The face of DACA, the hands of Georgia Baptists

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Literacy Missions workers at Memorial Baptist Church in Moultrie pray over Jonathan's DACA packet before it goes in the mail. JOE WESTBURY/Index

This is the first of a two-part story on how Georgia Baptists are legally working to prevent children from being deported under the DACA program, which expires at midnight Thursday.  Click here to separate fact from fiction about the DACA program.

MOULTRIE — The clock is ticking and getting louder by the minute.

At the stroke of midnight on Thursday, some of Georgia’s 24,000 undocumented residents who were brought here as children will no longer be able to apply for deportation deferral. For the last five-and-a-half years, Georgia Baptists in Colquitt County have been feverishly working to help as many as possible complete the paperwork which would temporarily delay their being removed from their families and returned to their countries of birth.

Georgia Baptists have long been known for their Literacy Missions work and helping those legally in the United States complete their path to citizenship. Involvement with the DACA ministry falls under the possibility that DACA could provide recipients a path to citizenship. And, close to the hearts of Georgia Baptists, keep the family unit intact.

Qualification is rigorous and requires a nearly-perfect record, free of virtually all encounters with law enforcement. In many cases they have to “walk the straight and narrow” path even more stringent than American citizens.

Mike Arnold, who drove the VBS van a dozen years ago that picked up the young Jonathan, looks through the old scrapbook where the photo was discovered. JOE WESTBURY/Index

That is why, for the last 272 Thursday nights, Memorial Baptist Church has been helping young teens like Jonathan Cervantes avoid deportation.

His first encounter with the church was through a Vacation Bible School van driving down his dirt road neighborhood on a humid summer morning. At five years old he accepted the invitation of a friend and accompanied her to church for the first time.

Jonathan is the proverbial stranger in a strange land, living under the radar for the past 15 years as an undocumented immigrant. His parents had come to the United States on a work Visa but had temporarily left him with his grandmother until they could establish themselves.

A dangerous journey to the United States

If they had known better, they could have brought him and established his residency. But hindsight is 20/20 so his parents, living in Moultrie, eventually saved and scrimped to pay a coyote – an individual who specializes in human trafficking – nearly $5,000 to sneak him into the country from Mexico. It was extremely risky and a high price to pay to reunite the family. Many such children die en route, suffocating in packed trucks with little ventilation or dying in the desert.

Jonathan was a lucky one.

His parents are hard-working people, seeking the American dream through low-paying jobs that are plentiful in south Georgia. So Jonathan, from the first day he enrolled in a Moultrie kindergarten without any paperwork, became an undocumented immigrant. People politely looked the other way.

Brenda Arnold holds the photo which, along with the church's VBS Certificate of attendance, allowed Jonathan to avoid deportation. JOE WESTBURY/Index

That designation and a change of administration in Washington has placed him at the heart of a national debate. The focus is what to do with children who grew up under the radar and who face deportation to a nation they never knew.

Deportation could be to any nation. Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador. Any place where parents struggle to raise their children in a safe environment.

Because Congress refused to act on the legal status of the children, President Obama created a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as a Band-Aid, subject to renewal. On Sept. 5, President Trump cancelled the program, giving Congress six months to provide a solution.

This link to FOX News explains the Trump Administration's decision to end DACA and his support for the children who are affected.

Nothing much has changed other than kicking the can further down the road. But for the children, a heavy cloud has once again been placed over their heads. The threat of being removed from their families is once again a reality.

Those who file their paperwork by Oct. 5 and are approved have a two-year extension against deportation. When their deferment expires they can be deported. Those who do not file can be deported immediately..

Members of Memorial Baptist Church in this county seat town of 15,000 are standing in the gap, helping those eligible with the paperwork. They are working to keep families together as allowed by law – until the law says otherwise.

Nothing is guaranteed during the next six months of twilight that Congress has to create a comprehensive immigration plan. If it fails to act, current immigration law will continue to destroy those families.

That is where Jonathan and the church fit into the picture.

Jonathan, now 17 years of age, was born far away on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Moultrie is about as foreign as you can get. When he stepped into that VBS van he knew very little English – but he and his parents were trusting the church down the street.

Coming to faith at a Moultrie church

“I didn’t know anything about Jesus or God but those people at the Baptist church saw to it that I had an opportunity to hear the Gospel,” he says. One person in particular, Brenda Arnold, took him under her wing and taught him beginner’s English. Arnold is a school teacher, heads the Literacy Missions outreach at the church, and serves as director of the church’s Woman’s Missionary Union.

This VBS photo provided proof that Jonathan was in the United States as of June 2012 when the DACA order went into effect. It serves as the foundation for his being able to avoid deportation. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Little did Jonathan know that not only would he eventually come to faith, but that VBS encounter would be the foundation toward building the wall against deportation.

On a recent Thursday night Brenda and her husband Mike – who drove that van – worked to help Jonathan fill out the eight pages of paperwork to renew his DACA status. In a break from the paperwork he stopped to reflect back over the impact the church has made – and continues to make – on his life.

The lettering on the church sign out front says it all, he begins: “Where Everybody is Somebody and Jesus Christ is Lord.” To Jonathan that means he is somebody and now, Jesus is his Lord.

For thousands of undocumented immigrants like the Cervantes family, Memorial Baptist Church is a beacon of hope. Through its Literacy Missions ministry, these would-be Americans are learning how to speak English, move up the socio-economic ladder, start their own businesses, and for many, reach their dream of American citizenship. Some DACA recipients are now in their early 30s, working below the radar in low paying jobs. Others are in elementary school.

Yet just like Jonathan, they are caught between two worlds.

“As far as Mexico is concerned, I ceased to exist at three years old when I came to the States. My parents were fleeing poverty, gangs, and drug cartels who controlled much of the country,” he explains.

“They have told me stories of how they had to lock their doors at night to prevent criminals from entering, and how gunshots would awaken them from their sleep. They wanted a better life, so they received a work permit to come to America,” he explains.

As far as the United States is concerned, he doesn’t exist, either. There is no documentation of his entering the country, no dental record of having a tooth pulled. Nothing.

Vacation Bible School record was the missing link

That is, until Mike, Brenda’s husband, opened the door to the church van and ushered him into Vacation Bible School. Eventually Jonathan came to faith in Christ, as well as his parents. He entered the school system, living under the radar, and eventually moved on with his family who became involved in a Spanish-language church.

Jonathan Cervantes, now age 17, is heading to Toccoa Falls College this fall with the deportation cloud being temporarily removed from hanging over his head. JOE WESTBURY/Index

A few years passed and, as he became a teen, he learned that Memorial was helping individuals like himself complete DACA paperwork. To make it even more unbelievable, the church was providing the ministry at the cost of the applications fees and with free legal aid. That saved the teen at least $2,000 from charges of professional preparers.

He returned to the church and renewed his friendship with Mike and Brenda and others who took up the challenge to document his presence.

Thus began a hard road to walk, completing paperwork that established residency as of June 2012 – the date when the Obama Administration began the program as well as Jonathan’s arrival to the U.S.

But as so often occurs, the Arnolds eventually hit a dead end establishing that important qualification dates. The trail went cold. It began to look pretty hopeless until Brenda began to search those decade-old Vacation Bible School records and miraculously found a photo of the young Jonathan. It was like hitting the baseball out of the park. He was home free. Jonathan's picture and VBS Certificate provided the needed evidence.

Now Jonathan has a future in America … at least for the next two years. He knows he will not be separated as a teenager from his younger brother and his parents and given a one-way ticket to Mexico.

Seeking a college degree and a new life

He plans on attending Toccoa Falls College next August, where he wants to major in business and then start his own restaurant or other enterprise. It will be his version of the American dream that has boosted so many immigrants into a middle-class lifestyle. For the American economy it means he will be creating jobs, hiring people, and putting them to work … and creating more taxpayers.

That college diploma, made possible because he would have the Social Security card needed to enroll, would prevent him from being doomed to a life of minimum wage employment or as a migrant laborer following the harvest to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for the nation’s tables.

Memorial Baptist Church has become a beacon of hope for children from several hundred miles around seeking help from deportation. JOE WESTBURY/Index

And it means there would be one less individual standing in line at the Georgia Baptist mobile health clinic, which provides medical care to those migrant workers and their families.

It means he will pay taxes, further helping the American economy … not only for himself but for his business. He will have a driver’s license to transport people and purchase supplies for his company.

If he is unable to receive citizenship – not automatic through DACA, – and Georgia Baptists are more than willing to help him in that venture – that driver’s license means he will not have to worry about road blocks checking for IDs when he is taking a family member to the doctor, dentist, or emergency room.

On the downside, without citizenship he will still be paying taxes and Social Security for a lifetime and never qualifying for benefits. That means never having access to Medicare or Medicaid, another misconception of what DACA provides.

But it does means he will be living the good life in America, and Jonathan is willing to take that risk.

That is, unless Congress decides to kick the can even further down the road and refuse to take action. If that occurs the clock will once again start ticking and when his DACA status expires in two years, he could be removed from college  and deported back to a world that he does not know and does not know him.

Brenda Arnold, DACA, immigration, Memorial Baptist Church, Moutrie, Obama, Trump

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