Civil…. Dialogue…. What a concept!!

Young Asian woman is emotional as she talks. A mid adult African American man and two Hispanic young women are sympathetic and concerned as she talks. The group is sitting in chairs in a circle.In our current climate, I find it very challenging to bring up any issue facing our nation in discussion with fellow parishioners, friends, and even family members. It seems that the most important issues, like immigration, race, health coverage, or income inequity and poverty, are understood from a one-sided view with little interest in understanding or valuing another’s perspective.  And, I am really as guilty as the next person! I find it easier to just talk about the weather and non-controversial issues than to seek to understand why my family and friends come to such different conclusions than I do.

It was this current climate that prompted me to participate in the Civil Dialogue on Immigration sponsored by the Office of Life Ministry in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The experience proved to be well worth the commitment.

One weekend last summer, over 20 volunteers gathered at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa to participate in a facilitator training workshop presented by two Catholic Relief representatives, Chris West and Joe Hastings. Chris and Joe created the civil dialogue process we would be using at the session, which they have used in other locations across the nation. We learned some basics of effectively facilitating group discussions, some facts about the immigration of individuals by country in the Tampa Bay area, and the Catholic immigration principles that our bishops use when responding to issues of immigration.  It was emphasized that our main goal was to provide a safe environment where all would feel respected and welcome to express their views.  Success would be measured by whether the participants left with a better understanding of others’ perspectives.

The next day we held the Civil Dialogue session at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa. Over 80 individuals from parishes around the diocese were assigned to smaller groups with two facilitators.  Our moderator set the tone by reviewing the purpose of the dialogue as an opportunity to listen and learn from one another on the topic of immigration. He covered the ground rules which ensured that we were there to understand, not persuade: we would speak for ourselves (not for a group); we would not be critical of others’ views; we would listen with resilience – “staying with it” even if some things might be hard to hear; and remember that each person is sacred, a dwelling of the Holy Spirit, a child of God.   After getting a commitment to abide by these ground rules from each person at the table, the participants shared their own immigration stories.  How beautiful it was to hear others share how and why their own families traveled to our country. Many came because of hunger (think: the Irish potato famine), economic opportunity, escape from persecution or dictatorships, or for adventure and new opportunities.  This simple sharing brought all into the experience of immigration as opposed to only looking at people who are currently immigrants.

Our moderators shared the five principles from church teaching with regard to migration:

  1. Persons having the right to find opportunities in their homeland
  2. Persons having the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
  3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. (Wealthier nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.)
  4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
  5. The human dignity and the human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

There was a lot of reaction to these principles, some expressing a level of surprise that the Church acknowledges the rights of countries to protect borders. A few commented that they have never heard that principle from the Pope or the Bishops.

We followed by sharing how events related to immigration have affected us personally and what, if any, personal experiences we have had related to recent immigrants. Finally, we asked “what is at the heart of the matter for you?”

What followed was a rich dialogue that revealed personal experiences that clearly influenced each individual’s current views. Within the groups, people shared openly their struggle with wanting to do the right thing and care for the stranger, but also feeling a need to respect laws and uphold a measure of fairness. When we peeled back the surface level ‘public positions’, individuals began to share why this issue is important to them and what values they hold that are touched by this issue. Here we could find common ground among people who had different perspectives but had commonly-held beliefs.

Were we successful? When participants were asked to share one thing they learned or gained from today’s dialogue, they shared comments such as:

  • “I learned about the various challenges facing immigrants beyond the documentation process.”
  • “Everyone has different perspective but everyone wants to be respected.”
  • “There is a need for more dialogues like this in our church communities and in our communities.”
  • “I gained a greater understanding of the issue by hearing others’ views.”
  • “We can find common ground and values even when our conclusions are different.”
  • “Talking about such controversial issues is possible!”
  • “There were many opinions and many solutions but we all want to make the USA better.”
  • “Solving the problem of immigration should start with each individual.”
  • “This was a great experience. I learned a lot!”

For me personally, I learned that this a complex issue that surfaces conflicting feelings and values as a practicing Catholic. While polarization is becoming so deeply entrenched, opportunities to listen and learn the “why” behind others’ views can only have a positive impact as we move forward.

Where do we go from here? Our facilitators gathered again on Monday evening to debrief about the dialogue and talk about what’s next.  Can we implement more civil dialogues on a smaller scale in our local parishes? Can we use this process to discuss other issues?  These are all under discussion and hopefully will come to fruition.   In light of current events in our country, this civil dialogue process brings me hope that we can move forward together toward greater understanding of one another.

Loretta Rieman is a CCHD Intern in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.


Going Deeper!

Visit WeAreSaltAndLight.org for helpful resources on reaching out, such as Questions to Facilitate Encounter, A Guide to Dialogue on Difficult Issues, and Encouraging Civil Dialogue

Our Border Family: Hope at the Border

During “Hugs Not Walls,” families who live separated by the United States-Mexico border were able to see and embrace each other for a few previous minutes.

The Catholic church is taking a compassionate, non-confrontational approach to the plight of people in three dioceses along the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s also using exquisitely simple, Gospel-based principles to underscore human dignity and address systemic poverty and injustice.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told me his Texas diocese and the contiguous ones in Juarez, Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico form the largest bi-national community in the hemisphere, if not the world. “The very nature of our border area is it’s a family. It’s a large community that has had a line drawn through it,” he said. And it has long been this way. People in the area move freely across the border to shop, eat, and be with family. The result is an active community where the unique nature of the towns on either side of the river contributes something to strengthen and improve their neighbors.

Bishop Seitz of El Paso celebrates Mass on the United States-Mexico border.

The longstanding reality of intermingled families and thriving communities is a counterpoint to an increasingly strident national narrative about borders. Bishop Seitz points to the head-scratching portrayal of the border as a forbidding place of confrontation “where the ‘us’ people fend off the ‘them’ people, where the people at home fight off the aliens. That has no resonance here,” he said.

The Hope Border Institute is a new-since-2015 grassroots effort to apply Catholic social teaching principles to immediate and longer-term issues along the border. It sprang from conversations among local clergy in the three dioceses and people in several groups funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). They were looking for a way to address the fall-out from a growing number of policies imposed on the area that frankly made little sense.

When I asked him about it, Dylan Corbett, the group’s executive director, said laws and regulations made in Austin, Washington, DC and Mexico City do not necessarily correspond to realities on the ground. Sometimes they cause new problems without solving the challenges they were intended to fix. He pointed out there is already a wall and a new wall likely won’t do what is promised because it doesn’t address the root causes of poverty and injustice on both sides of the border and won’t stop the flow of illegal drugs.

The Hope Border Institute brings together CCHD-funded groups, activists, and grassroots organizations, low-wage workers and migrants, members of the media, young persons, academics, church workers, and clergy to share perspectives, explore Catholic social teaching, and look through the eyes of others living in the border communities. It helps people work collectively and intentionally across “borders” of geography, race, and ethnicity. And it trains and empowers leaders across both the faith community and civil society to witness the power of unity in diversity and community.

Best of all, it’s working! People who might never have spoken and shared stories now see and begin to understand the experience, perspective, and human dignity of each other.

Bishop Seitz said, “The role of the Church and its teaching is such an important counterpoint to the uninformed reaction people have had to these border questions.” How true.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

Hope Border Institute is funded by the Strategic National Grant Program of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Read more about their work in the most recent edition of the CCHD Newsletter: Helping People Help Themselves.


Going Deeper!

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Office of Education & Outreach are partnering to foster encounter in other ways.  Our new small grants program seeks to foster Hispanic ministry-social justice diocesan collaboration, and this recent webinar lifted up examples of where this is already successfully happening around immigration, workers’ rights, trafficking, and other issues affecting the immigrant community.

 

All photos courtesy of Hope Border Institute.

¡Si Se Puede!

Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962, is pictured in an undated photo. Chavez, who died in 1993, began grass-roots organizing in the 1950s while working in the fruit and vegetable fields of California and defined the farmworker union movement. (CNS file photo)

 

Si se puede – yes we can! It was the mantra of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and the movement that they and its leaders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, popularized. It captured an attitude that things, no matter how bad they appeared, could be changed.

At 24 years of age, I joined the United Farmworker’s movement on the staff of their national boycott. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer, not knowing what organizing was, only what some of the outcomes of the organizing had been. One of those outcomes was managing to convince millions of people to forgo eating grapes and lettuce from California. The UFW had organized a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, which brought striking farm laborers from California to tell Americans across the country of the meager wages and horrible working conditions they labored under. They waged their battle non-violently, embracing the tactics and vision of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was impressed by the work of their founder, Cesar Chavez, a diminutive Chicano, born in Arizona to Mexican parents who had lost their small homestead in Arizona to foreclosure and then migrated to California to work as farm workers. Chavez dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with his family in the fields picking peas and lettuce, cherries and beans, corn and grapes.

What attracted me and thousands of other volunteers and organizers to “the Union” was Chavez. He was a different kind of leader. He was not flashy; he did not wear a suit or drive big cars. He had none of the trappings of power. Instead what was attractive about Chavez was his honesty, his willingness to put others first, his hunger and thirst for justice in a state (California) and a country where agricultural workers had experienced precious little justice.

Chavez became a symbol of Si Se Puede. He showed that change was possible, not with guns and not with riots – both of which were being romanticized in the late 60’s and early 70’s and in some ways glorified by revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and in the streets of Detroit and Oakland and Buenos Aires – but with peaceful determination and organizing.  Chavez exemplified a life committed to non-violence, self-discipline, and service to others.

I recall a march to Modesto, California, in which I participated. At the front of the marchers were several priests beside Chavez and other UFW leaders. Someone was carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For me it was a vivid example of religious leaders accompanying their flock, in this case in a just struggle for their rights to decent wages and working conditions and equally important – to be treated with dignity and respect.

Chavez and the UFW melded religious values with democratic values, self- interest with a vision of the common good.  Blending elements of the Civil Rights Movement, labor organizing, and community organizing, Chavez and the unique group of organizers that formed the UFW leadership exemplified a quiet dignity and austerity. Those who went to work for the UFW as organizers were paid “room and board and $5.00 a week.”  For many of the hundreds of organizers who joined the Farmworker Movement at the time, it was an antidote to the growing materialism and consumerism of our culture and a way of channeling their anger at injustice into a positive initiative to improve our nation.

Immigrant agricultural workers remain among the lowest paid and poorest workers in our nation. They are still denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and are still confronted with anti-immigrant fear and hatred. Cesar Chavez may be gone but he and the work of the UFW inspired others to organize and fight for their rights and their dignity.  Struggles are now led by leaders such as Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (who the bishops’ honored in 1998 with the prestigious Cardinal  Bernardin New Leadership Award), who is spearheading a national boycott of the Wendy’s fast food chain, seeking a penny a pound increase for tomato pickers. In Vermont, the group Migrant Justice, representing dairy workers, has negotiated an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s for “Milk with Dignity,” and the Workers Center of Central New York is working on legislation to establish collective bargaining rights for farm workers in the state of New York. The brave women and men risk much working for justice for these groups in environments not always supportive of strangers from foreign countries in their communities.

Pope Francis, speaking at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Vera Cruz, Bolivia, in the spring of 2015 said,

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

I say, “¡Si se puede!”

Randy Keesler is the Area C grant specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


Going Deeper

Learn more about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  See what Catholics are doing in Yakima, New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and South Texas to stand with migrants.

Immigration and Our Daily Task as Christians

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, second from left, links arms with other participants on stage after a panel discussion on migration issues Feb. 17 during the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.(CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

I had the privilege of attending the United States Regional Meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Feb. 16–19, in Modesto, California.

I was accompanied to Modesto by one of our Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishops David O’Connell, and it was good to see friends from our local parishes and workers’ unions here in Los Angeles.

There were more than 700 people there from across the country and around the world,  and the conversations that we had were challenging and enlightening — we discussed the persistence of racial discrimination, the threats to our natural environment, and the struggle for affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage.

For me, the meeting was a reminder again of the power of the Church’s social doctrine. As I have said before, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a beautiful vision of human dignity and the sanctity of life. And he calls us to build a society where the good things of God’s creation are shared with all.

This is our daily task as Christians — to share our bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless and clothe the naked, to open our hearts to the oppressed and the afflicted. But our challenge is more than material and it is more than to offer charity to those in need. We are called to build a society of compassion and justice and truth and love.

My own contribution during these days was to concentrate on the issue of immigration. I had the privilege to participate in a panel discussion on migration with Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, who is a papal under-secretary for migrants and refugees in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary for the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, listens during a small group discussion on migration issues Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

In my remarks, I shared our experience here in Los Angeles, and especially the challenges we are facing with the new administration in Washington. This is a question that is on everyone’s mind — what are we doing to help our immigrant communities and our brothers and sisters who are undocumented.

And we are trying to help every day in every way possible. Because immigrants are not numbers, they are not statistics. They are our family.

Here in Los Angeles, we have been organizing parish teams and training individuals so they know their rights as immigrants. We have helping to prepare families so they know what to do in case they are stopped by authorities. And we are trying to mobilize immigration attorneys to help those who are detained.

I think it is important in this time for us to stick together, to draw strength from one another, and to keep our eyes on Jesus. And I think it is also important for us to keep calm and to make judgments based on facts, not politics.

Unfortunately, immigration raids and deportations are nothing new. We know that. They did not start with this new president. We need to be clear-eyed about this.

The previous president deported more people than anybody in American history — more than 2.5 million people were deported. Most of these were non-violent criminals and many of them were ordinary parents who were seized from their homes, forced to leave behind their children and their spouses.

So we need to keep that perspective. What we really need is immigration reform.

Right now there is bi-partisan legislation in Congress, the “Bridge Act.” This would help hundreds of thousands of “dreamers,” young people. We need to get that bill passed. We need to start there and then we need to keep working, piece by piece, until we have fixed every aspect of our broken immigration system.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize — and the prize is immigration reform and a compassionate solution for those who are undocumented and forced to live in the shadows of our society.

So let us ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to help us to continue to stand together and work to build a society where we respect the dignity of every person as a child of God.

José H. Gómez is archbishop of Los Angeles and vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  


Going Deeper

Around the country, Catholic faith communities are responding to the call to welcome the stranger.  In Los Angeles, the Church is acting to stand with immigrants. In the South Texas Rio Grande Valley colonias of Hidalgo County, religious sisters are helping immigrant women connect, educate and empower women to champion concerns such as safety, lighting, voting rights, citizenship pathways, infrastructure and drainage, and education for themselves and their children.

Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!

Providing Welcome and Creating Hope for Child Migrants

©istockphoto.com/Joel Carillet

©istockphoto.com/Joel Carillet

On this “World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” we are called by the Holy Father to draw attention to child migrants, who “in a threefold way are defenceless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves.”

Inspired by the journey of the Holy Family, which fled the violence of King Herod as many refugees flee violence today, the vision of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is “creating a world where immigrants, refugees, migrants, and people on the move are treated with dignity, respect, welcome, and belonging.” MRS serves as a leader in the protection of migrant and refugee children providing them foster care and family reunification services through culturally-appropriate programs nationwide since 1980.

Providing refuge and hope to migrant and refugee children fleeing for their lives is crucial at this time where we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes– nearly 34,000 people every day.

As a member of an inter-faith, interagency delegation to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan in April of 2016 I visited informal settlements of Syrian refugees. One of the dwellings I visited in Lebanon was an abandoned building occupied by 180 Syrian refugee families, totaling 1,000 people.  Approximately half were children.  The building bordered a busy road, next to which children played, barefoot, on a concrete courtyard.  The floor of one of the common rooms, a thruway to other rooms, was covered with about one inch of water, including raw sewage.

When we asked a group of about 25 children, most under 13 years old, who attended school, two raised their hands. The rest had to work to support their families.  For many migrant and refugee families, child labor is necessary for economic survival, particularly in countries where adult refugees are not allowed to work legally, such is the case in Lebanon, where refugees are at risk of detention and deportation to Syria if they are caught working.  Children can more easily evade labor and migration enforcement than adults.   The younger and more vulnerable a child is, the more earning potential they have as beggars, and the more at risk they are to exploitation and human trafficking.

Identifying children in need of protection is a challenge in many regions of the world where refugees reside. The result is that children who are in need of protection are not proactively identified, resulting in harm, sexual assault or rape, recruitment into criminal organizations, and in the worst cases, death. Children who are unable to access protection may take upon themselves pursuit of protective measures and migrate to safety themselves in what is often a perilous journey with uncertain consequences and results.

For children who are able to access protection, that is just the beginning. The path to a durable solution is a narrow, winding road. Durable solutions for unaccompanied children include integration into countries of first asylum, repatriation to their country of origin, or resettlement. Integration and repatriation are, in most cases, not realistic options, and although unaccompanied refugee minors make up about 3-4 percent of the world’s refugees only less than half of one percent are resettled.

For a small number of children, MRS makes that hope a reality, providing durable solutions for unaccompanied children through refugee resettlement, reunification with families, and placements in foster care programs.  In 2016, MRS resettled 10,000 refugee children who arrived with family members, reunified with families 2,000 migrant children who arrived to the United States alone, and for another 500 unaccompanied children secured safe housing in a variety of settings, from small-scale shelters or group homes to foster care families.  Embodying the MRS vision, a MRS foster parent to six unaccompanied children (from Nepal, Liberia, Honduras, the Congo, and Eritrea) said, “We didn’t just welcome them into our house, we welcomed (them) into our family.”

I’m concluding with a plea from the Holy Father, “The Church too needs you and supports you in the generous service you offer. Do not tire of courageously living the Gospel, which calls you to recognize and welcome the Lord Jesus among the smallest and most vulnerable.”

Click here for information on how to help refugee and migrant children.

kristyn-professional_sept-2014Kristyn Peck is Associate Director of Children’s Services, Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

A Letter from the Heart of an Undocumented Immigrant

In recognition that this is National Migration Week and at the invitation of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Voice of the Poor Committee, for the first time I am telling my story of coming to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

Our two children, Lizza and Alfonso Jr., and I were born in Tijuana, Mexico, next to the southwest border with USA. My husband, Alfonso, was born in a small town in the State of Jalisco, México.

Margarita with her husband and children in the 1970s

Margarita with her husband and children in the 1970s

As soon we got married in 1973, he, as a lawful permanent U.S. resident (green card holder), filed a visa petition for me. In those days, the waiting period of time was 12 years.

At the time, we lived in Tijuana. Every day at 2:30 AM, Alfonso crossed the border to work in the fields in the United States, picking tomatoes, chilies, and strawberries.  He worked 10-11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and spent one and a half hours commuting each way to work and back home.

In the beginning, Alfonso worked in different, very demanding jobs – as a janitor; in factories and canneries; construction; as a laboratory technician; and so on – until he started to work in an aerospace company, first as a carpenter, then as mechanic, electrician, and welder, and now as a lead man of the maintenance department. I am sharing this with you because I need to make a point – he always worked hard, long hours and different shifts.

While he worked in the United States, I worked in a Social Security Hospital in the Human Resources Department in Tijuana, and, at the same time, took care of two children. Alfonso did everything possible for the children to have a strong father presence in their lives; it was hard for him and for us.

Several years passed, and we were told that the waiting time to become a permanent resident had increased to 14-17 years. So, Alfonso made the hard decision to resign his Mexican citizenship to become a US citizen.  In those days, it was not like today where you can have dual citizenship – you had to surrender your citizenship in your own country.  Alfonso also needed to speak English well and go to school for the U.S. citizenship classes.

Can you image when he could find time to attend the daily two-hour English and Citizenship classes?

We needed to move to the United States, because it was the only way he could have time to attend his classes and have a little more family time. It was a hard decision – to continue in the same pattern or try to be a real family.  We decided to come to live here.  In the mid-1980s, my two small children and I came to the United States without permission to reside here.  My husband had a resident card so he had the right to live and work here. Thanks to God, we did not come through the desert, a tunnel, or in a car’s trunk.  We had short-term visitors’ visas to come and visit the United States and we were supposed to stay no more than three days and keep within a certain area.

I started to feel bad about myself, as if I was not good enough, because I was not able to work or have a driver’s license or walk freely on the streets. I had always worked.  I needed to be productive and was worried about how I could help support the family financially, too.

I started to help working mothers with the care of their children after school for a small fee. In the evening, I went to learn English as a second language at my children’s school.  But I did not like those classes.  They were too slow, and I need to learn a little faster.  In order to do this, my English teacher told me to go to a community college, but she did not know that I did not have the proper documents.  I attended community college briefly, but since I was not a resident, I did not qualify for reduced tuition.  Instead, I would have had to pay full foreign student tuition, even though we paid taxes for community schools.  I could not afford full tuition and still help my husband provide for the family.

From the time he started working in the United States, Alfonso paid taxes to the IRS. Once we moved to the United States, we saved some money, with family help we eventually bought our house, and we paid property taxes. I always lived in fear of deportation and the consequences for my family. Our children were in a household where our status was a secret; you did not want anyone to know it, because it was dangerous. For most undocumented immigrants, fear, and the stress that comes with it, is a constant part of life.  We had to keep our situation a secret from nearly everyone we encountered, afraid to be reported and sent back to Mexico

It was time full of frustration, learning, adapting, and growing in many ways, but mostly full of joy because we were together.

Not long after my children and I came to the United States, my husband applied for citizenship. He passed the test, and, in three months, he became a U.S. citizen.  He next petitioned for our under-age children, Lizza and Alonso Jr., to become U.S. citizens, and in 6 months they were.  It was not easy for us to pay in a single year the very expensive fee for the three of them to become U.S. citizens.  So again, Alfonso needed to work overtime to afford the house payment and all the immigration fees.

Several months passed before we could change the status of my first petition which, when it was filed back in 1973, was done by my husband in his then-status as a U.S. resident. As a U.S. citizen, he could file an updated petition on my behalf and the waiting period would be shortened.  Finally, that was accepted, and I was granted an official U.S. resident card.  Then I had to wait three more years to be able to apply and pay more fees for the U.S. citizenship process.  Eventually, I was able to apply for it.  I passed the test, and finally, after all the risks, tears, frustrations, low self-esteem, and 20 years, thanks to God, I became a U.S. citizen in 1994 – Hurray!!!

For us, it was extremely important to work hard. I really appreciate this country and its people.  We made a real pledge to making this country our home.

Margarita, her husband, Alfonso, and their extended family at Christmas 2016

Margarita, her husband, Alfonso, and their extended family at Christmas 2016

On the other hand, we continue to maintain strong relationships in our birth country. We are the lucky ones to have had the opportunity to access the best from both countries and to celebrate both cultures – not assimilate the USA culture, but to blend both.

I believe we need to share our stories. Some, like mine, are relatively easy, but others are very hard, sad, and dangerous.

We are human beings, created in the image of God, too, with dreams and hopes like every other person. We simply wish to be able to do better for our family, our communities, for the poor, and for our country.

Margarita Galindo is Vice-President for Hispanic Involvement at the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul.