MIAMI — A day of construction work complete, Rene Ticas was driving his crew home on Palmetto Highway when the ladder on the van roof blew off and spun around on the highway, grazing another car.
Ticas called the police to report the accident, never imagining the repercussions would be so costly to his family.
After the officer checked the drivers licenses and registrations, he asked to see identification for everyone in the van. Ticas had a work permit, but his son Elmer, his uncle and friend — all from El Salvador — were in the U.S. without documentation. Police handcuffed the three men and called immigration officials.
“I was in my own world,” said Elmer Ticas, now 20 years old, “thinking about how long I have lived here, going to school, wanting a future here and thinking how hard it was for me to get here.”
He was 13 when he left El Salvador and crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S, walking through the desert without much food or drinking water and swimming across the river.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrived, and Rene Ticas watched numbly as officials took his son and the other men away.
He prayed and reminded himself that God is in control — a similar reminder he gave himself 14 years before when he left El Salvador in search of better economic opportunities in the U.S.
Finding legal help
Then he called Pastor Valentin Fontanez at Refugio Eterno Brethren in Christ church, where Ticas’ family attends and Elmer was the main pianist in the worship band.
Fontanez knew whom to ask for help. Mennonite Central Committee East Coast has a South Florida Immigration Program, which offers affordable, Christian counsel to members of area Anabaptist churches. The program provides immigration education, individual consultation and legal representation.
Immigration attorney Rachel Díaz, a member of La Roca Firme Brethren in Christ church in Hialeah and a consultant for MCC East Coast, took the cases of Rene Ticas’ son and uncle. Their friend was deported.
Andrew Bodden, MCC East Coast South Florida program and diverse constituency coordinator, said the immigration work MCC does is one channel of God’s work in South Florida.
“For me this is a way to fulfill the call that God gave to us — to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner,” he said.
Bodden also supervises MCC’s work in Puerto Rico and answers immigration questions that come to him from any state.
During Elmer Ticas’ stay at Broward Detention Facility in Pompano Beach, he played piano for daily religious services and translated for visiting pastors or people writing letters to lawyers.
Ticas’ great uncle, Santiago (not his real name, because his case is still in process), found the monotony of detention hard to take. He was frustrated that he couldn’t continue sending $220 every two weeks to support his parents, three sick brothers and two children in El Salvador.
“My family went hungry,” he said.
Santiago left El Salvador in 2007 because gang members shot at the bus he was operating when he refused to pay them a percentage of his fares. His son was a passenger at the time. He moved his children to another place and left for the U.S.
Díaz pled their cases before a judge, who allowed both of them to be released in 2011. Their cases would continue, but they were free to be with their families.
“I felt so happy,” Ticas said, grateful not only to be free but for the experience. “I learned how precious life is, how to love people and more about faith and people worshiping the same God in different ways.”
Two years later, Santiago’s case is still in progress, but Díaz doesn’t have many legal options left to help him. Unless an appeal is granted, Santiago will be deported in 2014.
“The gangs remember people,” he said, “no matter where you are in the country.”
Ticas fared better because he qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gave a two-year work permit to young adults who came into the U.S. before they were 15 and met a list of other criteria, including getting an education. Ticas graduated from high school in 2012.
Díaz filed the proper paperwork for Ticas, whose deportation order was canceled and a work permit granted. His possibilities of staying in the country after two years, Díaz said, lie in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals being continued or in immigration reform that would give him permanent legal status.
Ticas plans to start college this year. He wants to be a lawyer, and his detention has made that dream stronger.
“My heart’s desire is to help people in need, to be fair and not take advantage of them,” he said.
Pastor Fontanez — who is thankful his pianist is back in church — reflected on why he helps the undocumented, which includes at least half of his 70-member congregation.
“Situations of poverty in their own countries move them to explore new lands to help their families,” he said. “It’s not fair to talk about Jesus if people can’t see how Jesus is reflected in what we do.”