Argentinian pastor Fabián Arias, 53, is much more than the leader of a Lutheran congregation in Manhattan. He's also the legal guardian of countless undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors.
It all started in 2006 when Hermes Espinoza, then 17 years old, asked Arias to be his legal guardian. By having an American claim guardianship over him, Espinoza — an undocumented teen from Guerrero, Mexico, who fled LGBT discrimination back home — would have a second chance at living a better, safer life in America.
Arias agreed and ignited a small but powerful movement that gave 26 others the chance to live a life free of fear of deportation, City Lab reports.
Arias became famous in his community for offering special help to both the LGBT and Latino communities. Because of his special attention to those under attack, many people found in him someone they could trust. When the time came, the priest proved them right.
By “adopting” immigrants who were at risk of deportation, Arias took the next step in being active as a pro-immigration activist.
The priest himself, who obtained citizenship in 2002, has no biological children. He left Argentina and the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, finding more freedom with the Lutheran Church in New York.
Upon arriving in America when George W. Bush was president, he learned of massive ICE raids at factories targeting the Latino community.
In no time, he was welcoming and serving the undocumented as a priest.
To Arias, the fact that Latinos are vulnerable is nothing new. The difference is that now, under President Donald Trump, the threat seems even more real thanks to his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“This is an aggressive political model. It is an antihuman model that does not respect civil rights,” Arias said of Trump's controversial immigration stance.
As Arias became a guardian to more than two dozen undocumented immigrants, he said that the new administration's actions have only increased the number of people asking for help. Due to the high volume, the priest and the church developed their own strategy so they may look at requests and choose which ones are more urgent, thus allowing Arias to prioritize cases of immigrants who are younger than 21 and who may be facing deportation.
While legal guardianship doesn't give Arias the same status as an adoptive father, it allows the priest to represent the undocumented immigrants in question. The biological parents' rights remain in place.
When it comes to choosing which immigrants get Arias' help, the church is clear that only those who “have a presence here [in the church]” are chosen, the priest explained.
“[T]hey have to come to the activities and be very responsible with their studies, because that is a fundamental part of their future,” he added.
But as the number of applicants increases, the priest becomes overwhelmed. At times, he must ask for help from others to take legal guardianship over at-risk immigrants.
“If you listen to their stories, you can’t restrain yourself from doing it,” Olga Torres, 59, a parishioner who accepted taking legal ownership of two undocumented immigrants, said. “And it’s nothing complicated. [The immigrants] come from some families who beat or mistreated them. And all they want is to have their documents to stop being persecuted.”
To Arias, guardianship means giving guidance. And if there's anything the good priest from Manhattan has been able to do successfully, it is to have given guidance to countless individuals who have only asked for an opportunity to be free.
As a man of faith, Arias has shown what true solidarity looks like — maybe others will follow suit.
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