“Becoming a citizen is the best thing I could have done. It has given me more confidence and joy. I now see the dignity I have.”

Estela Alfaro proudly stood tearfully sharing her testimony before a packed parish hall at St. Anthony’s Church in Long Beach which was filled with more than 200 undocumented residents hoping to become citizens.

“Fear of not passing the test and lack of money should not be reasons for not trying,” Alfaro said. “You can become citizens.”

Alfaro’s 22-year journey to citizenship started when she first moved from San Luis Potosi, Mexico to the U.S. to help support her mother financially. She now hopes to inspire others as one of the model citizens to come out of St. Anthony’s brand new citizenship program.

“When I heard ‘congratulations’ on becoming a citizen something happened to me,” Alfaro said. “Before beginning this whole process I was questioning why I was living here. I have lived alone for many years and have gone through many struggles. I was even losing my faith. But everything has changed.”

As she ended her talk, the mood of the room clearly shifted from one of hurried fear in light of an executive order to one of possibility, confidence and belief.

It’s stories like Alfaro’s that remind the head of the citizenship ministry, Deacon Jorge Ramos, why he first started the program last year. His passion took root in the memories of his immigrant parents’ struggle for validation and belonging when they moved to the United States. It’s a desire inscribed in his initial motivation for becoming a deacon: to evangelize and welcome people into the church. It’s a passion encouraged in the daily interactions he has with men and women seeking comfort from fears of deportation. He and his pastor, Father José Magaña, saw a need in the parish and set to filling it.

The inaugural program started last July with a group of 30 undocumented parishioners, a handful of parish volunteers, and a weekly “class” where attendees receive help with everything from paperwork and tutoring for the civics test to practicing interviews. All 30 participants are now citizens. Last week the pre-application process for the next class started again. This time 200 parishioners showed up.

The parish has been in a state of heightened anxiety and hysteria in the weeks following the recent executive orders on immigration. St. Anthony Parish knows too well the pain of having families torn apart by deportations. Traffic violations and immigration court hearings have resulted in the deportation of men and women — often leaving behind children who are then put into custody of Child Protective Services.

“Families have lost husbands and wives. And children are left behind without parents. Most often, we never hear from them again,” Ramos said.

Last week, Ramos comforted a mother who came up with tears in her eyes asking what will happen to her children when she is deported. While teaching one of his elementary classes his brightest student came to him with the fear that she would never go to college because she doesn’t have papers. He had to explain to his kindergarten classroom that white people are not mean.

“It’s very personal to us. It’s probably the number one thing on our minds as a community because everyone in the parish either has an undocumented friend or family member or is undocumented themselves,” Ramos said.

And for him this is the hardest part. It’s seeing his parishioners battle hysteria and sorrow over deportations, and being completely helpless to change their outcome.

“When someone is hungry we give them food. When they’re homeless we help them find a place to stay. But when it comes to deportations it’s not like we can go over to their country and bring them back with us,” Ramos said.

Despite the limitations, Ramos’ class has had a profound capacity to offer something even citizenship couldn’t.

“It was a community. People kept coming back. They had completed all the work of the class, knew all the answers but they still wanted to come for the fellowship, because they felt like they belonged.” Ramos said.

“It was a family. People who had finished stayed in the group to help the other members,” said parish secretary and volunteer Martha Ranjbar, “I think what they created was a sort of support group. This group was an opportunity not only to become citizens, but to be with people who were in the same boat as them. They were all in this together.”

For Alfaro it was a nearly evangelical experience.

“I felt like I belonged to a family going to those classes. I recovered my faith, it made me closer to God.” Alfaro said. 

And for some it was accompaniment. One woman, whose husband was seriously ill had no way to get to her interview. Ranjbar drove the woman and her son coaxing her every step of the way,

“She was incredibly nervous. She was throwing up and struggling so much,” Ranjbar remembered. “I just kept telling her that she would be fine. She could do it. And if she didn’t pass we could always come back and take it again.”

When the woman walked out of her interview her face said it all.

“I have never seen such a happy face,” said Ranjbar, “and seeing her embrace her son. It’s moments like that that I will never forget.”

Reflecting on the last year Ramos realized the class’ greatest strength was not practical but spiritual. It was a fraternity that comes through a shared wound. The dour reality of pursuing citizenship, of grappling with a second language, of memorizing a grueling list of questions was lifted every Friday for a couple hours of uproarious laughter, heartfelt intimacy and companionship.

This is the ministry Ramos believes is most needed right now because regardless of how hard he works, he will never be able to guarantee citizenship to every undocumented parishioner. He can’t promise that the recent executive orders will be overturned and he has no control over whether or not his parishioners will belong in the United States, but he can give them something else.

“They are always at home in the church. This is their family,” Ramos said. “And they will always belong here.”