Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled
I’m in the midst of a 5 day stay in LaGrange, Georgia hosted by the Alterna community as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams steering committee meetings. Today I had the opportunity to interview Anton Flores, one of the founders of the community.
Anton has lived in LaGrange for 15 years and for 10 years he taught at LaGrange College. Today his full time, unpaid works is with Alterna. During the week, I’ve noticed he is often on his cell phone as he recieves calls from people in crisis. Whether it is legal, health related or housing crisis, Anton help Latino immigrants navigate the situation in this small town of 28,000.
A significant portion of Anton’s time is spent helping people caught in the legal system. Anton goes to court every week as an advocate for local Latinos who have been fined, most often for driving without a license (it’s impossible for those without documents to get one in Georgia). Anton estimates fines paid by immigrants and low income people in LaGrange each year to be at least $125,000, a sizable contribution to local government by a group that makes up only 5-10% of the population.
Last year Anton set up an office in a local Hispanic grocery so he could get to know the community. The arrangement was so successful in connecting with the Latino community, that he no longer needs to go looking for work. His work finds him on his cell phone wherever he is.
But Anton isn’t only content to fight fires. He also challenges the system that creates these crisis. In our conversation he described the paradoxes of the system that depends on undocumented immigrants for labor even in building military barracks and the LaGrange courthouse. Anton pointed to the way Atlanta heavily recruited Mexican immigrants as labor in the years before the 1996 Olympics as they struggled to make deadlines. Though the system needs the laborers, they are the ones forced to take all the risk. Along with crossing the border without documentation, they also must find false documentation. Anton described his experiences doing courtroom advocacy in which he watch a judge mock those who used false names in a way that made them out to be liars and untrustworthy. In reality, they were hard working, honest people forced into fraud by the system that needed them.
The video above from a vigil outside the Stewart Detention Center, where Anton regularly visits those detained in this privately run prison. One particularly painful and outrageous story he shared with me was that of Moises Campos Palencia. Moises’ parents brought him to the United States when he was nine years old. He grew up here, graduated from high school, married, started a business and had a daughter. Two months ago he was pulled over after running a yellow light. The police officer turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and he ended up in Steward Detention Center. You can read more about Moises and his wife and daughter in this story in this newspaper article. After Anton read this article he went to visit Moises at the detention center last month and introduced himself. Since he was hundreds of miles away from his family, Anton was one of the first to visit him. Though skeptical at first, within a few minutes he was crying as he shared his pain at his loss and separation from his family. As of this writing, Moises remains in the detention center.
Anton has also gone farther then that in his work with immigrants. He told me the story of his visit to El Sauce, Guatemala, a village in Guatemala from which over 60 people have immigrated to La Grange (out of a population of 140 families). Everyone in El Sauce knows someone in La Grange.
On one of his visits to El Sauce, Anton met with the family of a man who had been detained for false documentation. The man’s case was being processed very slowly as he sat in a US jail awaiting inevitable deportation. Anton took photos of his wife and daughter and shared them with the district attorney to remind him that the man was a father and husband with loved ones waiting for him. Once the district attorney saw the man as a human being rather then a criminal, the case moved more quickly.
I asked Anton about Anabaptist influences in his life. He cited reading Ron Sider in college and then his participation in a year long effort to plant a church with a Brethren in Christ minister. Though the church plant was not a success, Anton says, "I was hooked on Anabaptist ideas." Anton went on to explore possibilities for planting a Mennonite church in LaGrange, though that plan didn’t come to fruition. Despire his lack of a Mennonite church, Anton has developed many relationships with Mennonites. In fact he wrote an article for the Mennonite on just adoptions 4 years ago.
Anton has some useful observations based on his interactions with Mennonites, "A lot of Mennontie congregations have a difficult living into Anabaptist values because of the power of culture, especially a culture that is as individualistic as ours," Anton said. "What Anabaptist have to offer the 21st century is a sense of connectedness."
"[New Mennonites] are drawn to are the radical roots of what Anabaptism," Anton said, "these new Mennonites are often a prophetic call back to these roots in their churches."
For more on Anton and Alterna, you can read about the genesis of Alterna in his own words (along with a very cute photo of his family).