise that might be a simple Christian practice for you also, consider this: Try a barber or hairdresser at a peluquería. Don’t do it to save money but to connect and to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades.


Suggestions for visiting a peluquería

  • Offer a greeting and request what you need: “Buenos dias. Deseo un corte de pelo por favor.” [Hello. I’d like a haircut, please.]
  • Wait for an answer or a motion of where to wait or sit.
  • If you want to know how much they charge, ask, “Cuanto cuesta?” (Brush up on your numbers before you go. “Quince” is 15. “Veinte” is 20. “Veinte y cinco” is 25.)
  • Demonstrate with your hands or a photo what kind of cut you would like.
  • Try to make some small talk if you know some Spanish or try a few questions in English and see whether you are understood and can converse a bit. Smiles will also go a long way.
  • At the end, give a big tip, even double the amount charged. Don’t get a cut there to save money but to connect with a sibling.

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

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