Until three undocumented immigrants were rounded up and processed by ICE agents in March, St. Joseph’s Church in Fort Edward on Sundays was a melting pot of faces.
Members of up to 12 Mexican immigrant families, about 50 people in total, could be seen in the pews and at the altar, where Mexican immigrant children served as altar boys and girls.
“No more,” the Rev. Tom Babiuch said solemnly in a recent interview. “They don’t come here anymore. They’re afraid to step out and have a normal life.”
Babiuch said he knows the three people well, and said he can’t fathom how a nation built by immigrants can allow agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grab people off the streets — people who were doing nothing wrong — and put them into a limbo of fear, wondering what will happen next to them and their kids.
“This country has been built on Christian values and Christian messages. To do this to these people is totally unChristian,” he said.
ICE spokesman Khalid Walls said the apprehensions weren’t random, but the result of a tip.
In an effort to help the immigrants, both those here legally and illegally, Babiuch and Julie Leonelli, the church’s director of religious education, have formed a group they’re calling North Country Immigration Support.
The goal of the group is to educate people that the immigrants are valuable not only to the farms and quarries where they work, but the communities where they live.
They said major immigration reform at the federal level is needed.
On Thursday, immigration activists Lisa Catalfamo and Sue Sanchez presented a talk at the church on the need for immigration reform. They showed dozens of Catalfamo’s photos from the town in Mexico many local immigrants came from.
Catalfamo, who is married to a Mexican immigrant and works with another group that teaches immigrant women English and helps with family planning, traveled to the town and presented photos to family members of their loved ones who are now living in this area.
She captured the smiles — and tears — of those family members upon seeing the images of their sons and daughters who left Mexico to improve their lives. Catalfamo wants an overhaul of immigration law to allow immigrants to be able to pursue the American dream but stay connected to the families they leave behind.
At St. Joseph’s, the loss of the primarily Mexican immigrants is being felt by many of the congregants, including two women who were in the church recently, working on music for upcoming Masses.
“They used to fill the first five pews,” said Nancy LaFave, the music director, pointing to the left side of the church.
“Now they’re afraid to come,” choir member Brigitte Steffens said.
Leonelli said the families still pray, but they do so in their homes, where they have set up prayer corners.
“Our church school year ended right about the same time all this happened. They stopped coming during that. They were not comfortable going out anymore,” Leonelli said. “It’s sad, really sad, because it’s such a loss for the kids. It’s a change in their quality of life.”
Babuick reminisced about past Our Lady of Guadalupe services and celebrations, when the Mexican women would be “all dressed up and singing songs in Spanish.”
“I’m just trying to educate people,” he said. “Education is key on immigration issues and what needs to be done to help these people. I want to educate them that these are good people.”