After an Ash Wednesday Mass at the church attended by more than 250 people, faith and lay leaders and immigration advocates used the backdrop of the religious observance to urge President Obama to employ executive power to help families of undocumented immigrants facing detention and deportation.
Nearly two million people have been deported under the Obama administration. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. New Jersey has about 550,000, and Pennsylvania about 160,000.
"President Obama has the power to stop deportations, and he should use it immediately," said the Rev. Ken Hallahan of Ministry to Latinos along the Black Horse Pike, one of the organizers of the event. "Our families can't wait any longer."
Similar events were planned Wednesday in Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth as part of a campaign to put a human face on the immigration debate playing out in Congress.
Undocumented immigrant Max Sotelo said he was taken into custody by New Jersey state police in October 2012 in Williamstown as his wife, Gabriela, and young daughter, Sophia, watched in horror. He said he showed a valid Mexican passport but the police questioned its authenticity. He was released hours later.
"I want to work in this country. I want a better life," Sotelo, 34, who works as a power washer, said through an interpreter.
His daughter, 5, has not forgotten the incident, said Hallahan, who ministers to Spanish-speaking Catholic immigrants who live along the Black Horse Pike and Route 130.
"Every time she sees the police, she thinks they're going to take Daddy away," Hallahan said.
A bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill cleared the Senate eight months ago. But divisions within the GOP have left it stalled in the House, with little likelihood of passage this year.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) called on Obama on Tuesday to halt deportations of relatives of U.S. citizens, legal residents, and young people such as Mendez who were brought to the country illegally by family members. "The current deportation apparatus is an outrage and it's a tragedy," Menendez said at an awards dinner in Washington.
The faith leaders gathered in Camden on Wednesday called on the president to expand "deferred action" for all undocumented immigrants who could qualify for citizenship under the legislation proposed in Congress.
"When families are torn asunder," said Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan, "that rips at the fabric of family life."
Hallahan quoted from Leviticus 19:34: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself."
In June 2012, Obama ordered deferred deportations for "childhood arrivals," which provided undocumented immigrants with temporary legal residency.
The order offered a reprieve to Mendez and 2.1 million undocumented college-age youths, known by many as "dreamers." About 7 percent live in New Jersey; Pennsylvania has far fewer.
Advocates say the order has fallen short and has allowed a flawed immigration system to separate families, such as that of Emily Navas, 21, of Delran.
Navas and her 8-month-old son were reunited with her boyfriend, Carlos Oliva-Guillen, last week after he spent 11/2 months in detention. The Honduran immigrant was stopped and detained by authorities in Ocean City in January because he did not have a U.S. driver's license.
Oliva-Guillen, 26, a construction worker, was released after community advocates fought to block his deportation. By then, Navas, also undocumented, had withdrawn from Burlington County College to help with his legal case.
"I was very happy to see him," Navas said. "But I was sad as well. . . . Millions of cases don't have the same happy ending."
Mendez, who read a statement about his arrival in Brooklyn in 1996, remains hopeful of a positive outcome. He plans to resume college in the fall and pursue his dream of being a law enforcement officer.
"It wasn't my choice to live like this," he said. "The United States is the only home I know. Mexico may be my home country, but I have nothing there and it has nothing to offer me."