By Father Vic Subb, G.H.M.
It is Tuesday 7:30 p.m.; Kathy has looked forward to this time all week. It is time to see her three-year-old daughter Brenda, if only for 30 minutes. This is the highlight of Kathy’s week. Kathy is now living in an Indiana county jail.
Kathy is from El Salvador and has been a single mom living and working in the United States for four years. Five months earlier at her work site, a poultry plant, immigration officers entered the facility and asked Kathy for her documents to work. With no proof of work authorization, Kathy was taken to jail. Kathy, who does not have family living in the United States, started to worry about what was going to happen with her daughter. Her first thoughts were, “Who will take care of my baby?” Luckily, one of Kathy’s co-workers, who has children and a family at home, graciously volunteered to be Brenda’s guardian and temporary mom.
I remember the first weekly visitation. Tears streamed down Kathy’s face as she first saw Brenda. A thick glass separated Kathy’s desire to hold and kiss her three-year-old. There was no touch, only a phone to communicate. Brenda was crying. She couldn’t understand why she could not be with mommy. Kathy blew her kisses. The pain got stronger as the 30 minutes came to an end. Kathy’s co-worker reassured Kathy, “Brenda will be fine. We have many children for her to play with.” The good-bye tears pierced deep into Kathy’s heart.
Weeks go by. “The glass”, Kathy says, “I hate that glass. I only want to hold my child, but it seems like only a dream.” After five months in jail, Kathy still waits all week for Tuesday 7:30 p.m. to arrive. Over the months, Brenda seems less interested in talking to mommy. Sometimes the three-year-old runs away to play with other children. Kathy’s heart sinks. “Am I losing my child?” she ponders. “Will she remember I am her mom?”
Kathy longs to be deported back to El Salvador. Being in jail for the last five months does not make sense to her. When she is deported, she can send for her daughter and start a new life in El Salvador. Now she waits, uncertain of the future, uncertain of how to reconnect with Brenda.
Down the road, sits Ramon. He has been in a Kentucky county jail for the last 6 months. Ramon, 22 years old, has been in the U.S. for the last 6 years. He arrived here when he was 16 to try and establish a better life. There was no money and few opportunities in his state of Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas was a rich coffee growing area that saw the coffee prices bottom out. As a teenager, when he first arrived in the United States, Ramon shares, “I was lonely; no family to connect with was my biggest problem. I could not speak English. The only place I could feel at peace was going to church.” Three years ago Ramon met Flo, the love of his life. They were married and have a bouncing daughter named Jennifer, 2 years old.
Ramon worked second shift (3:00-11:00 p.m.) at a meat-packing plant. His work schedule left him little time with his family. His wife worked during the day cleaning hotel rooms. Ramon had a plan. He was going to look for a day shift so he will be able to spend time with his wife and daughter in the evenings.
Where to find a job in a tight economy? Ramon went all over searching. One day he heard an employment agency was taking applications. Off he went to the agency. While filling out his application, he and two others were surrounded by police. The agency discovered that he and the others presented false documents. The three were taken directly to the county jail, where Ramon has waited for the last six months. Ramon’s goal for a new job, and to be able to spend more time with his family has now turned into experiencing once a week, 15-minute visits. No physical contact, just smiles and tears that cross the thick glass.
Ramon shares that each day there is a gamut of emotions. He wants to be deported, like Kathy. Time behind bars seems useless to him. He hopes his times in court will lead to his return to Mexico. Sometimes there is no translator present in court, and he will have to return another day for a hearing.
Flo tries to keep the house together. Their little girl Jennifer seems to cry more and more because she misses Daddy. Flo often worries about how the bills will be paid. Her hours cleaning at the hotel are erratic. Sometimes she works two days a week, sometimes four days a week–never the same and always the worry.
Isabel, mother of a two-year-old and a one-year-old, feels relieved. Her husband, Pedro, has been deported after being in prison for nine months. He is back home in Guatemala. Isabel says that she will go back also, when she gets the money together. Pedro was arrested after using false documents to try to get a job at a poultry plant. He was moved from one county jail to another. Isabel could not visit, so a weekly call was all that would do. The visiting hours for Pedro were Tuesday and Saturday from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. There was no way Isabel could make the four-hour trip with the two children.
Before Pedro was deported, he would spend hours reading the Bible. “I have lots of time,” he would say. “I need to do something positive.” Pedro’s dream was to build a house in Guatemala. I came to the United States not to live here for the rest of my life. My home is in Guatemala; my plan was to return in three years, after I had built my house. That is no longer my dream.
Before I would leave, Pedro always asked to pray. His eyes closed, he prayed frequently for his family, his future and for patience. There is a sense of peace in his eyes as I watch him behind the thick glass.
What is our image of those who we call illegal?
Our news media makes sure that we know they are law breakers. One almost gets the impression that they are terrorists, coming to destroy the U.S. Some may even have an evil purpose. Most want to work to support their families; to give their children opportunities to go to school, to have a better life than their parents. Many have been good neighbors, pay taxes (yes those who receive pay checks, pay federal and state taxes) and have been models of a strong family life. Not long ago, I heard a woman comment after a recent poultry plant immigration raid in which hundreds of families went into hiding. “That Hernandez family that comes to church each week with all those beautiful children; I had no idea they were illegal. I used to really like them. But now I find out they were here illegally.”
States are responding to the immigration issues more and more by seeking to enact new laws. The comment from the States “If the federal government will not take action, we will.” The new laws proposals often call for people to carry ID’s. The fear of racial profiles which can lead to discrimination remains a day to day terror for undocumented immigrants.
What is the Catholic Church’s position on immigration?
In the 2003 pastoral document, “Stranger No Longer”, the United States Catholic bishops laid out five basic principles on issues surrounding illegal immigration, migrants, refugees, and other people on the move.
Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homelands. All people have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in freedom and dignity and to achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts.
Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.
Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More economically powerful nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.
Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.
The human dignity and human rights of all migrants should be respected. Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often migrants are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented and of refugees are necessary.
The debate on immigration continues and will only get stronger. Maybe the title of the bishop’s pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer” can be our guide. Once we get to know the Kathy’s, Ramon’s, and Pedro’s that live around us, we will begin to see immigrants in a new light. Maybe we will know them more as our brothers or sisters.