NEW YORK — Mennonite Garifuna churches of New York City have been assisting numerous Garifuna immigrants who have arrived since June.
To date, they have assisted about 140 families, helping them with food, clothing, legal assistance and travel fare to legal and medical appointments.
Omar Guzman, pastor of the Mennonite Garifuna Church of Manhattan, estimates that at least 200 family units came to the city.
“We assisted all the families we could, getting all their information, writing their stories and working to get free legal assistance and representation for their cases,” Guzman said.
The Garifuna, descendants of African and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean, are mostly concentrated along the northern coast of Honduras, with others in Belize, New York City and other U.S. urban centers.
Last spring, large numbers of Garifuna immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras to escape discrimination, urban gang violence and poverty and to find work and a more stable life. Many of the immigrants, which included some unaccompanied children and youth, came to New York City to stay with Garifuna family and friends already living there.
When many of the mothers first went to immigration court, they were given tracking devices to wear on their ankles. Until the devices were removed, the women were unable to legally work and had to charge the devices every three hours.
After observing the strain the wave of immigration was putting on families in their congregations, church leaders partnered with government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Eastern Mennonite Missions and West End Mennonite Church, a congregation in Lancaster, Pa., partnered with the churches to provide additional assistance to Garifuna immigrants.
“Thanks to these partnerships, we were able to get the tracking bracelets removed from the women’s ankles, kids registered in school, psychological assistance for many of the youth and health coverage through a medical plan for many of the immigrants,” Guzman said. “A few applied and qualified for asylum and got a Social Security card and work permit. Others are still waiting for a similar opportunity, but we are waiting in hope.”
Although the urgency for assistance has diminished, Garifuna church leaders know this will be an ongoing effort. They have held three “legal fairs” to orient immigrants to U.S. immigration procedures.
A volunteer team continues to give assistance twice a week at the Community Center of Evangelical Garifuna Church of the Bronx. Gregoria Flores, one of the coordinators, is taking a 40-hour immigration certification training in order to better assist Garifuna immigrants.