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United Methodist couple struggles as undocumented workers

Darwin and Perla Alvarez live in fear of deportation that would separate them from daughters Nicole and Daniela. UMNS photos by Amanda Bachus.

By Amanda Bachus*
June 5, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tn. (UMNS)


Darwin Alvarez preaches at his church Primera Iglesia Metodista Unida Hispana in Nashville, Tenn.

In many ways, Darwin and Perla Alvarez are a typical hard-working couple struggling to achieve the American dream.

Darwin works on a construction crew hanging vinyl siding, while Perla cares for their 6- and-3-year-old daughters. Active in their local United Methodist Church, Darwin is a lay leader and occasionally steps into the pulpit to deliver the sermon.

But unlike their U.S.-born neighbors, they live in constant fear they will be ripped from their home, sent back to lives of poverty, leaving their children orphans.

Darwin and Perla and millions of other undocumented workers are hoping and praying the U.S. Congress will pass a compassionate comprehensive immigration law that takes family values into consideration.

American dream

Like many others, Darwin came to the United States to find a job and help his impoverished family in Honduras. As the oldest of seven children, he lacked financial resources and couldn’t finish school, making his job prospects in Honduras even slimmer.

"Back home, there were practically no jobs available. There’s no way to secure a job," he says.

Darwin decided to immigrate but had no money to obtain a visa. After crossing several countries, he reached the United States in 1996 – but not without encountering dangers along the way. He almost lost his life that December as he crossed the Arizona desert as a cold front hit.

"I hadn’t had anything to eat or to drink for three days," he recalls. "I was afraid to go to sleep thinking that I wasn’t going to wake up. The image of my mother was the first thought that crossed my mind. What would she do if I died?"

"Sometimes I see through the window and think they might come and take me away as if I was a criminal, put me in jail as if I have committed a horrible crime. I can't imagine what would happen to my two little girls."
-Perla Alvarez

He was picked up by immigration patrol and granted a permit to stay for three months. Since that time, he has remained with a temporary visa. "Once those three months had expired, I had to make a decision: go back to Honduras or to stay. I decided to stay," he says.

In 1997, Darwin met Perla at a restaurant where both worked. Soon after, they married and started a family.

Darwin secured a temporary status visa given to Central Americans after Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, allowing him to apply for Social Security and find work.

He has tried to renew his temporary status protection every year but was denied on his most recent visit. Unless he has a legal case opened up with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he can’t appeal the extension ruling and can't appeal to legalize his immigrant status either.

So he lives in constant fear of what may come.

"I feel I’m living in a limbo," he says. "If I go to Immigration and try to fix my papers, they might deport me."

Despite the uncertainty, he feels more fortunate than other illegal immigrants with no documentation at all.

"At least I have Social Security and I can work. Others live and work in the shadows," he says. Darwin hopes Congress will pass laws that will allow him to fix his undefined immigrant status.

Living with nightmares

Six-year-old Nicole Alvarez (front)
receives communion.

Perla had left the state of Veracruz, Mexico, where women struggle to find a decent job and her father wasn’t able to support them anymore.

She thinks "all the time" about her illegal status in the United States and wishes she could change that but asks, "How am I going to do it? Currently there are no laws that will allow me to do that."

Perla feels like a criminal every time someone stares at her in a public place. She doesn't know what the future holds and has nightmares about immigration officials knocking at her door and taking her away. She's heard of such cases involving other undocumented workers and their families.

"Sometimes I see through the window and think they might come and take me away as if I was a criminal, put me in jail as if I have committed a horrible crime. I can’t imagine what would happen to my two little girls. Yet, I have hope and pray to God that the legislators will pass the laws for me and my husband to legalize our papers," she says, crying.

Darwin says he didn’t know about God and the church until he came to the United States.

"I didn’t know of Jesus’ teachings against injustice," he says. "That’s when I got motivated and decided to join the church. This motivates me to keep going. Now I have faith and I’m encouraged that my situation will be solved one day.

"I have a lot to give to others. I like to teach Sunday School to youth and to adults. I firmly believe that The United Methodist Church has a call to fight the injustices for people."

He adds, "I put myself in God’s hand through Christ’s grace."

*Bachus is director of Spanish-language resources at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio Interview

Perla Alvarez: “Me gusta ir a la iglesia…”

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