Port Townsend priest departs to Ghana

Posted 12/4/19

About 100 people gathered for a potluck dinner at St. Mary Star of the Sea Nov. 26 to wish their only priest farewell, as he hurried to pack his belongings and organize the work of the parish, before he had to leave the country to satisfy U.S. immigration authorities.

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Port Townsend priest departs to Ghana

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About 100 people gathered for a potluck dinner at St. Mary Star of the Sea Nov. 26 to wish their only priest farewell, as he hurried to pack his belongings and organize the work of the parish, before he had to leave the country to satisfy U.S. immigration authorities.

Father Peter Adoko-Enchill, who has served parishes on the Olympic Peninsula for the last five years, said he had been instructed to say nothing to the media about his case.

Speaking to parishioners at the farewell dinner, he said he was both sad to depart and happy to be headed to Ghana, where he was raised and educated.

“He flew back to Ghana (Nov. 29), and he will have to wait there for the next steps of this administrative process, that unfortunately is just taking a really long time,” said Helen McClenahan, managing director of communications for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Adoko-Enchill’s R-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa granted to religious workers, had expired before Archdiocese of Seattle staff could arrange an extension or other form of work permit.

With little public statement about the case from the Archdiocese of Seattle or U.S. immigration authorities, church members said they continue to hope someone will explain why they are losing their only priest.

“It seems a little harsh to me,” said Tom McMillen of Port Townsend, a one-year member of the church.

Sitting nearby, Larry Bomke of Port Ludlow said a lone priest serving a parish like Star of the Sea should get a break under U.S. immigration law.

“He’s fulfilling a constructive job here in this country,” said the 13-year member of the parish. “He has a job here.”

Born in Ghana, Adoko-Enchill, 65, went to seminary there, and was ordained as a priest in Ghana in 1986. In his home country, he served as a vicar, girls school chaplain and pastor until 2004, when he took a post in the U.S. as pastor at St. Mary’s in Aberdeen.

According to the website of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Adoko-Enchill’s service at St. Mary’s in Aberdeen included service to Our Lady of Good Help in Hoquiam, St. Jerome’s in Ocean Shores, St. Paul’s in Westport, Our Lady of the Olympics in Amanda Park and, for the majority of his time, St. Anne’s in Forks.

According to the websites of the U.S. State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an R-1 (religious worker) visa, even with extensions, can only last five years. At that point, the visa-holder must leave the country for one full year before they are eligible for re-admission.

In immigration law, there is a difference between temporary work permits, such as an R-1 permit, and the granting of immigrant status, which indicates a person is on their way to permanent residency, with a green card and the potential to be naturalized as a full citizen.

Spokespersons for the immigration agencies would not comment on Adoko-Enchill’s status, or whether he’ll have to wait a full year to re-apply to enter the U.S.

At the farewell gathering, cards and small gifts piled up at a table at the front of the room, next to a long table of pumpkin pies, casseroles and side dishes the faithful whipped up in the two days following Adoko-Enchill’s surprise announcement from the pulpit that he had to leave.

Organizing food service from the kitchen, Rita Calwell called him an “old style” priest, who had told her he felt this interruption was part of God’s plan for him.

“Father Peter is one of the most spiritual priests we’ve had,” she said. “He’s a fisher of souls.”

Calwell said she didn’t know why his applications are taking so long, but said the priest is taking it in stride. “He’s praying for ‘What is my next thing in life.”’

Parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Port Townsend learned on Nov. 24, during a Spanish-language mass, that their priest’s request for an extension of his visa had been denied, and that he had to leave the United States to avoid being found in violation of U.S. immigration law.

“I’m sad because he’s such a nice person,” said Bernie Arthur, a 50-year member of the church. A non-citizen priest is a necessity, he said. “The problem in the Catholic Church is they don’t have enough people who want to be priests.”

Arthur questioned whether immigration authorities even hav jurisdiction, given the separation of church and state built into the U.S. Constitution. “If a person’s a priest, why would the government even care? It’s sad for Father Peter to have to all of a sudden leave because of some regulation.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff could not comment on the Port Townsend priest’s case, but White House statements on immigration make it clear this administration is taking a hard line.

According to a White House news release, President Donald Trump objects to past policies, by which about two thirds of applicants are admitted because they already have family in the U.S., or are selected by lottery or on the basis of humanitarian relief.

In May of 2019, the president promised to modernize the legal immigration system, which each year grants green cards to more than 1 million people, permitting permanent residency and, in some cases, eventual citizenship. The Trump administration is pushing for new rules that give preference to applicants with marketable skills and education.

“As a result of our broken rules, the annual green card flow is mostly low-wage and low-skilled,” the president said. “Only 12 percent of legal immigrants are selected based on skill or based on merit. In countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and others — that number is closer to 60 and even 70 and 75 percent, in some cases.”

Trump declared in May he would rewrite the rules to emphasize merit and skill over other factors. “You will get more points for being a younger worker, meaning you will contribute more to our social safety net. You will get more points for having a valuable skill, an offer of employment, an advanced education or a plan to create jobs.”

Trump has also promoted the imposition of an English language and civics exam for all immigrants.

Members of Star of the Sea, including Garth McHattie, have volunteered in local immigrant assistance organizations.

McHattie said Trump-era changes have slowed down the process of winning the legal right to work and live in the U.S.

“For anybody who’s here as an immigrant, trying to improve your status or renew your visa has gotten much harder than it used to be,” said Ray Garrido, a lawyer who represents clients who have been denied visa extensions or other immigration rights.

“We joke with each other about what the next week will bring, because it seems every week there’s a new rule...and all of them are making it harder for people to stay here who are trying to stay,” said Garrido, who works with lawyers and volunteers at the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center, one of the non-profits the U.S. Department of Justice grants accreditation to practice immigration law before the USCIS, which rules over visa applications.

“This administration has decided it doesn’t want immigrants and it has decided to make it impossible to come here or to stay. I know that’s an extreme statement, but that’s what’s happening,” Garrido added. “USCIS has continuously over the past year come out with new rules and new rulings and regulations that make it hard for people to immigrate here, to get families here.”

Among the obstacles Garrido cited: a new fee schedule that he said doubles the fee for those who want to apply for citizenship who have a green card, plus the agency’s elimination of waivers by which some immigrants were saved from fees they could not afford.

The spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Seattle discouraged despair.

“He hasn’t been deported or kicked out or anything like that,” said Helen McClenahan. ”He is on a religious visa, an R-1, and those last for five years. At the end of those five years, they have to be renewed or the priest goes back. We have been working with him and the immigration authorities for several months now to get a more permanent visa. The paperwork is in place, and we’re just waiting, unfortunately.”

She said the Archdiocese will supply a priest in the meantime, so that parishioners of Star of the Sea can continue to celebrate Mass in their chapel, where there are three services every weekend, including a growing Spanish-speaking congregation that Adoko-Enchill had served using the formal European Spanish of his early education.

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