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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Puerto Rican church in Williston feels the effects of state immigration laws

Casa de la Restauración Shalom works to reduce fears, insecurities in the local Hispanic population

The House of Restoration Shalom is a church located in Williston, 20 miles south of Gainesville, managed by Puerto Ricans. The church's contribution to the Hispanic community is evident in its support for the city's administration.

"We are collaborators with the city," said Omar Rosado, a 60-year-old resident and main pastor of the church for 20 years. "We help the city when they have translation problems because a lot of Hispanic people are moving to this town."

The Hispanic community in Williston has been growing due to the need for workers in the local agricultural industry. Around half of all employees in the farm labor workforce nationally are undocumented, according to FWD.us, an immigration reform advocacy organization.

In the Williston database, the Hispanic population has increased by 50% since 2013, from 200 to 295 residents. Hispanic people of any race comprise about 10% of the local population. 

In May 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the immigration law SB 1718, which further penalized employing undocumented immigrants, among other regulations. 

Offering transportation to undocumented immigrants could also lead to legal problems. Omar Rosado doesn’t consider offering transportation using the church's official vehicles to be a crime since it is the property of the church and not the state.

"I have several undocumented individuals in the congregation," Omar Rosado said. "So far, we haven't had problems because they have their own vehicles, but the day one of them tells me, 'Pastor, I need help or a ride to a medical appointment,' I will go without fear. Now, I won't use my car; I'll use the church's transportation."

Omar Rosado is not afraid to face the law and stand before a judge to present his case if charges arise. He is willing to confront and fight for his rights, he said.

"If they arrest me, I will take the citation," Omar Rosado said. "And I will go to the judge, and I will face the charges, but I will defend myself without fear."

People from his congregation approach him with fear of what might happen to them if caught by the law.

"I can't imagine the anguish of being everywhere I go, wondering if the police will intervene with someone or not," Omar Rosado said. "If someone has minors born here, they have the right to stay, and you get deported."

Fear has affected a large part of the church's congregation. This does not mean that it supports infractions, Omar Rosado said.

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"I agree that entering a country without documents is a crime," said Omar Rosado. "Each case is a case. Some people are fleeing death, others come out of necessity, and if they don't come here, they will die of hunger. You have to take each case, observe it, study it, and work on it. It's not about making a law that applies to everyone equally."

Omar Rosado also shared how he felt unwelcome in the city due to discrimination against Hispanics. He was the only Hispanic business on Main Street, he said, and they wanted to remove him just for being Hispanic.

On one occasion, the sheriff closed the entrance door, and would not let him pass. After Omar Rosado and his wife warned that they were going to record the situation, the sheriff withdrew, Omar Rosado said.

More than 300 people have passed through the congregation, said Omar Rosado, and they help anyone who walks through their doors. The House of Restoration Shalom has demonstrated its support for the Hispanic community and is not afraid to face the law if it means defending what they believe in.

"I have two couples from Guatemala who are undocumented," Omar Rosado said. "And a family of Hondurans who have no documents. The others have visas, which are here until their visas expire. And those without documents, I have to bring them in regularly to encourage them. Don't give up, as long as you're here, you're safe."

The efforts of the pastors to support these undocumented individuals go beyond recognition to the trust they have in their God and their biblical values. They intend to stand firm to protect and encourage people who continue to fight for a better life. 

"If I have to go to prison for this cause, I will go to prison," Omar Rosado said. "But I will defend it."

Alex Marrero, a 51-year-old Williston resident, is one of the associate pastors at the House of Restoration Shalom and shares the same concerns as Omar Rosado.

"People who enter illegally are infringing on the law," Marrero said. "But we, as a church, are not against any kind of person. The constitution of the United States and the church are two entities, but they are two different entities that do not mix."

Another associate pastor, Ismael Rosado, who is also part of the church's treasury and the music ministry, shares some of the activities provided by the church for the Hispanic communities in the area.

"We organize activities where we can preach the gospel,” Ismael Rosado said. “We are always willing to help."

The pastors involved share the same mindset towards the limits the immigration law has given. They will continue to stay in their place in Williston until they decide they are ready to move, but not because of fear of the law, they said.

Contact Laura Quintana at lquintana@alligator.org. Follow her on X @LauraCQuintana1.




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Laura Quintana

Laura Quintana is a third year Journalism major. Spring 2024 is her first semester working at The Alligator. Some of the things she likes to do is read, write, and take pictures. Her biggest goal is to become a novelist and travel the world.  


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