Clergy Are Often Immigrants’ Biggest Advocates


Three years ago, when Father Karl Esker became the associate pastor of St. James Church, a close-knit Brazilian parish in the heart of Newark’s Ironbound section, he knew a big part of his job would involve helping new immigrants. But he didn’t expect to become an activist protesting America’s growing system of immigration detention.

Then he started to hear the stories. What really got to him were the cases of American-born children of undocumented immigrants who were thrust into foster care because the parents were placed in detention or deported.

Father Karl Esker fights for the rights of immigrants in his pastor. Photo by Steve McCarthy.

Father Karl Esker fights for the rights of immigrants in his pastor. Photo by Steve McCarthy.

“I didn’t know anything about immigration,’’ Esker said during a recent interview in his spartan office that he hopes to one day turn into an immigration resource center. “So I went to a seminar at Rutgers. Later I went to another one at Seton Hall. Oh my God! What the judges and everyone were saying about the immigration system blew my mind. I said, ‘This can’t be real – this happening in the United States?’’’

The experience has turned Esker into a strong critic of America’s system of immigration incarceration — a growing patchwork of for-profit prisons, county jails and federal detention centers that serve as portals for deporting immigrants, most of them here illegally but some of them with green cards.

It also puts Esker, 63 and chair of the Newark Archdiocese’s Justice for Immigrants campaign, sharply at odds with the U.S. government policy, which considers immigrant detention to be a vital part of overall border security efforts, designed to deter people from coming into the country in the first place.

Esker sees the hidden cost of America’s dependence on cheap immigrant labor playing out not just in the form of the 15 or so detainees that members of the parish’s Social Justice Committee regularly visit, but also in terms of the daily tension that permeates the parish and the families that are torn apart when a loved one lands in detention.

He says parishioners, of whom 70-80 percent are here illegally, constantly tell him the same thing: “We don’t know if we’ll make it home at night because we don’t know if when we get off the bus at night if someone [an immigration agent] will be waiting for us.”

That nervousness has grown since 9/11, as fears of terrorism coincided with political cries to stem the flow of illegal immigration, prompting the government to pour money into immigration detention, now funded at a cost of more than $2 billion a year, according to a 2011 report published by Human Rights First, which is based on budget figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration400Nationally, more than 425,000 immigrants were detained in 2011, a nearly five-fold increase since 1995 when there were 85,730 detainees. Bed space has also multiplied: today there are 33,400 dedicated beds in detention facilities around the country. In 1995, there were 7,475. These numbers come from a report co-authored by Doris Meisner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.

Detention centers are like jails, and in many cases, they are jails. In New Jersey, three of five detention facilities are actual jails or prisons: Bergen County Jail, Essex County Correction Facility and Hudson County Correctional Facility. Until this spring, the Monmouth jail was also used as an immigration detention facility.

Just how many of undocumented immigrants have spent time in New Jersey’s immigration detention system is hard to say, but what is known is this: New Jersey is home to an estimated 550,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In fiscal year 2011, 5,305 immigrants were deported, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though that does not automatically mean all of them had spent time in the detention system. Not all immigrants who go through detention are deported either.

Most New Jerseyans have no personal knowledge of the immigration detention system. But in immigrant communities like St. James Parish it looms large, playing out in the form of workplace raids, pre-dawn home raids and traffic stops.

Esker said most detainees do not have criminal backgrounds; instead, many are low-wage nannies, cooks and construction workers who are haunted by old deportation orders, some dating back years. For some, those deportation orders are the result of being caught after crossing the border illegally. If they failed to show up in court, an immigration judge issued a deportation order in absentia. Amy Gottlieb, director of the American Friends Service Committee/Immigrant Rights Program in Newark, says many deportation orders result from immigrants being taken advantage of by unscrupulous notaries or immigration consultants who filed various immigration applications under the premise of obtaining work authorization but that instead resulted in people being placed into deportation proceedings, unbeknownst to them.

Esker is particularly critical of the use of detainers in cases involving minor traffic incidents. To him, this evokes the specter of Arizona’s controversial immigration law that allows police to stop immigrants simply because they suspect them of being in the country illegally.

To support his case, Esker cites the example of a parishioner whose husband was turned over to immigration agents in June 2012 after he was stopped by police in Harrington Park because his white construction van was deemed “suspicious.”

The license turned out to be valid, according to the police report, but the incident prompted the officer to run husband’s name through a federal database, revealing an old deportation order from 2004. He was arrested and handcuffed on the spot, in front of his wife and children, then 2 and 4, and taken to the Delaney Hall detention center in Newark.

The man, 46-year-old Juarez Fagundes, a native of Brazil, has been in detention for more than a year now. In June, he was transferred to a detention facility in Louisiana, and two weeks later transferred again to one in Alabama. Given the existing deportation order, Esker said Fagundes is likely to be deported. In the meantime, the impact has been devastating on his family. Both daughters have regressed developmentally, Esker reports — they wet their beds and suffer from nightmares — and the wife suffers from depression and is in such dire economic straits that she has become dependent on the parish’s weekly food basket for survival.

In fact, at this point, Esker wonders if the family will have the money to follow Fagundes back to Brazil if he is deported.

“What scares me is that I see the United States becoming a police state with this whole immigration thing,’’ Esker said.

While many may find this get-tough immigration policy effective, Esker said it fails to acknowledge the Catch-22 of American immigration, which lures desperate workers from Latin America across the border with the promise of jobs, yet doesn’t provide enough visas to meet the demand. He supports the U.S. Council of Bishops position of “earned legalization” which calls for creating “a window of opportunity for undocumented immigrants who are already living in our communities and contributing to our nation to come forward, go through rigorous criminal background checks and security screenings, demonstrate that they have paid taxes and are learning English, and obtain a visa that could lead to permanent residency, over time.”

“What were the factors that forced them to come here?” Esker said, pointing to poverty as the primary motive for migration. “Do normal people leave their country and move to another country? Normal people do not. It takes something very powerful to get somebody to leave home and to go to a different county.”

Esker is not alone in taking on the role of minister advocate. Clergy from around the state, especially in areas where immigrants remain faithful even as general church attendance has declined, are often undocumented immigrants’ fiercest allies.

Churches active in protesting detention and deportation in New Jersey represent a broad swath of denominations from Episcopal and Presbyterian to Unitarian, Catholics, Reformed Church, Lutherans and Methodist, said Chia-Chia Wang, an organizer with the Immigration Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that has spearheaded several anti-deportation protests in Newark that have included a coalition of clergy and lay people from faith-based organizations as well as immigration advocates, community organizations and unions.

They are all part of an active nationwide network of anti-detention activists who organize protests, visit detainees and their families, and use the internet to disseminate information about their cause through blogs like Detention Watch Network and


Eugene Squeo. Photo by Terrence McDonald.

In Jersey City, the “golden door” for immigrants headed to America in years past, the Rev. Eugene Squeo has spent decades fighting for the rights of immigrants from around the globe, and has watched as the targets of immigration enforcement have changed from Haitians to the Irish to Latinos.

Pastor at both St. Patrick and Assumption/All Saints churches, both located economically-depressed neighborhoods in New Jersey’s second largest city, Squeo estimates that a large number of his roughly 600 parishioners are immigrants, both with legal status and without.

“I would say probably I know a good number of people who are undocumented,” Squeo said recently in an office in St. Patrick’s rectory, located on Bramhall Avenue. “I tend to think I don’t know everyone. It’s a thing not everyone wants to share.”

Squeo, 69, who has led St. Patrick for 42 years, said the February 2004 deportation of St. Patrick’s parishioner Marie Lydie Adji was a galvanizing moment for his congregation.

Adji entered the country illegally through Canada and proceeded to raise a family in Jersey City with her husband, Joe Bai, a U.S. citizen. Nearly a decade ago, immigration officials knocked on the family’s door and took Adji away from her husband and three children. One, an infant, hadn’t yet been weaned.

Squeo and his parishioners wrote letters, distributed petitions, lobbied Congress — to no avail. Adji was deported within a month and remains in West Africa. Her husband and sons followed her soon after so the family could be together.

“That sort of made, for the parishioners, it really made concrete the issues for immigrants — namely, the dignity of the human person,” Squeo said.

Squeo remains an active advocate in favor of immigrant rights and supports most of the Senate immigration bill, now stalled in Congress.

With an immigrant-heavy congregation, Squeo said he rarely encounters parishioners who aren’t on his side of the immigration debate. Only once, he said, did an Assumption/All Saints congregant tell him “Don’t talk about the illegals.”

The former Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark, the Rev. Theodore McCarrick, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Labor Day, calling on Americans to help bring the nation’s 7 million undocumented immigrant workers “out of the shadows.”

“They are scapegoats for social ills and victims of harassment and discrimination,” McCarrick wrote. “Sadly, they represent a permanent underclass upon which our economy depends but exploits, to our nation’s benefit.”

Miriam Ascarelli teaches journalism at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Terrence McDonald is a reporter for the Jersey Journal. Both were founding members of The Immigration Project. Photos by McDonald and Steve McCarthy. Video by Ryan Miller is a senior in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State.

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2 responses to “Clergy Are Often Immigrants’ Biggest Advocates”

  1. HOW do you do a story about clergy and immigration and not include Seth Kaper-Dale at the Reformed Church in Highland Park? 

  2. There are so many different aspects to consider when speaking about immigration laws. However, it can most definitely be said that these laws have destroyed some families. It is quite sad when you think about it. I’m happy that there are people, like the ones mentioned in this article, that are seeking to protect children that are caught up in these situations.