Ministry assists those seeking legal residency in the U.S.
By ROSE YBARRAThe Valley Catholic
SAN JUAN — When Martha Roman’s son, a U.S. citizen, turned 21, he filed an immediate relative petition for a green card for his mother.
“I had a lot of questions,” said Martha Roman, a native of Reynosa, Mexico. “I didn’t know how long the process would take or what it entailed exactly. It seemed complicated and expensive.”
Roman made an appointment with the diocesan immigration office, which assists foreign nationals seeking permanent resident status in the United States in filling out application forms and counseling on eligibility requirements.
Roman was so happy with the assistance and guidance she received from the immigration office that she decided to volunteer there. When her work permit came through a few weeks later, she applied for and received a job in the immigration office assisting young immigrants with their Deferred Action process. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 are offered a two-year stay of deportation, given a Social Security number and are allowed to apply for a work permit.
Those who apply for DACA must demonstrate good moral character, among other requirements.
“I call them mis niños because I treat them like they are my children,” said Roman, who has two young adult children. “I am caring and supportive, but I get after them to do things right — I encourage them to be good students, get a job, stay out of trouble and to bring in all their documentation in a timely manner so we can complete the process properly and as smoothly as possible.”
Dulce Vargas, who has been the receptionist of the immigration office for 10 months, was also a client. The Reynosa native was looking to escape the violence in her hometown and start a new life in the United States when she sought assistance from the immigration office.
Like Roman, she volunteered in the immigration office before she was hired. Vargas donated her time and talent for three months, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, until her work papers came through.
Because Roman and Vargas “have been on the other side of the desk,” they truly understand how the client feels and what the client needs, said Ofelia de los Santos, director of the immigration office and a licensed attorney.
“And they aren’t afraid of the masses that come to our office,” de los Santos said. “You have to be passionate about the work or you won’t make it.”
Serving in the immigration office ministry is not easy. The office is bombarded with calls and visitors, averaging 800 contacts a month. In 2016, the office logged more than 9,000 contacts.
“We used to hire the employees through a temporary agency and none of them lasted more than a couple of weeks,” de los Santos said. “One of our employees suggested, ‘Why don’t we try one of our clients? We have a lot of talent in the clients we are helping.’”
De los Santos said many of the clients who are fleeing the violence in Mexico, like Roman and Vargas, are well-educated and have strong work histories. Roman owned her own business and Vargas worked for the Church in Mexico for many years.
As the receptionist, Vargas provides “the first impression of the office,” de los Santos said, but it’s a role Vargas has embraced.
“I walk the line between being flexible and being strict,” Vargas said. “We have to be kind and welcoming, but we have to keep order. Every day is interesting. There is never a dull moment.”
Some cases are more difficult than others and not everyone is eligible for legal residency according to U.S. immigration policy, but the immigration office looks carefully at each case, exploring different avenues to see if there is a way to help the client.
Because U.S. immigration law is so complex, it is recommended those looking for legal residency seek advice from a reputable source like the diocesan immigration office.
All too often, the employees of the immigration office hear stories from clients who have been swindled out of hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars from unscrupulous attorneys and “immigration consultants.”
Roman, who has been working in the immigration office for a year and two months now, said she wishes she could help everyone who walks through the doors, but they must adhere to U.S. immigration policy – and not everyone is eligible for legal residency, particularly those who entered the country illegally.
“Sometimes, you help them find a way when they didn’t think there was a way,” Roman said. “Sometimes there is nothing we can do. Regardless, we give them a straight answer. The worst thing we can do is give a client false hope.”
“From the very beginning, I tell the clients, ‘Don’t be scared and be honest,’” Vargas said. “I remind them to tell their case worker the truth. It’s like going to the doctor. We can’t help you if you lie or leave out pertinent information.
“When we can help someone, it’s extremely rewarding. You’re helping someone, someone like me, realize a dream.”
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