For almost two months now, Salvadorian immigrants have been streaming into the basement of Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church, a red-brick edifice built more than 125 years ago by Irish and German beer barons. With a July 29 deadline looming, they come to the corner of Marcy and Hooper to reapply for Temporary Protected Status, so they can continue to live and work legally in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
On May 30, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would grant another extension of the so-called TPS of 208,000 Salvadorian nationals, allowing them a 60-day period to enroll before their protected status expires on September 9. This allows them to stay in the U.S. for another 18 months. Then the process begins all over again.
In the basement of Trans, as the South Williamsburg church is known, are the offices of Central American Legal Assistance, a place of refuge for this group of immigrants who are stuck in a sort of netherworld — one document away from illegal status.
Carlos Chavez, 37, a CALA paralegal, left El Salvador in 1994 after his parents fled to the U.S. in the 1980s during that country’s bloody civil war. As a boy, he saw dead bodies piled up in a public square near his home in the village of Armenia — the lethal work of “death squads from both sides.” He’s now a citizen, married with two children, and would seem to be living the American dream.
Others who arrive in the U.S. are not so fortunate. Shouan Riahi, a 27-year-old staff lawyer at CALA, made it clear that TPS is not a path to citizenship in the way that, say, marrying an American is. “Immigrants who come here from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras would love nothing more than to be citizens, but there is no opportunity for that under TPS,” he said. “It’s limbo. Its purpose is to give them temporary status until it’s safe for them to get back to their countries.”
The designation applies to people from countries where armed conflicts or natural disasters would pose imminent dangers if they were to return. In 2001, the U.S. Attorney General granted the status to Salvadorian nationals after their country was rocked with earthquakes. The recent extension came after a formal request made in April by the Salvadorian government during a meeting between Salvadorian Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has made TPS requirements “pretty strict,” according to Riahi. To re-register for the TPS extension, applicants have to pay $380 for employment authorization and $85 to “refresh” their fingerprints so that the government can check to see if they’re still eligible. “Two misdemeanors or a felony can knock you out,” said Riahi. (CALA also charges an agency fee of $70 for returning applicants.)
Bianca Gonzales, the 38-year-old owner of a cleaning service in Queens, said she was re-registering for TPS for the ninth time. She was accompanied by the eldest of her six children, 21-year-old Aracely, who said her parents entered the U.S. with the help of a coyote in the 1980s and then flew her over.
Aracely received her TPS in 2001 and said she stays in the U.S. “because I want to live a better life.” Pregnant with her first child, she doesn’t have a job, but said her undocumented Guatemalan husband works in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
CALA was founded in 1984 by Anne Pilsbury after she served as a volunteer on immigration cases for Transfiguration Church. The 69-year-old public interest lawyer, who lives in Greenpoint, isn’t optimistic that the House of Representatives will pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was approved by the Senate in late June. It has provisions that would make TPS immigrants who have lived here for at least ten years eligible to apply for a green card, the document that gives them the upgraded status of Lawful Permanent Resident and puts them on the road to citizenship. She said the struggle “will continue” as it has for decades for Central and South American immigrants in the U.S.
Pilsbury noted that much of her agency’s workload is with clients seeking asylum here who have left their countries because of “violent drug cartels and gangs.” Some, she said, contact CALA after being rousted in the middle of the night by federal immigration authorities. She has a case load of thousands, some of whom have lived here for years.
Riahi, who earned his law degree from NYU in 2012 and later learned Spanish in Guatemala, said CALA’s asylum cases were often complex and difficult to prove in immigration court, especially those involving young people who flee from gangs in their homelands. Some foreign-born clients, he noted, went on the run after they were told to join a gang or face execution or bodily harm. “If you refuse to join, they take that as an affront, and you become like political enemies,” he said, adding that such clients would be deported if CALA didn’t help them seek asylum in the courts.
Msgr. Anthony M. Hernandez, who became pastor of Transfiguration Church in 2005, said he doesn’t know how many undocumented Latino immigrants are parishioners. But he believes that over the years, thousands have been put on a path towards citizenship by CALA and by a separate immigration service of the church’s Southside Community Mission, which helps Latino applicants fill out forms for green cards, naturalization, citizenship and family reunification. “I’m not aware of any other parish that has the services that we have,” he said.
Hernandez succeeded the late Msgr. Bryan Karvelis, a revered figure in the immigrant community who gets mentioned as a candidate for sainthood in the Brooklyn diocese. Karvelis put up homeless Salvadorian immigrants at the church’s rectory, sometimes for months and even years at a time.
While Hernandez, 44, has ended that practice, he said he wants to continue most of his predecessor’s programs, including the men’s shelter he created across the street from the church. It’s in a building that Hernandez renamed the Karvelis Center and it houses other services for the poor such as a food pantry and programs for senior citizens and domestic workers. All are now under the aegis of Southside Community Mission and receive funding from various sources, including the City of New York.
Karvelis also opened a hospice on Hewes Street during the AIDS crisis which is now a residence for recovering Latino patients administered by Catholic Charities.
There was a time when parishioners worried that Transfiguration might fall victim to gentrification, especially when the Brooklyn diocese closed the church’s adjacent elementary school in 2004. There was talk of Hasidic Jews interested in buying the school building. Instead, it was leased to El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a public high school. The school is run by El Puente, a community group, and.the City Board of Education pays the lease. That provides a significant source of income for Transfiguration, which maintains 16 properties, three of them in upstate Sleepy Hollow.
Jose Javier Bosque, executive director of Southside Community Mission, said many Latino parishioners and their children can no longer afford to live in Williamsburg “because we’ve become a cool neighborhood.” He said he was approached many times by Satmar Hasidim seeking to buy church buildings and even Transfiguration Church for “millions of dollars” when he was Karvelis’s administrative aide.
Hernandez acknowledged that some church elders feel a “tension” with the Satmar. “But I don’t feel it personally. and I never had anyone come up to me personally and ask to buy the church,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the parish to be open and welcoming. The Satmar have large families and needs, too, and Latinos want to maintain their culture and heritage. Many people want to live in Williamsburg. Now there are the hipsters. They’re welcome, too.”
During a Spanish mass at Transfiguration on a recent Sunday, there didn’t seem to be a hipster in sight as a largely Latino congregation prayed, sang hymns with a choir and received communion wafers amid the refracted lights from the church’s Tiffany windows.
One of the worshippers was Willie Melendez, 50, a Salvadorian in poor health who arrived with his brother via coyote in Times Square in 1989 and soon moved into the church rectory where he lived for more than 15 years with Msgr. Kavelis and some two dozen other homeless Latino immigrants.
Melendez, who received TPS in 2001, said he had relocated to the church’s men’s shelter when Hernandez became pastor. “They treat me well,” he said. “But every morning and every night, I pray for [permanent] residence.”