By Richard Meek
Catholic News Service
BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) — Officials of the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s Hispanic Apostolate expressed concern about encounters with the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security via email and a personal visit in the days following August’s historic flooding.
Julia Scarnato, who recently joined the apostolate staff, and Father Eliecer Montanez-Grimaldos, chaplain, questioned if the government agency may have been using the office as an unwilling conduit to track down and arrest immigrants living in the country illegally.
However, Andy Allen, an outreach officer for the homeland security office, said he believes there was a misunderstanding among the parties.
Scarnato said she initially received an email Aug. 18 from Allen that the Baton Rouge Police Department would deliver food and supplies later that evening to the apostolate, which is located on the grounds of St. Pius X Church in Baton Rouge. In the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Catholic Commentator, diocesan newspaper, Allen wrote, "We want to make sure you get the supplies you need and any additional supplies and are aware of any additional help that may available to you."
However, the supplies never arrived, Scarnato said, adding that a police officer visited the apostolate office seeking the names and addresses of the people the agency serves.
"He wanted to know the exact locations," Scarnato said "He asked if we could show him where those places were. And he promised to come with food.
"I told him I don’t have the power to release any information without contacting the diocese," she added. "I told him that I don’t know where (the people) are because they are located all over the place."
Allen said supplies were delivered by the officers as well as by the Capital Area United Way to another Hispanic church.
"There may be some confusion because there are two different religious-affiliated locations where we have several hundred Hispanic families," Allen said in an email.
Allen explained that "no one on our end has asked for names and addresses. FEMA or other government representatives may have asked for that to make damage claims, but I’m unaware of anyone in our operation asking for that."
Such issues "are not even on our radar," he added. "Our goal was to ensure that everyone in the city had access to food, water and shelter in the immediate aftermath of the rain event."
Father Montanez-Grimaldos said the officer also had four places written on a piece of paper where some Hispanics had gathered. He said the officer also asked for documents, addresses and places specific for those people in those locations and the names of the families.
Most chilling for Scarnato and Father Montanez-Grimaldos is that they believe the Homeland Security officials planned to use the information to locate and arrest immigrants and possibly have them deported.
"In my opinion," Scarnato said, "(the officer) said he would bring food, he would bring shoes, he would bring uniforms for kids. Today we are still waiting. Nobody is saying one word. So what is the real motivation? It’s clear it had to be something else."
Allen reiterated that he had no knowledge of who was asking for the names and addresses, and said that information was not something officers were collecting other than taking calls for first responders to conduct water rescues in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.
Scarnato said the Hispanic community suffered a devastating blow from the flooding that began Aug. 12, with many people losing all of their possessions. Apostolate volunteers delivered more than 2,000 meals in the immediate aftermath to families, many of whom are now sharing apartments or houses while they search for new living arrangements.
Scarnato also said many Hispanics will not go to evacuation shelters because they fear being arrested and eventually deported and the difficulty posed by the language barrier.
"Once they get in the shelter they can’t understand what is going on and they get scared," she said.
Scarnato said people are unable to apply for federal emergency funds or approach the government because they lack proper documentation.
"They feel like they don’t have a place (to go for help)," she said. "We try to help them even if they don’t have documents. We’re for people. We can’t say no. We see Jesus Christ in every single human being."
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and the Salvation Army delivered supplies. Scarnato particularly praised the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for delivering the largest donation the apostolate had received. A truckload of supplies from the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama also was delivered.
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Meek is editor and general manager of The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.