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Minneapolis church hosts Mass -- and legal clinic for immigrants

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People wait in the basement of the Church of the Incarnation
People wait in the basement at the Church of the Incarnation in south Minneapolis on Sunday, as immigration counselors talk about a crackdown by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials across the country.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

People packed the sanctuary at Church of the Incarnation in Minneapolis on Sunday for a Spanish-language Mass — and after communion and prayers wrapped up, they headed to the church basement, looking for more worldly answers to many of their fears.

As federal authorities confirmed stepped-up immigration enforcement across the United States over the weekend, immigrants in Minnesota with legal status — and those without — said their fears were growing more real by the hour.

"They feel afraid. Because they don't know who is who, and who supports us," said Antonia Alvarez of Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Minneapolis. 

She helped organize the ad-hoc legal clinic, with lawyers at folding tables, tucked into Sunday school classrooms and offices in the century-old Catholic church on Pleasant Street and 38th Avenue in south Minneapolis.

Alvarez said some immigrants were reluctant to so much as leave their homes over the weekend, for fear of encountering Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials even on the way to church.

The legal clinic started just hours after Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence said that a long-anticipated crackdown on deportation orders had begun around the country.

"We are doing targeted enforcement actions against specific individuals who have had their day in immigration court, and have been ordered removed by an immigration judge," he told Fox News on Sunday morning. "These are individuals who have come to this country illegally, had the opportunity to make an asylum claim in front of an immigration judge, and most of them chose not to avail themselves of the opportunity and didn't even show up for their first hearing."

NPR reported that the roundup showed few signs of materializing Sunday. 

St. Paul immigration attorney Kara Lynum told the crowd at the church in Minneapolis Sunday that there wasn't any initial indication that ICE had stepped up that activity yet in Minnesota.

"It seems like it's just kind of a hodgepodge here and there," she said.

Lynum said the prospect of the crackdown, though, had struck fear in people in many situations all over the region — from new arrivals who ICE didn't even know about, to naturalized citizens who still fear a knock from immigration agents on their door.

She took issue with assertions that stepped-up enforcement was the inevitable legal conclusion of a full and due process for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. Lynum also said a recent crush of arrivals and a flurry of legal activity hasn't given authorities the chance to even find some people to tell them their day in immigration court is coming.

"So when the administration says that, we know that they may have what's called an in absentia order — which means they were ordered deported when they weren't even in court, because they didn't know about it," she said.

Lynum said some arrivals are reluctant to even make a legitimate claim to stay, for fear that they, too, will identify themselves to authorities and fall into legal limbo.

One of the people who spoke with lawyers at the Minneapolis clinic, a 20-year-old man who asked not to be identified, said he's weighing an asylum claim after fleeing threats of gang violence back in his native El Salvador. But he said through an interpreter that he worries even staying out of sight won't protect him as immigration agents fan out across the country.

Through the interpreter, the man said he hears "a lot about people who aren't doing anything wrong and are detained — and then that kind of has a domino effect of people who are then affected by that, so if one person is detained, it can lead to several other people becoming detained, and that is really worrisome."

As the nationwide immigration crackdown loomed, religious leaders across the country used their pulpits Sunday to quell concerns in immigrant communities and spring into action to help those potentially threatened by the operation.

A Chicago priest talked during his homily about the compassion of a border activist accused of harboring illegal immigrants. Dozens of churches in Houston and Los Angeles offered sanctuary to anyone afraid of being arrested. In Miami, activists handed out fliers outside churches to help immigrants know their rights in case of an arrest.

"We're living in a time where the law may permit the government to do certain things, but that doesn't necessarily make it right," said the Rev. John Celichowski of St. Clare de Montefalco Parish in Chicago, where the nearly 1,000-member congregation is 90 percent Hispanic and mostly immigrant.

While federal immigration officials were mum on details, agents had been expected to start a coordinated action Sunday targeting roughly 2,000 people, including families, with final deportation orders in 10 major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

Activists and city officials reported some U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in New York and Houston a day earlier, but it was unclear if it was part of the same operation. 

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan would not answer questions about the operation at an unrelated briefing in Washington on Sunday on the emergency management response to Hurricane Barry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.