MIAMI, Fla. – A day of construction work complete, Rene Ticas was driving his crew home on Palmetto Highway in Miami, when the ladder on the van roof blew off and spun around on the highway, grazing another car.
Ticas called the police to report the accident, never imagining that the repercussions would be so costly to his family.
After the officer checked the drivers’ licenses and registrations, he asked to see identification for everyone in the van. Ticas had a work permit, but his son Elmer, his uncle and friend – all from El Salvador – were in the U.S. without documentation. Police handcuffed the three men and called immigration officials.
“I was in my own world,” said Elmer Ticas, now 20 years old, “thinking about how long I have lived here, going to school, wanting a future here, and thinking how hard it was for me to get here.” He was 13 when he left El Salvador and crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S, walking through the desert without much food or drinking water and swimming across the river.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrived, and Rene Ticas watched numbly as officials took his son and the other men away.
“Why did I stop?” he asked himself as he sat at a McDonald’s to collect himself. “If I had known, I would not have gone to work today.” He prayed, he said, and reminded himself that “God is in control,” a similar reminder he gave himself 14 years before when he left El Salvador in search of better economic opportunities in the U.S.
FINDING LEGAL HELP
Then he called Pastor Valentin Fontanez at Refugio Eterno Brethren in Christ church, where Ticas’ family attends and Elmer was the main pianist in the worship band.
Fontanez knew who to ask for help: Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast has a South Florida Immigration Program, which offers affordable, Christian counsel to members of Anabaptist churches in the area. The program provides immigration education, individual consultation and legal representation.
Immigration attorney Rachel Díaz, a member of La Roca Firme Brethren in Christ church, Hialeah, Fla., and a consultant for MCC East Coast, took the cases of Rene Ticas’ son and uncle. Their friend was deported.
Andrew Bodden, MCC East Coast South Florida program and diverse constituency coordinator, said the immigration work that MCC does is one channel of God’s work in South Florida.
“For me this is a way to fulfill the call that God gave to us – to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner.” Bodden also supervises MCC’s work in Puerto Rico and answers immigration questions that come to him from any state.
During Elmer Ticas’ stay at Broward Detention Facility, Pompano Beach, Fla., he played piano for daily religious services offered to the detainees and translated for visiting pastors or for people writing letters to their lawyers.
Ticas’ great uncle, Santiago (not his real name because his case is still in process), found the monotony of detention hard to take. He was frustrated that he couldn’t send $220 every two weeks to support his parents, three sick brothers and two children in El Salvador, as he always did. “My family went hungry,” he said.
Santiago left El Salvador in 2007 because gang members shot at the bus he was operating because he refused to pay them a percentage of his fares. His son was a passenger at the time. He moved his children to another place and left for the U.S.
Díaz pled their cases before a judge, who allowed both of them to be released – Ticas after 40 days, just before Thanksgiving 2011 and Santiago before Christmas the same year. Their cases would continue, but they were free to be with their families.
“I felt so happy,” said Ticas, grateful not only to be free, but for the experience. “I learned how precious life is, how to love people and more about faith and people worshipping the same God in different ways …”
Two years later, Santiago’s case is still in progress, but Díaz doesn’t have many legal options left to help him. Unless an appeal is granted, Santiago will be deported in 2014, a prospect that worries him. “The gangs remember people,” he said, “no matter where you are in the country.”
Ticas fared better because he qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a presidential directive to the Department of Homeland Security, which gave a two-year work permit to teenagers and young adults who came into the U.S. before they were 15 and met a list of other criteria, including getting an education. Ticas graduated from high school in May 2012.
Díaz filed the proper paper work for Ticas, whose deportation order was cancelled and a work permit granted. His possibilities of staying in the country after two years, Díaz said, lie in DACA being continued or in immigration reform that would give him permanent legal status.
Ticas plans to start college in 2014. He always wanted to be a lawyer and his detention has made that dream stronger. “My heart’s desire is to help people in need, to be fair and not take advantage of them.”
Pastor Valentin, who is thankful his pianist is back playing for the church, reflected on why he helps those who are undocumented, which includes at least half of his 70-member congregation.
“Situations of poverty in their own countries move them to explore new lands to help their families,” he said. “It’s not fair to talk about Jesus if people can’t see how Jesus is reflected in what we do. I can preach to you, but I can also walk with you. Jesus preached but he also gave food and healed the ill.”
To learn more about MCC U.S.’s work with immigration, visit immigration.mcc.org. To advocate for immigration reform, visit the MCC U.S. Washington office website, washington.mcc.org/issues/immigration.
Miriam Copp Johnson is Donor Relations coordinator and former Communications coordinator for MCC East Coast.