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Miami faith community strains to help new exiles, migrants

Isabel Bembow Tamayo holds Liam Centeno, 1, in the Iglesia Rescate school classroom that is converted into a bedroom for her family, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Isabel Bembow Tamayo holds Liam Centeno, 1, in the Iglesia Rescate school classroom that is converted into a bedroom for her family, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hialeah, Fla.

A few days after selling all she had to flee Cuba with her three children on a crowded boat, Daneilis Tamayo raised her hand in praise and sang the rousing opening hymn at Sunday worship in this Miami suburb.

“The only thing that gave me strength is the Lord. I’m not going to lose my faith, whatever I might go through,” she said. The family has been sleeping in Iglesia Rescate's improvised shelter since the promises of help made by her contact in the United States turned out to be “all lies.”

In the past 18 months, an estimated 250,000 migrants and asylum-seekers like Tamayo have arrived in the Miami area after being granted only precarious legal status that often doesn’t include permission to work, which is essential to building new lives in the U.S.

This influx is maxing out the migrant social safety net in Miami's faith communities, long accustomed to integrating those escaping political persecution, a lack of freedoms and a dearth of basic necessities. Cubans were the first to arrive during the island’s communist revolution 60 years ago, and they’re still fleeing here alongside Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

“The Lord says to welcome the stranger. It’s the saddest thing, the quantity of people who come and we can’t help them,” said the Rev. David Monduy, Iglesia Rescate’s pastor.

Miami’s faith leaders and their congregations remain steadfast in their mission to help settle new migrants. But they’re sounding the alarm that the need is growing unmanageable.

“We can get a call on a Saturday that 30 migrants were dropped off, and two hours later all have been picked up,” said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, the CEO of Catholic Charities in Miami. “But the challenge is at what point you reach saturation.”

The number of arrivals, by sea directly to Florida and from those heading here from the US-Mexico border, surged earlier this winter. For most newcomers, the best hope to settle in the U.S. is to win asylum, but immigration courts are so backlogged migrants can be in limbo for years, ineligible to get a job legally.

Advocates say that makes them vulnerable to criminals, puts an impossible financial burden on existing migrant communities that try to help, and slows down integration into U.S. society.

“It’s completely irrational that they’re not giving out work permits,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, whose Catholic archdiocese has long helped welcome migrants. “Because of that, the government can make a situation that’s not too bad yet, become worse.”

Many migrants are already homeless due to soaring rent and motel rates.

A group assembles care packages that are distributed to organizations that help new migrants and those that are homeless, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Doral, Fla.
Marta Lavandier/AP
A group assembles care packages that are distributed to organizations that help new migrants and those that are homeless, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Doral, Fla.

“Every day, people knock on the doors of our parishes, saying they have no place to sleep,” said the Rev. Marcos Somarriba, rector at St. Agatha Catholic Church on Miami’s outskirts.

In addition to providing food, clothes and some housing relief, churches are helping educate migrants about their legal options.

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church put together a migration forum with Catholic Legal Services in mid-February about a new humanitarian parole program that allows 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans into the U.S. each month if they have a sponsor who assumes financial responsibility for them for two years.

Parishioner Dalia Marrero attended to learn about sponsoring an uncle in Nicaragua, where many are fleeing President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on opponents.

“I don’t want to fail him or U.S. law,” she said, worried about how long she’d be required to support her relative.

Miami’s established diaspora communities know all too well the hardships that migrating entails, and that motivates many to help. But there also is mistrust among some old timers who remain active in opposition to autocratic regimes like Cuba’s and view some new arrivals’ politics with suspicion, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

That underscores the potentially crucial role for faith leaders — to preach forgiveness and build a sense of shared experience.

“That’s it — to unite,” said the Rev. Elvis González, pastor at St. Michael the Archangel, a historically Cuban church that welcomes faithful from across Central America. “They have seen the church as the only institution that can give some hope.”

A few miles south on the seashore stands La Ermita, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Charity that’s long been a beacon for Cuban exiles.

Migrants from all over Latin America come to bring sunflowers to the Virgin, to cry in gratitude for having made it and to ask for help with food and clothing, said Sister Consuelo Gómez.

“Jesus also was a migrant,” said Gómez, who helps many newcomers find jobs and decent housing, often with the aid of diaspora members. “We try to help so that they can get ahead on their own.”

Among them were two Venezuelan sisters Gómez helped get their own place as well as jobs that allow them to send money back to their ailing mother.

“Here I motivate myself, even though, yes, I miss my family,” said older sister Daniela Valletero, who works two jobs, six days a week. “Here I feel that I’ll make it.”

That’s the kind of faith that motivates Marylin Rondon, an attorney originally from Venezuela whose weekly prayer group of professionals from Latin America prepares hundreds of sandwiches for the nuns to distribute to migrants and the homeless.

“As a Catholic, you can’t stop at sadness,” Rondon said. “The biggest faith is that of the one who is arriving. He has to depend 100% on providence.”

Outside the Ermita shrine, a couple stood under the palms, their homeland of Cuba some 200 miles across the sea. Roberto Sardiñas came seven years ago, and in December managed to get his wife, Dadiana Figueroa, to immigrate legally through family reunification.

Asked about the influx of new arrivals, Sardiñas said it would be selfish to argue anything but that “all who can come, let them come.”

“The ideal would be that freedom existed in Cuba,” Figueroa added.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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