New Orleans church protests arrests of immigrants

On April 9, Matilde Gayosso heard tumult in the street in the 2800 block of Pakenham Drive in Chalmette, where she was living with her husband, Juan Pelcastre-Garrido, and four others.

The area, which is heavily populated by Hispanic residents, was being combed by a task force composed of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the Louisiana Fugitive Operations Team and St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s deputies.

“They were literally hitting the doors of all the houses on the street,” she said through a translator Wednesday.

According to Gayosso, 35, agents entered her house without permission and ransacked it.

In one of the rooms, they found three rifles, all of which she said were unloaded and had been given to her husband and his friends as gifts for helping a friend move.

Regardless, the men, all of whom are undocumented aliens, were arrested.

Pelcastre-Garrido, 40, was held in custody for eight months. He pleaded guilty last week to one count of violating the Federal Gun Control Act for being an undocumented alien in possession of a firearm.

He was sentenced to time served and will be transferred to the custody of immigration officials and likely will be deported to Mexico, his native country.

On Wednesday, Gayosso, along with members of First Grace United Methodist Church on Canal Street, held a news conference to protest the treatment of Pelcastre-Garrido.

“Juan’s story is a simple, age-old story of those with power and authority wielding it unlawfully against those who are powerless to stop it,” said the Rev. Shawn Anglim, who pastors the church. “Every Christian knows what the gospel says about that.”

With about 60 members of his congregation flanking him, Anglim railed against Pelcastre-Garrido’s arrest and the tactics of local immigration officials, which he said too often separate law-abiding citizens from their families.

According to the Rev. Oscar Ramos, who also works at the church, more than 15 members of the congregation have been deported.

“I deal daily with families that have been broken because of a broken system,” he said.

Gayosso said she and Pelcastre-Garrido were caring for his 5-year-old niece, whose mother was deported this year.

Ramos said the area where the couple lived is often targeted by authorities.

“It’s a street of horror,” he said, describing how the frequent appearances of immigration agents have left residents rattled and fearful.

Wednesday’s news conference was one of three events during the last month protesting what immigration activists describe as a vigorous uptick in enforcement in New Orleans.

On Nov. 17, 22 protesters were arrested near the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office when they blocked traffic on Poydras and Loyola streets to call attention to deportations they said were tearing families apart.

Two weeks later, hundreds of Catholic nuns spearheaded a protest at Loyola University, where they joined forces with other local activists in calling for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

According to Jacinta Gonzalez, lead organizer for the Congress for Day Laborers, ICE officials are conducting raids within Hispanic communities. “They will go to grocery stores, laundromats and Bible studies,” she said.

Gonzalez said Louisiana has some of the toughest immigration enforcement in the country, in terms of both apprehension and deportation.

According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 85.1 percent of rulings by immigration judges in Louisiana ordered non-citizens deported in the past year. That is the nation’s highest rate and dwarfs the national average of 53 percent.

Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, said the organization has a strict hierarchy for enforcement proceedings, targeting “criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States.”

“As a matter of policy, ICE does not conduct indiscriminate sweeps,” he said.

Cox said agents went to Pakenham Drive on the night Pelcastre-Garrido was arrested as part of an investigation into criminal activity, but he could not immediately elaborate further.

In court documents associated with his guilty plea, Pelcastre-Garrido signed a “factual basis” stating that deputies were given consent to search his home, though his attorney, Catharine Chavarri, had previously filed a motion arguing otherwise.

He also acknowledged that he understood pleading guilty would likely result in his deportation, something that will be decided by an immigration judge in the near future.