Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the new Strangers to Neighbors movement in Elkin and its first gathering, which was held Friday at Elkin Presbyterian Church.
As strangers arrived at Elkin Presbyterian Church Friday evening for dinner, the goal was to begin a process of becoming neighbors — accepting and understanding of different backgrounds, different cultures, different arrivals to the Elkin community.
Strangers to Neighbors leaders brought American and immigrant communities together in one night of unity, where diversity was celebrated and everyone sought to learn from one another’s stories. The evening was shared in both English and Spanish as the speakers’ words were translated so all in attendance could understand.
The process began about a year ago, explained the Rev. Stuart Taylor, pastor of the Presbyterian church. Mayor Sam Bishop, El Ahorro owners Reyna and Toriz Ortiz, Elkin Police Chief Monroe Wagoner and immigration attorney Cynthia Gonzalez were some of the key members of that gathering, which sought to dispel myths and reassure immigrants who feared going to local law enforcement when they were in need.
Friday’s gathering began with a potluck dinner of everything from fried chicken and pot roast to tamales and quesadillas, topped off with strawberry short cake and other desserts. Those attending were encouraged to sit with strangers, with people from a different background, and to share each other’s stories of immigration, whether recent or through family members hundreds of years ago.
“Some of you may be wondering about these strange cloths hanging from our ceiling,” said Taylor as he welcome everyone before dinner. “They’re called tartans and they represent a family that immigrated to America from the British Isles. These families that immigrated here from the British Isles have been here a long time, but that does not mean we are not all immigrants.
“This is tonight a celebration of America as a nation of immigrants,” he said.
Once everyone had finished their meals, they moved to the sanctuary for a forum on the topic of “How can Elkin become a more welcoming community toward immigrants.”
To begin the forum, siblings Brandy and Erick Fuentes shared their family’s story of immigration and how they came to be part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“In 1997, our father migrated from Mexico to this country on his own two feet, literally walking for miles through the desert in search of a better future for us,” said Brandy Fuentes. “Like millions of other immigrants, he was chasing the American dream.
“Growing up as an immigrant has been difficult for multiple reasons,” she said.
She shared their fear as they entered school with a language barrier and not knowing even how to express a need to use the bathroom in those first days. But through the years, they learned to succeed and were driven to be strong academically, eventually being recruited to honors classes in middle school.
Not being able to turn to their parents for academic assistance, she said, “This taught us self-motivation and responsibility at a young age.”
They experienced a “typical high school experience” as Brandy said, “We were finally assimilated into American culture.”
But then, “little did we know our immigration status would be an unbreakable obstacle to overcome,” she said. “When sophomore year rolled around, everyone was expected to take driver’s ed. When we asked about signing up, our parents informed us we could not sign up since we don’t have Social Security numbers.
“This was the first time we were faced with the reality of being undocumented,” Brandy said. “Thankfully a door was opened for us through DACA.”
Erick Fuentes explained DACA and its requirements for participants of having criminal background checks, being fingerprinted and having to be enrolled in school or having a high school diploma or the equivalent, as well as having to be in the United States for five consecutive years.
“This is a temporary protection for deportation that has to be renewed every two years and costs $495 plus attorney fees each time,” Erick said. “This has granted us a work authorization and Social Security card. Most importantly, it granted us a sense of protection.”
But even with DACA, when senior year came around, he said they were faced with other concerns. Would they be able to afford the college they’d worked so hard to be accepted to? “Even though we were under DACA, we discovered in the state of North Carolina, undocumented students do not qualify for in-state tuition, federal student aid is not an option, and a limited number of scholarships are available,” he said.
“We have not let those obstacles limit our dreams,” Erick said.
Brandy is in the selection process for a four-year college to attend in the fall, and Erick already has a degree in computer engineering from Forsyth Technical Community College and is working on a second degree now from Surry Community College.
“Aside from the difficulties of school, work environments can be similar,” he said. “For instance, there are several misconceptions about DACA and undocumented people in general.
“Many people think that we do not pay taxes, but in fact we do. Our check stubs reflect the tax deducted for the state and federal government. What we don’t get is the eligibility to benefit from the programs we pay into like Social Security benefits, worker’s compensation, or student financial aid,” Erick explained.
“In the United States, there’s approximately 800,000 DACA recipients,” Brandy said. “We leave our homes every day wondering if our parents will still be there when we return.”
She said many immigrants hesitate to call law enforcement for help, because they are afraid they’ll be asked about immigration status. “We lose touch with our culture to fit in,” she added.
“This is why we’re here today. We are here to put some of these anxieties to rest,” said Brandy. “Everyone who is here shows that the immigration community has support. We were meant to be here.
“We can no longer hide in the shadows. We have to step out of our comfort zone and show the world the power of unity. But let’s start at home, let’s start in Elkin,” she said.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.