Canton ICE raids: One year later

In August of 2019, ICE raided Peco Foods in Canton, Mississippi. A year later, the Hispanic Community is still struggling.

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Bianca McCarty

Sacred Heart Church in Canton

When ICE came to Canton, Mississippi, residents first believed that they had become the victims of a terrorist attack.

“It was like being invaded,” said Patti Greene, a volunteer at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

The scene has been described as akin to the desert of Iraq. Helicopters flew above Canton’s historic square, and crowds of confused onlookers gathered on any spare piece of land. No one could understand what was going on.

For the children of Canton, August 7th, 2019 was the first day of school, and the beginning of something horrible.

. . .

Over a year ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—more commonly known as ICE—raided Peco Foods in Canton, a small city just north of Madison, shaking the local Hispanic community to its core. Suddenly, many lived in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty. Jobs were lost, a sense of stability shattered, and parents were stolen away from their children.

Many of these undocumented immigrants are members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the backbone of Canton’s Catholic community. This is the church that rose to the challenge that very day and hasn’t stopped since.

“We’ve received many helpers in different areas,” said Blanca Peralta, director of Hispanic Ministry.

If anything good has come from the raid, it is the new relationship between Sacred Heart and Grace Episcopal Church. Despite being different denominations, the two churches have found common ground: community outreach.

A year out from the raid, Sacred Heart’s relief focus has shifted to meeting financial needs, primarily paying rent and utilities. Instead of hosting a food pantry, the church is distributing 100 dollars to each affected family. This way, families can fulfill their specific dietary needs. Sacred Heart also provides rent and utility bills monthly, keeping the lights on for a number of families. This is no small endeavor; around 20,000 dollars leaves Sacred Heart a month.

Sacred Heart’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the community and diocesan leadership. The church was nominated for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi award, which has honored all types of Catholic service in America since 1978. Though they did not win, Scared Heart received 1,000 dollars for the nomination.

“The best part about Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi nomination was bringing more awareness to the crisis situation for our families affected by the ICE raids,” said Patti Greene.

Fr. O’Brien also received two awards for his work: Pastor of the Year from the Canton Gospel Music Association and the 2020 Johnny Klinger, SCJ Social Action Award from the Priests of Sacred Heart.

Grace Church in Canton

Meanwhile, Grace Church was handling the other side of things: community building.

Grace Church’s pastor, Beth Foose, has a special place in her heart for Canton’s Hispanic community. Naturally, she and her church stepped up to help last August.

“We‘ve been there since day one,” said Foose.

Tim Adams, a deacon at Grace Church, has a very particular gift that is both pragmatic and creative. Hair cutting. Christianity is all about using the gifts each of us have to serve others, which is just what this deacon decided to do. He began holding hair cutting classes at Grace Church in order to provide people with a practical skill, but also to build community.

Grace Church has also been holding art therapy sessions, and English language classes in conjunction with Sacred Heart.

After last year’s tragedy, the need for a support group was as strong as ever. By working together, Sacred Heart and Grace Church were able to provide that.

. . .

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March of this year, this momentum came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, it was no longer safe to gather, and all in-person support had to stop. Already vulnerable, the Hispanic community was greatly impacted by the pandemic.

To put it simply, they can’t afford not to work. There are always needs to be met, even with a pandemic raging outside. So, when a member of the Hispanic community finds themselves displaying symptoms, they are wedged between a rock and a hard place. No person desires to put the community in danger, but at the same time, there are mouths to feed.

As the virus spreads, so does misinformation. Throughout the community there is mistrust of medical treatment, especially the hospital. Simply getting tested is a great fear for many. Instead, they self medicate with herbal teas and do everything in their power to avoid going to the doctor. This phobia results in part from the belief that medical professionals will report undocumented immigrants to ICE, plus a doctor’s appointment in the country can cost more than 100 dollars.

In addition to health concerns, the pandemic has forced millions of students all over the country to stay home. This includes Canton Public Schools. For the Hispanic community, online schooling poses many complications and difficulties. Many households lack access to WiFi, and for new immigrants, computers are a foreign concept. Parents need to stay home with their children, limiting their ability to work.

“We call them essential workers, but we treat them as if they are disposable,” said Foose.

For some, working isn’t even an option. The undocumented immigrants arrested in 2019—those who remain in the area—have had their court hearings postponed as late as 2021. Before the hearing, they are not permitted to work, meaning that many families have lost a source of income. Special permission is occasionally granted, but only two women within the community have received such.

Life for the Hispanic community in Canton is undeniably and unbelievably difficult—considering both the raids and the pandemic, but they are not without support.

To the best of their ability, Sacred Heart and Grace Church have continued to assist these families in anyway they can. Sacred Heart continues to provide financial support, but funds are dwindling quickly. Donations of any kind help.

Since March, Grace Church has supplied the Hispanic community with fresh produce, cleaning, and art supplies. Funded by a donation from a parishioner and the church’s Outreach fund, a WiFi tent was set up in the side yard of Grace Church, so that students without access to internet could complete their schoolwork.

“They’re survivors,” said Fr. O’Brien. “We might think is a terrible crisis; they’ve been through worse.”

. . .

Though it’s been over a year, and many have forgotten, the trauma of August 7th, 2019 remains. Canton is no longer in the news, yet Sacred Heart and Grace Church continue their support. In a world that is so easily swept up in superficiality and greed, these two churches stand as a reminder of what Christians are meant to be.