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Charities’ agencies spread
word on immigration law
By Nancy Westlund
Herald staff

A record-breaking 150 telephone calls come in on any given day at the office of Catholic Social Service-Solano County on Georgia Street in Vallejo.

The mid-week training session for Hispanic priests, deacons and lay leaders packs a room to overflowing at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Sacramento.

And throughout Northern California, a church-based community-organizing group dedicated to improving the lives of the poor holds meetings in 21 parish communities.

The issue of concern at these venues and countless others throughout the state and country is new federal legislation, the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act of 2000, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton last December.

The focus of the concern is one of three major provisions of the new legislation which restores for a four-month period Section 245 (I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allowing certain illegal immigrants to apply for green cards without leaving the country. Candidates must have a close family member or employer sponsor them and must be able to prove they were physically present in the United States on Dec. 21, 2000, the date the new deadline became law.

Those eligible under this section must apply by April 30.

“It’s an extremely short window of time we have and there are a tremendous number of people who really need this,” according to Caroline Kieffer-Rosal, executive director of Catholic Social Service-Solano.

Catholic Social Service agencies in Sacramento and Solano counties began as early as December to assist clients in understanding requirements of the new law and in the application process.

Jim Rodgers, executive director of Catholic Charities of Sacramento, said it is crucial for Catholic social services to extend immigration services at this time. “We regard immigrant services as a root issue in the Catholic Church,” he said.

He added that Hispanics are a large and central segment of the Catholic community in the Diocese of Sacramento, where approximately half of its population of 477,330 Catholics are Hispanic.

At Catholic Social Service-Solano, additional staff has been added to support a program to assist clients in the 245 (I) application process daily after noon and all day Wednesdays. The agency has also sent letters to all pastors in the 10 Solano County parishes, inviting potential candidates eligible for the Immigration and Nationality Act extension to utilize their services.

Teresa Alonso, program director for immigration, said that during the past two months 245 (I) related walk-ins have significantly increased and telephone inquiries on the issue range from 90 to 150 a day. She said complicating matters is the commonly held misconception the new federal law represents a general amnesty for longtime illegal residents.

“People are passing themselves off as immigration attorneys taking advantage of these needy people,” Alonso said.

At Centro Guadalupe, a program of Catholic Social Service-Sacramento, program director Adela Avila has been working double time to assist immigrants in understanding the requirements of 245 (I). Avila, who is an immigration specialist, has received 25 to 30 calls daily on issues related to the new law and is trying to keep up with cases which are currently being processed on an individual basis.

With the goal of reaching out to inform as many people as possible about the extension of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the diocese’s Hispanic Apostolate office held a training session for Hispanic priests, deacons and parish lay leaders Jan. 31 at the Pastoral Center in Sacramento.

Presenters at the session included representatives of diocesan Catholic Social Service agencies and the Sacramento Valley Organizing Community (SVOC). Deacon German Toro, director of the Hispanic Apostolate, said the session, at which 31 parish communities were represented, was an opportunity to pass on valuable information about the provisions of 245 (I) and link up churches with immigration-related services.

SVOC lead organizer Larry Ferlazzo, among those present at the training session, says informing immigrants about recently-enacted immigration reforms has become a primary issue for an organization which has a strong following in the Catholic community.

“It’s what people in parishes are saying is their number one concern…and it’s a wonderful opportunity to teach leadership and broaden the base of SVOC,” Ferlazzo said.

SVOC is currently organizing over 150 house meetings in seven Northern California counties addressing immigration issues. The meetings will also be an opportunity to fill out intake forms so that SVOC’s legal consultants can determine people qualifying for 245 (I).

During the first two weeks of March, SVOC is scheduling assemblies in Sacramento, Placer, Solano, Napa and Yuba counties featuring individual consultation with attorneys.

Among parishes encouraging participation in the SVOC meetings is St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Vallejo. Father Oscar Figueroa, parochial vicar at St. Vincent Ferrer, said the parish is getting the word out to its more than 1,000 Hispanic parishioners about house meetings in the area.

“We are helping out by providing facilities and putting people in touch with SVOC, which has a good group of people working on this,” he said.

For more information, call the Hispanic Apostolate office at (916) 733-0177; Centro Guadalupe at (916) 443-5367; Catholic Social Service-Solano at (707) 644-8909 or SVOC at (916) 457-0245.

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