Miami’s religious community is trying to help young exiles, immigrants

Days after she sold everything she owned to leave Cuba with her three children on a crowded boat, Daneilis Tamayo raised her hand in praise and sang the rousing opening hymn at Sunday worship in this Miami suburb .

“The only thing that gave me strength is the Lord. I’m not going to lose my faith, no matter what I go through,” he said. The family is sleeping in the makeshift shelter of the Iglesia Rescate, after promises of help made by their contact in the United States turned out to be “all lies.”

In the past 18 months, an estimated 250,000 immigrants and asylum seekers like Tamayo have arrived in the Miami area after being granted only precarious legal status that often does not include work authorization, which is necessary to build new lives in the U.S.

This influx maximizes the social safety net of immigrants in Miami’s religious communities, which have long been used to integrating those fleeing political persecution, lack of freedoms, and lack of basic needs. Cubans were the first to arrive during the island’s communist revolution 60 years ago, and they still flock here along with Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

“The Lord says to welcome the stranger. It’s the saddest thing, the number of people who come and we can’t help them,” said Rev. David Montui, pastor of Iglesia Rescate.

Miami’s religious leaders and their communities remain steadfast in their mission to help settle new immigrants. But they sound the alarm that the need is getting out of hand.

“We can get a call on Saturday that 30 migrants have landed and two hours later they’ve all been picked up,” said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities in Miami. “But the challenge is at what point do you reach saturation.”

The number of arrivals, by sea directly to Florida and by those heading here from the US-Mexico border, increased earlier this winter. For most newcomers, the best hope for settling in the U.S. is to win asylum, but immigration courts are so lax on immigrants that they can be stuck for years, unable to find work legally.

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

“It’s completely absurd that they don’t give work permits,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, whose Catholic archdiocese has long helped welcome immigrants. “Because of that, the government can make a situation that’s not too bad yet, worse.”

Many immigrants are already homeless due to rising rent and motel prices.

“Every day, people knock on the doors of our parishes, saying they have nowhere to sleep,” said the Rev. Marcos Somariba, rector at St. Agatha Catholic Church on the outskirts of Miami.

In addition to providing food, clothing and some housing assistance, churches help educate immigrants about their legal options.

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

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

“I don’t want to let him down or let US law down,” she said, worried about how long she would be asked to support her relative.

Miami’s established diaspora communities know all too well the difficulties that come with immigration, and that motivates many to help. But there is also mistrust among some old-timers who remain active in opposition to authoritarian regimes like Cuba’s and are suspicious of the politics of some newcomers, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

This highlights the potentially critical role for faith leaders – to preach forgiveness and build a sense of shared experience.

“This is it — to unite,” said the Rev. Elvis González, pastor at St. Michael the Archangel, a historically Cuban church that welcomes worshipers from across Central America. “They have seen the church as the only institution that can give some hope.”

A few miles south on the coast is La Ermita, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Charity that has long been a beacon for Cuban exiles.

Migrants from all over Latin America come to bring sunflowers to Our Lady, to cry in gratitude that she made it and to ask for help with food and clothes, Sister Consuelo Gomez said.

“Jesus was also an immigrant,” said Gomez, who helps many newcomers find jobs and decent housing, often with the help of members of the diaspora. “We’re trying to help so they can move forward on their own.”

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

“This is where I motivate myself, even though, yes, I miss my family,” said older sister Daniela Valletero, who works two jobs, six days a week. “This is where I feel like I’m going to make it.”

That’s the kind of faith that motivates Marylin Rondon, a Venezuelan-born lawyer whose weekly prayer group of Latin American professionals prepares hundreds of sandwiches for the nuns to distribute to immigrants and the homeless.

“As a Catholic, you can’t stop in sorrow,” Rondon said. “The greatest faith is the one that reaches. It must be 100% dependent on welfare.”

Outside the Ermita shrine, a couple stood under the palm trees, their native Cuba some 200 miles across the sea. Roberto Sardiñas came seven years ago and in December managed to get his wife, Dadiana Figueroa, to immigrate legally through family reunification.

Asked about the influx of new arrivals, the Sardinian said it would be selfish to argue about anything other than “those who can come, let them come”.

“The ideal would be freedom in Cuba,” Figueroa added.


Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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