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Ernie Garrido, communications specialist for UT School of Public Health, is pictured with Bishop Daniel E. Flores in the Bishop Adolf Marx Conference Center at the San Juan Basilica.

SAN JUAN, RGV – The question of whether Catholic churches can be used as sanctuaries in the event of an ICE raid was discussed at a brunch Bishop Daniel Flores held for reporters on World Communications Day.

The subject was broached by Ernie Garrido, communications specialist for UT School of Public Health in Brownsville. He and his colleagues provide healthy living and exercise classes in colonias and low-income neighborhoods across the Rio Grande Valley.

Garrido said they have been asked by young mothers if they can use their local churches if their homes are raided.

“Some of our participants are talking about the possibility of seeking shelter in a church. It is not a requirement for us to ask their status. Most of them are female. Most of them have children. They go to class with their children,” Garrido told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the brunch had ended.

“On several occasions, they have expressed to us, ‘What do I do if my house is raided? What do I do with my family? my life is here. I have been here for so long.’”

Garrido said it has been “an eye-opener” for himself and his colleagues. “We are out there promoting health and well-being but the reality of life on the border is that there is a lot of fear, there is a lot of uncertainty, there is a lot of concern.”

Asked to explain his work in the Valley’s colonias, Garrido said:

“We promote exercise, healthy eating and we mostly focus on low-income populations. We are all over the Valley now but our main focus is in Brownsville because that is where we started 12 years ago. Most of our work is done in low-income neighborhoods and colonias. We typically partner with churches or places that have gyms, where we can gather to promote our free exercise classes or free healthy eating classes. All of work is completely free of charge and then we take it up a step and some of our programs do connect our participants with medical help for those who are uninsured and unable to pay for medical services.”

Garrido said that while he and his colleagues have traditionally worked on exercise and healthy living programs, fear in the community means is providing a new challenge. “Mental health, emotional health, now we are having to address those types of questions. We have to help our participants stay focused as best we can.”

Garrido said that in the case of Brownsville, some of the UT School of Public Health’s classes are right down the street from the Border Wall.

“Ever since the talk of the border wall, ever since the talk of sending in more Border Patrol agents or more border security… we read in the news about raids in neighborhoods. In recent months, that is when this fear started. A lot of (documented) people will not visit their family in Mexico and vice versa, just because of the uncertainty. The unwelcome-ness of being Mexican or Mexican American.”

Asked if he has actual evidence of a family seeking refuge in a church, Garrido said he had not. The anecdotes, he said, are usually about friends of the participants in UT School of Public Health programs. Such as:

“A friend of mine who tends to lawns as a gardener in Cameron Park, he is afraid they are going to stop them. Is he able to run to a church to seek shelter? The reality of that image, someone who is working, someone who is doing hard labor all day long, we see it in Brownsville. We see it every day, working in the sun, working in the fields, with their hands, people who want to work, now they are afraid that they will not be able to work to provide for their families. That was an eye-opener for myself and my co-workers. Wow, this is real fear.”

Garrido said he and his colleagues partner with Proyecto San Diego in Cameron Park. “A lot of the stories they hear, a lot of the stories we hear. We do keep track of them. We are there to promote health, including mental and emotional health. Just listening, that helps.”

Bishop Flores

The brunch Bishop Flores hosted for reporters to celebrate World Communications Day was held at the San Juan Basilica.

Responding to Garrido’s question, Bishop Flores pointed out that “sanctuary was a medieval notion born out of the Church’s insistence of a separation of Church and State.” Flores said the Church insisted on the separation before the State did. “It’s morphed in the modern secular culture into kind of, now there are sensitive areas. Now, federal law prohibits entrance into sensitive areas.”

Flores said what he has consistently said to Valley priests is that he trusts their judgment.

“When someone comes to you and says, Father, I am hungry or Father, I have no place to sleep, I say, it is not our job to ask what their immigration status is. It is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is, if you are hungry, if you need something to eat… we do not ask if you are Catholic or if you are a Christian. We do not ask anything. You are a human being and that is sufficient. And so, we do what we can,” Flores said.

“Now, in practical, concrete circumstances, you have to give good, honest, advice as to what their (an immigrant’s) best way forward is in terms of overcoming the fear. The government has legitimate concerns about who is here legally but that is not the Church’s concern. That is a separation or distinction issue.”

Flores said that if he encounters a “concrete situation” where somebody does not want to leave the Church because somebody is waiting outside, “well I will deal with that when it happens.” Flores said he hopes it never happens.

Flores said it is clearly not good to have people stay in a Catholic or Protestant church for weeks and months on end. “It is not good for anybody. It is not good for them (the person seeking refuge) and it is not good for the society. We have to keep pushing for a comprehensive reform where people do not have this kind of fear. But, the fear has been exacerbated by SB 4. You can call it irrational if you want but I say it is real.”

Flores said priests in the Diocese of Brownsville have talked to him about churches as sanctuaries.

“We expect the government to respect the freedom of the church. The freedom of the church has always included the right to help people without entering into legal status or anything like that. That is what we do because that is our identity. Now, in the modern secular world, it is increasingly difficult for the secular mind to understand how the Church has a mission and an identity that is distinct from the State,” Flores said.

“It is our job to insist that distinction be maintained because it is one of the last communal institutions within social fabric that is not the government. It is important to preserve because it is part of a free society. I am watching the situation very carefully and so are the other bishops in Texas and the bishops in California, and the bishops at the national level. We are hoping it does not get to the point where we have to push back too much.”

Garrido said he appreciated Bishop Flores’ response.

“It was a great opportunity to talk to him about the whole concept of sanctuary. It is very important for us communication specialists, those of us in the media, to talk to the gardeners, those working in the fields. The noise and the clutter of the big headlines often distract us from the human aspect, of listening to those who provide for their families, members of the community,” Garrido said.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Apolonio Sandoval, Jr., assisted with this story from San Juan, Texas.