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Catholic Charities has taken a lead role in the immigration debate in Dutchess - Poughkeepsie Journal

 

Sandra Vacchio put off applying for U.S. citizenship for years, and even let her permanent resident card expire two years ago.

After all, the 57-year-old Wappingers Falls resident has lived in the country since her family migrated from Italy in 1968. She grew up in Harrison, moved to her current home and raised a family, became involved in civic and nonprofit efforts, and even served as Wappingers Falls historian for nine years.  

But last year, with immigration emerging as a key issue and President Donald Trump vowing a crackdown on immigrants, Vacchio started to feel vulnerable.

“Over the years, numerous times I pulled up the application (for citizenship) and every time I went to how much it was going to cost, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have that right now. Let me try next year,'" Vacchio said. "And then a few years would go by.

“What happened last year is I started watching the election," she said. "You can’t miss that there’re some issues going on.” 

So, Vacchio called Catholic Charities. 

Run by the Archdiocese of New York, Catholic Charities is one of the largest charitable organizations in the New York metropolitan area. Over the past year, it has increasingly become a major resource for immigrants.   

In Dutchess County, it is one of the few resources available.

"We see people day in and day out that are struggling for one reason or another," said Mary Marshall, executive director of Catholic Charities of Dutchess County. "We work with the working poor. We’re working with the elderly seniors, we’re working with people that have mental health issues." 

"And the most vulnerable are people that don’t have access to all the other resources that some people do have," Marshall said.  

'In the shadows'

The charity assists immigrants to find services and seek legal status if it is available. Vacchio, for example, took the oath to become a citizen on Aug. 5.

But increasingly Catholic Charities has focused on the most vulnerable immigrant population — those who are undocumented, or unauthorized.

The group has held more than 180 "know your rights" seminars throughout the archdiocese, and in the past six months has sponsored several all-day clinics to screen immigrants for potential legal status. 

“What we have done is we’ve begun to organize day-long events where we can screen immigrants and refugees on a large scale," said Mario Russell, director of immigration and refugee services for the charity. 

“These are people who have been here for five, 10, 15 years and either didn’t know they were eligible for something or got bad advice or possibly over the years their circumstances have changed," Russell said. "They’ve sort of remained in the shadows.”

One clinic held in Poughkeepsie on July 21 drew 70 undocumented immigrants, whose cases were reviewed by 33 volunteers and nine immigration attorneys. Forty of them were found to be eligible for some form of legal status.

“For a lot of people who are eligible for a status, they don’t necessarily know that," said Dan Buzi, program and volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities in Dutchess. "They don’t have the money to pay an attorney to find that out. So, the primary purpose is to see what, if anything, you’re eligible for.” 

Changing climate

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there were 4.5 million foreign-born New Yorkers in the state in 2015, making up 22.9 percent of the total state population. More than 2 million of them were non-citizens.

Unofficial estimates suggest that at least 775,000 of them are undocumented. 

In Dutchess County, nearly 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, and more than 15,000 were not citizens, according to the New York State Office for New Americans.

A growing number of them are turning to Catholic Charities.

Among them is Diana Cruz, a 22-year-old graduate of SUNY New Paltz now enrolled in a master's program at SUNY Albany. A Mexican immigrant from Poughkeepsie, Cruz has temporary residency through a 2012 initiative called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. 

Known as "dreamers," DACA participants are undocumented immigrants who arrived at a young age and are granted legal status to work or study in the U.S. They are considered among the best and brightest of the undocumented community. 

More than 45,000 of them are in New York, the fourth most among the 50 states.

Trump said he will allow the program to continue for now. But many immigrants have begun to shy away from DACA because the application process requires them to identify themselves and reveal their immigration status.

"I’ve always had this mentality that if you’re going to get deported you’re going to get deported no matter what you do," said Cruz, who applied for a DACA extension at Catholic Charities in Poughkeepsie on Aug. 16. "I’m taking a chance living every day. But I just have to do what I have to do.” 

Wake-up call

Officials at Catholic Charities said the change in immigration policy has had other chilling effects. Some immigrant families are not re-applying for the food stamp program run by the charity for fear that they will be located, arrested and deported. 

For Nigel Simms, the new immigration climate was "a wake-up call." 

Like Vacchia, Simms had a permanent resident card, commonly referred to as a "green card." A 43-year-old native of Jamaica, he nonetheless began to worry about the new uncertainty for immigrants in America, and wondered if it would affect him.

“The political climate was very undecided," Simms said. "I had reservations about travel even though I had my green card because people from different regions were being sent back. That’s the only reason why I put all my vacation to the side and said, ‘You know what? Let me figure this out.’ A friend told me about Catholic Charities.”

On Aug. 5, he joined Vacchio in taking the oath to become a citizen.

Both said they feel fortunate, and are well aware that the path to citizenship will prove more challenging for others who find their way to Catholic Charities.

“I understand what it’s like to not be able to work and provide for your family, not being able to walk and feel secure that someone’s not going to snatch you and process you and all that stuff," Simms said.

"Not to put race in it, but I am a black man and I’m from a foreign country," he said. "I have an accent. So, I understand what they’re going through.”

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