The following story is the first in a series of Immigration Stories, in which Catholics from the Diocese of Camden will share pieces of their journeys with us. This series is running in advance of two special immigration-related events in the diocese: Bishop Sullivan will celebrate a Mass for Immigrant Families on May 3 at 7:30 pm at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, and May 5 has been designated “Justice for Immigrants Sunday” throughout the diocese. This Sunday will be observed with prayer and a postcard campaign to lawmakers in Washington, urging comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our immigrant sisters and brothers.
This story was translated and written by S. Veronica Roche, SSJ, pastoral associate at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden.
Maria is a middle-aged Mexican mother of six children. She and her husband, Vicente, came to the United States with their two year-old son on May 3, 2000.
They came hoping to find work and to save enough money to return to Mexico to have a home and provide for Maria’s aging parents.
They crossed the border and began the trek through the Arizona desert. They traveled at night in silence and without the benefit of any kind of artificial light so as not to attract the attention of the border patrol.
In the darkness, they confronted the snakes, scorpions, and thorn-filled brush of the desert. Their group of 12 led by a coyote – a smuggler who takes people across the U.S.-Mexico border – lost their way, which added hours and anxiety to the already difficult journey. The group ran out of water except for one remaining baby bottle, which Maria withheld despite the cries of her son, until she was sure he could not go on without it. She herself fell into unconsciousness.
And then a miracle occurred. Behind some desert brush the group found four gallons of water. Undoubtedly a gift of good Samaritans, the group interpreted this as a gift of God through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Confident in God’s presence with them, the group continued and walked out of the desert. Their “hotels” where they stayed along the way were empty rooms where all 13 slept on the floor of a crowded room – in silence, and away from the windows, lest they be discovered and deported.
Maria and Vicente settled in South Jersey and had five more children. They continued to work and save to fulfill their dream of returning to Mexico. When they had thought they had saved enough, they went to a bank to withdraw their savings. As they headed home, they were robbed as they walked the streets in Camden. They lost practically everything. Their dream changed: now they hoped they could make enough money to provide for their children, pay their bills, and send money to take care of their parents in Mexico.
Maria’s father died in 2007, and two years later she lost her mother. This caused enormous suffering for Maria. She was full of doubt and grief, wondering if by trying to provide money for her family, she had deprived her parents of what they needed the most: her presence.
When Vicente’s mother became ill in January of 2012, Maria encouraged him to return to take care of her. She did not want Vicente to experience her own feelings of guilt. He returned to Mexico to be with his mother, and she passed away six weeks later.
Since then, Vicente has tried several times to cross the border and return to his family. Each time, he has been captured and sent back. He has incurred the financial loss of each attempt as well as the fear that if he is caught another time, he will be imprisoned.
Maria hopes her husband can return and be in this country to receive the benefits of a reformed immigration system, if immigration reform passes, but she does not want him to suffer incarceration. She has decided to do all she can to stay her so that her oldest son can eventually qualify for Deferred Action (a program through which children brought to the U.S. by their parents without documents can earn legal status) and her children who were born here can continue to have the benefits of citizenship of this country.
Maria now works three jobs to support her family. Her oldest son, now 14 years old, is the caretaker for his five siblings in her absence. Now, in addition to the loss of their much-loved father, Maria’s children are growing up with limited access to their mother. She wonders if any type of immigration reform will allow Vicente to return to support his family so that Maria can once again be at home with her children.
The U.S. Bishops respond to the argument that undocumented immigrants broke the law, and thus should not be rewarded by being allowed to stay.
Opponents of immigration use the argument, “they broke the law,” as a way of combating any proposals that provide legal status to undocumented immigrants. They also say that the United States should not be “rewarding lawbreakers,” and such phrases as “what part of illegal do you not understand?” Their intent is to stop any discussion of why these persons are outside the law, what consequences or harm come to the United States because of this circumstance, and whether the law they broke is just or in the best interest of the United States and should be changed. In using these arguments, they also imply that undocumented immigrants, being outside the law, are criminals. The first response is to answer the why and harm questions. Migrants and their families, largely, enter the United States to survive by finding jobs. Once they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, 80 percent find employment. Their intent is not to harm the United States, but simply to work and, by doing so, they help our country and the economy. So, because they come here to work and they help our nation by doing so, we must ask whether current immigration law, which causes them to hide in the shadows and offers them no protections, is just in the first place.
Moreover, the availability of visas to enter the country through legal channels to either work or reunite with family members are severely limited and do not come close to meeting labor market demands. While the Church supports the rule of law, there are times when laws should
be examined through a justice lens and be changed. In many ways, the current immigration system is broken and contributes to the abuse, exploitation, and even deaths of migrants who otherwise contribute their work and talents to our nation. While undocumented immigrants are indeed outside the law, and thus “break” the law, the unjust, outdated, and inadequate law also breaks them. Our nation cannot have it both ways.
Moreover, undocumented immigrants are not criminals—they have not broken a criminal law. They have only violated civil law, as we do when we violate a traffic ordinance. The United States Supreme Court has held that a deportation proceeding is a purely civil action to determine the eligibility to remain in this country, not to punish an unlawful entry….The purpose of deportation is not to punish past transgressions, but to put an end to a continuing violation of immigration laws.”