On the first day of September, a diverse flock of worshipers shared their hardships and successes at the Sunday morning bilingual service at Trinity Las Americas church in Des Moines.
A white man spoke of his recent hospitalization and observed of the fine care he received from a largely foreign-born team, “If they took all the immigrants out of Mercy Hospital, there’d be nobody.”
An African-American woman thanked teachers and shared that her granddaughter, a middle school student, earned an award in her first week of school.
An African-American man, a newcomer to Des Moines, said he had found a place to live and enrolled in a mainstream living program.
A native Spanish speaker said after three years of trying to play guitar, he had been inspired by a church musician to start playing every day.
The Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, the soft-spoken lead pastor at the United Methodist church on Eighth Street and College Avenue, welcomed the congregation and their stories, translating them between English and Spanish. He reiterated the church’s mission to follow the teachings of Jesus in pursuit of justice. With a prayer urging strength in rejecting efforts to turn people against their neighbors, he called on members to care for “those that society deems dispensable.”
That would likely include some of them. The church sits in a part of town where 22% are white, 15% are unemployed, and 33% live in poverty. Alfaro-Santiz himself struggles to make ends meet on a salary dependent on member donations. His wife, Maria Van Der Maaten, recently earned her Ph.D and is on the job market, they have student loans and other debt, and a nearly 2-year-old son. All of that qualifies the idealistic young couple for public assistance, but they won’t use any because of punishing changes coming to federal immigration policy which he fears would affect his getting citizenship.
Alfaro-Santiz’s is an atypical immigrant story. He is a legal permanent resident married to a U.S. citizen. He met his wife in her native Decorah on a visit from Guatemala on behalf of his job with Sister Parish Inc. His parents are professionals who live in a gated community back home. They used to send him money when he attended a Denver seminary because his student visa didn’t allow him to work. He was raised Catholic and dabbled in evangelical Christianity, but told his Des Moines congregation he couldn’t accept Jesus as his personal savior “because Jesus is our communal savior.”
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The couple is sharing their story not for any advantage but to help illustrate the hardships a new Trump administration “public charge” rule scheduled to take effect in mid-October is placing on foreign-born people of lower income. Under it, both those already here legally and those abroad seeking admission to the U.S. can be kept out if immigration officials think they are likely to use public assistance in the future.
The rule was proposed in 2017 but the administration recently redefined “public charge,” from someone primarily dependent on public assistance to someone whose age, health, family, financial status, and past use of benefits indicates they would use them again. Those include food stamps, public housing, and temporary cash assistance. The rule was amended in response to push-back from nonprofits such as the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC), so it won’t apply retroactively, should only affect adults who don’t yet have permanent resident status, and should not affect U.S. citizen children with a foreign parent.
But Luke Elzinga, DMARC’s spokesman, thinks part of its intent was to confuse and frighten people away from seeking benefits as it stops Alfaro-Santiz’s family. “We scrimp and figure out how to make payments at the end of the month and end of the year,” Van Der Maaten said.
A survey by the nonprofit Urban Institute found more than 20.7% of adult immigrants in poverty reporting they or a family member hadn’t sought cash benefits in 2018 for fear of risking future green-card status. DMARC, which runs 14 food pantries in the Des Moines metro, worries that private nonprofits and charities will be overwhelmed as responsibility for feeding people in need shifts to them.
California and New York have sued the administration over the new rule, which the New York suit called “the means by which immigrants from what this administration has described as ‘(expletive deleted) countries’ will be excluded to the benefit of white, wealthy Europeans.”
Clearly that will be the impact, a cruel departure from our legacy as a haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing hardships and seeking opportunities to make a better life. In an NPR interview last month, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, actually tried to rewrite the Emma Lazarus message inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty. Instead of, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he framed it as, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
This administration has already implemented harsh policies toward undocumented immigrants, detaining, deporting, and separating families at the border. But it has also been busy narrowing the criteria for legal entry. It has also reversed provisions like automatic citizenship for children born abroad to U.S. military personnel and medical deferments from deportation for seriously ill unauthorized immigrants. Now, by letting immigration officers determine whom to keep out because they might someday need help, it is crossing another threshold.
The worship service at Trinity Las Americas told a story of the America we can be when we come together, in our differences and in spite of our circumstances, as one community. But if this administration had its way, most of those people probably wouldn’t be here.