Church Responds to Immigration Arrests

February 03, 2011

By Paul Jeffrey*

Jan. 26, 2011 | ELLENSBURG, Wash. (UMNS) – In the wake of a surprise immigration sweep through a normally quiet town in eastern Washington state, a United Methodist congregation has become the center of the community's support for families affected by dozens of arrests.
Early on Jan. 20, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other law-enforcement personnel arrested at least 30 people around Ellensburg – mostly Hispanic immigrants living in trailer parks. In several cases, battering rams were used to knock down doors for federal agents who entered with their guns drawn, witnesses said.
According to the immigration agency, 14 people were charged with federal crimes, mostly the fraudulent use of documents, and 16 were taken into custody for administrative immigration violations.
As word of the arrests spread throughout the university town, Ellensburg's First United Methodist Church quickly became a hub for people organizing to help affected families. A communitywide meeting was scheduled that evening at the church.
"It was a very distressing time. A lot of the teachers were worried about their students because their parents or an aunt or uncle were detained, and that in turn affects other students who are worried about their friends' families," said church member Wanda Munroe. She and her husband Jim are lay leaders of the congregation.
"If people are being marginalized in any way, it's important that our church step forward and be a voice for them in the community, and that the church be a sanctuary, a safe place where people can come and talk about the issues and seek solutions," she said.
Dominic Klyve, an assistant professor of mathematics at Central Washington University, read about the congregation's involvement when he received a campuswide email sent by the university's president, James Gaudino, encouraging people who wanted to get involved in the issue to attend a meeting at the church.
Klyve, who moved with his family to Ellensburg from Wisconsin last June, and his wife, Allyson Rogan-Klyve, were planning to join the congregation the following Sunday. "When I read the email, I was very proud. I thought, 'There are some people in this community who are trying to make things better, and they're my people. They're my church,'" Klyve said.
'It's a humanitarian issue'
Meetings for the entire community were held at the church the day of the sweep and the two following days. Committees were formed to support affected families, ensure legal representation, and raise money for possible bail.
At the Jan. 21 meeting, more than 200 people participated – including representatives of the local police and sheriff's offices, who faced intense questioning from several residents angry about their participation in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement action.
Greg McLaughlin, chair of the church's administrative council, said hosting the meetings was an easy decision for the congregation, despite the hot-button issues at stake.
"Obviously it's a politicized issue in the community," he said. "Everybody has an opinion about immigration. But for us it's not a political issue; it's a humanitarian issue. Where there is human need, people's immigration status doesn’t matter. Irrespective of what people might think about the issues on a political stage, these are people in need, and we as a church should address that because it's part of our mission."
The Rev. Shalom Agtarap, the congregation's pastor, said that on the morning of the arrests, she was reflecting on a series of questions she has to answer as part of the process that she hopes will lead to her ordination as an elder in 2012. One of those questions was about how to offer "a calm, non-anxious presence" in the community.
"Four hours later I got a phone call (about the arrests), and I was called on to offer that presence," she said. "I've tried to offer a hospitable space for people in the community to gather and strategize and ask hard questions, while not getting hysterical and losing sight of what the next steps might be, of what else God might be calling us to do. We'll continue to be that space for the community."
The Rev. Lyda Pierce, coordinator of Hispanic and Latino ministries for the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, came to Ellensburg to assist Agtarap by visiting the families of those arrested and accompanying some to arraignment hearings for their detained relatives in the federal court in nearby Yakima.
"There is a lot of fear in the community," Pierce said. "Many people have disappeared, and often their friends and family don't know if they were arrested or have gone into hiding."
Rumors abound of additional sweeps to come, she added. Several families have taken refuge in Ellensburg churches, she said, hoping the tradition of safe sanctuary will protect them from detention in any future action. None is currently staying in First United Methodist, though Agtarap said the congregation is willing to provide hospitality to any family fearing for its safety.
Pierce said several people shared stories of abusive behavior by the arresting agents, including the pointing of weapons at children.
Lorie Dankers, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman in Seattle, disagreed with that report. "When we enter to serve a federal search warrant, our agents are armed, (but) at no time was a gun pointed at a child's face," she told United Methodist News Service.
Dankers, who said she was not present during the arrests, suggested that problems could be caused by "people who bring their children out into the living room when a federal criminal search warrant is being served."
Bishop sends message
On Jan. 23, Klyve and his wife did join the congregation during a worship celebration where the events of the week were frequently mentioned. The service began with Munroe reading a message of support from Bishop Grant Hagiya, the bishop of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.
"I want you to know that I am praying for all of you, and especially for those whose lives have been turned upside down from the actions of this week," wrote Hagiya, who was in San Francisco participating in a jurisdictional conference on immigration.
"I want to encourage you to continue to allow the church to be an open and sacred space for both our immigrants and public officials to work out the most humane way to move forward from the events of this week," Bishop Hagiya wrote. "I want to remind you that our United Methodist churches are sacred sanctuaries that carry the historical weight of being a sanctuary of safety and peace. We must represent, above all, a God who cares for all people and all creation itself."
None of those arrested was a member of First United Methodist Church, Agtarap said.
One Hispanic pastor with ties to the congregation was among those arrested, however. Rev. Gilberto Barrientos, pastor of the Mount Sinai Pentecostal Church, was detained, along with his wife. Barrientos, who has been a pastor in Ellensburg for a decade, was charged with re-entering the United States after being deported, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Barrientos participated in worship at First United Methodist last Oct. 3, World Communion Sunday, celebrating communion with Agtarap, who also participated in worship that same day in Barrientos' congregation.
Since their arrest, the Barrientos' two children are being cared for by a relative in Ellensburg.
Several members of First United Methodist participated in a Jan. 24 ecumenical vigil outside the U.S. Post Office, the only federal building in Ellensburg. In coordination with other groups, additional vigils were planned, including outside the federal courthouse in Yakima on Jan. 25 and 26, when additional hearings were scheduled for some of those arrested.
Not venturing out
Meanwhile, many Hispanic families in Ellensburg remain in their homes, not venturing out. A woman in the Millpond Mobile Manor, a trailer park where several people were arrested, is caring for the 3-year-old son of her sister, who was handcuffed and taken away during the sweep.
"He has trouble sleeping because he always sleeps on the bed with his mother," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "He keeps asking me when his mom is coming back, and I told him that she's off taking care of some paperwork, and she'll be back home soon."
Several relatives of people arrested, all of whom asked not to be named, said most of those detained were women who had worked as housekeepers at Ellensburg hotels in the past. They said agents arrived with a list of people to arrest, but detained a number of additional people they encountered who could not produce appropriate identification.
Most of those who were arrested lived in three trailer parks, which were surrounded by agents before the arrests began. Law-enforcement personnel also used at least one helicopter. Several people told UMNS their home phones were rendered inoperable before the arrests began, an apparent effort to prevent immigrants from alerting others.
Jean Spence, president of the Ellensburg church's United Methodist Women, was among those holding signs at the Jan. 24 vigil supporting the community's Hispanic families. She acknowledged she had mixed feelings about the events of recent days.
"I'm here to support individuals who need help," she said. "I may not agree with what they've done, but they're here in our community. They are part of us."
*Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women. He lives in Oregon and is married to the Rev. Lyda Pierce, who is quoted in the story.