Saturday, November 29, 2008

Renewing hope, seeking justice

From the U.S. Catholic Bishops:

National Migration Week to be Celebrated January 4-10

WASHINGTON—The Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate National Migration Week on January 4-10, 2009. This year's theme, Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice, "reminds us of our obligation to bring hope to the hopeless and to seek justice for those who are easily exploited," said Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, in a letter sent every parish and Catholic school across the country.
"For many mig
rant communities, injustice and hardship are too commonplace an experience. Given the often marginal and vulnerable status of migrants, it is important that communities everywhere treat migrants justly and provide a welcoming presence to all people on the move," said Bishop Wester.
This year national migration week sheds light on the religious, political and cultural aspects of migration in all its forms. The bishops hope the resources the USCCB has made available will help Catholics become familiar with the many issues surrounding migration.

"As the face of local churches continues to change, information of this kind is becoming more and more important. Individuals, families, schools and parishes need opportunities like National Migration
Week to learn the realities about newcomers entering their communities," said Todd Scribner, education coordinator for the Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB.
Last April, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the Bishops of the United States to continue to act in this regard.

"I want to enco
urage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home," said the pope.
The materials include several bulletin inserts that address issues related to human trafficking, immigration, refugees, and Catholic social teaching on migration; information on how to acquire the revise
d edition of Unity in Diversity: A Scriptural Rosary, to guide spiritual reflection on migration; and a foldout poster. Several of these resources are available also in Spanish.
More information, including how to order materials, can be found at

Latino bishop appointed to Diocese of Sacramento

WASHINGTON—Pope Benedict XVI has accepted the resignation of Bishop William K. Weigand, 71, from the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Sacramento, California. Bishop Jaime Soto, 52, who has been co-adjutor bishop of Sacramento since October 11, 2007, succeeds him.
Jaime Soto was born December 31, 1955, in Inglewood, California. He attended St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, California, and there earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy in 1978, and Master of Divinity degree in 1982.
He earned a Master of Social Work degree from Columbia University School of Social Work in 1986. Bishop Soto’s pastoral experience includes work in Catholic Charities, immigration reform and ministry to the Hispanic community. As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) he is a member of the USCCB Administrative Committee; Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America; a member of the Committee on the Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; a member of the Committee on National Collections; and a member of the Task Force on the Spanish Language Bible and the Task Force on Promotion of Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life. He is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., CLINIC.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let’s talk turkey

My brothers and I grew up in Guatemala, celebrating Thanksgiving as el Día de Acción de Gracias. Mostly we celebrated it out of solidarity for my father – an American who had lived abroad most of his adult life (and indeed, most of his youth as well). We grooved on the food, were horrified by Pilgrim fashion, and generally, identified with Squanto and the other non-Puritans at the table.

Which is interesting, given that the Patuxet and Wampanoag Indians were the only non-immigrants at the table.

Thanksgiving -- as much as it is about family and food and giving thanks to God for both -- is about the citizens of an existing community giving welcome and rescue to the immigrants who washed up on the shores of their great, good land. Think about it – immigrants with no legal standing in the community sitting at the same table as those whose history in America was long-established. Hmmm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m delighted to say, family is traveling to Pennsylvania for the celebration. There will be lots of great food – Anna and Jhumpa are terrific cooks, and I’m not so bad, either – and even better conversation. Especially during the making of tamales, which just invites sharing (see my very first blog post to read about the tamal-making process).

When we sit around the table we will represent nearly every stage of the immigrant experience.

My brothers and I are second-generation Americans – born to a first-gen Greek-American and a Guatemalan – a long-time “resident alien” who became a naturalized U.S. citizen a scant year before her death. Alberto was born in Mexico, Bill in Guatemala, and I was born in Thailand. Despite being American citizens from birth (by virtue of the 14th Amendment’s jus sanguinis) we didn’t move to the U.S. until we were teenagers (or nearly so) and, in many ways, have had the f.o.b. (“fresh off the boat”) experience common to recent immigrants.

My husband, Bryan, was born in New York State, where his forebears – Welsh, English, French, German – settled generations ago. Jhumpa was born in England to Bengali parents, who soon thereafter immigrated to Rhode Island, where she grew up. Anna also was born in England, to an Irish parent and a Spanish one. And if the priest friend I’ve invited to Thanksgiving joins us, he’ll bring Philadelphia Irish-American ancestry (I think) to the table with him.

Then there are the kids – Morgan Sophia, Octavio and Noor. Octavio’s and Noor’s heritage unites two of the fastest-growing “minorities” in the United States; and Morgan fits into the long-standing tradition of new immigrant parent mixed with old.

Their names, their faces, their beings are the America of the 21st century.

I am not so innocent to believe that they will be immune from discrimination for who they are and who their parents and grandparents are (or were). Already Morgan has dealt with at least one schoolmate, who, finding out that she had some Latino heritage, decided to call her an “illegal immigrant.” But I am hopeful. And as I keep saying in these blog posts, that is really what the United States means to any immigrant: hope and possibility.

If my priest friend does show up for Thanksgiving, no doubt he’ll be asked to lead us in our prayer of thanksgiving before the meal (always ask the expert to do the job). But if he doesn’t, this is the grace I’ll be praying – a Marist prayer for immigrant justice on this most immigrant of holidays:

O God,
Who welcomes all His children,
and embraces even the prodigal ones,
help us open our hearts
and welcome all who come, searching
as our ancestors did,
for the promise of a new land, a new life.
Root out fear from our souls;
help us form the words
“sister” and “brother”
as we greet the newcomers.
Let us remember that,
with Your grace,
there are enough loaves and fishes
to go around
if we come together
as Your family.
Give us the courage
and the compassion
to respect the rights of all
in this country of abundance.
To embrace all in
the name of Your love.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What kind of garden?

An update on the story about Marcelo Lucero, the Ecuadorian immigrant killed by Patchogue teenagers out to bash "beaners," a link to which I originally posted on Nov. 11:

El Diario/La Prensa has lots of really good coverage of this story in Spanish. (I've got a link to El Diario's smart edition at the bottom of all my blog posts.)

There is a direct connection between crimes like this one and the uncivil discourse about immigration and immigrants we've heard the past few years.

So, what does this have to do with gardens?

I've been looking at the little garden my family planted this summer. It is under a layer of snow today, and beneath that, the earth that produced the acorn squash we will be eating at Thanksgiving lies fallow. It is good ground. It has rewarded our work by giving us much. By feeding us, by allowing us to dream of its fruits, by dazzling with its variety and productivity.

Politicians and commentators, talk radio hosts and columnists (and in Philadelphia, even cheesesteak vendors) have planted seeds of fear and spite against undocumented immigrants and Latinos in this nation -- this garden -- of ours. They have carefully tended and watered them, watched them grow into hatred. Incidents like the one in Patchogue, or in Shenandoah, Pa. (see also in post of Nov. 11) are the crop they have cultivated.

Sometimes the scope of their harvest of hate takes my breath away.

But this is what I know about gardens: they can be replanted. Mold and rot can be rooted out. The skeletal structures of last year's harvest can be pulled whole from the ground. Earth can be turned over, made fresh and enriched.

We can plan to plant an entirely new garden next season.

All we really need is good seed. And the desire to plant and tend it.

Download "We can stop the hate: A tool kit for action" at the following web site:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The care and feeding of our human family

With Thanksgiving little more than a week away, many of us are preparing for the meal we like best. My husband, for example. He swears he could eat the traditional American Thanksgiving meal every day of the year without getting tired of it. Since I tend to cook mostly Mexican and Guatemalan dishes for special occasions I’ve had to promise that, yes, I’ll roast the turkey instead of putting it into a Puebla-style mole, and indeed, I will include mashed potatoes on the night’s menu, along with the acorn squash from our garden.

This year, for many Americans, the questions will be less about what they will serve, but whether there will be enough to serve. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13 million U.S. households did not have enough food at some point in 2007. Of those households with the lowest “food security:” 98 percent worried that food would run out; 96 percent included adults who cut down or skipped meals, and 29 percent included adults who had not eaten anything in a full day.

This month, the U.S.D.A. released shocking figures for 2008: 36.2 million Americans, including 12.4 million children, are now “food insecure.” The U.S.D.A. expects that the overall cost of food will have increased 4 percent by the end of this year. The cost of individual products such as cheese will have risen 14.5 percent this year, eggs 16.3 percent and bread 17.3 percent.

Staff from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Nutritional Development Services – which stocks local emergency food cupboards -- told the Catholic Standard & Times back in September that they had seen an increase in use of food cupboards, and a decrease in donations. Today, Philabundance, one of the region’s largest hunger relief organizations, sent out a release stating that it is “experiencing a serious shortage of food.” Donations have decreased by 31.2 percent – the equivalent of 4 million pounds of food.

“Everywhere we turn, there are stories about the rising unemployment rate, the number of people in danger of losing their homes, and the anticipated jump this year in home heating costs,” said Bill Clark executive director and president of Philabundance. “And then there’s the ‘sticker shock’ we all experience at the end of the grocery check-out line. None of us are immune to the effects of our faltering economy.

“The fact that most of us are carefully weighing whether we really need that item that we’re considering buying serves as a reminder to me – and all of us here at Philabundance – just how much more serious life’s choices have become for our neighbors who were already struggling, or even just getting by,” Clark said. “The need has increased as we see that families who in the past have been able to provide for their own are now looking for help.”

Philabundance is asking organizations and individuals to plan food drives and to donate non-perishable foods. Call 215-339-0900 or visit the web site at for more information.

You can also contribute money to Nutritional Development Services for purchase of food for the emergency food cupboards it stocks throughout the five counties of the Archdiocese. Call 215-587-2468 or visit the web site at for more information.

If you wish to contribute to a local food cupboard directly, milk, cheese, cereals, peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna and soups are always in high demand.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Poll shows support for immigration reform among Catholics

A quick post to let you share in this information from the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference:

WASHINGTON—A recent Zogby poll of Catholics nationwide showed overwhelming support for reform of our nation’s immigration laws, with Catholics supporting a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented persons in the country.
The poll conducted October 17-20, included a sample of 1,000 people who self-identified as Roman Catholics and was commissioned by Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (MRS/USCCB). It had a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points.
About 69 percent of Catholics polled supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, provided they register with the government; 62 percent supported the concept if they were required to learn English. The U.S. Catholic bishops have long endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented persons that would include requirements to register with the government and to learn English.
“These results show that, like other Americans, Catholics want a solution to the challenge of illegal immigration and support undocumented immigrants becoming full members of our communities and nation,” said Johnny Young, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB. “It is clear that those opposed to a legalization of the undocumented are a minority,” he added.
In other findings, 64 percent of Catholics opposed the construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, while three out of four Catholics agree that the church has a moral obligation to help provide for the humanitarian needs of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
Todd Scribner, education coordinator for MRS/USCCB, stated that the poll results demonstrated that the efforts of the U.S. bishops to educate Catholics on the realities of immigration are bearing fruit.
“Catholics are generally in agreement with their bishops that there needs to be a comprehensive and humane solution to our immigration problems,” Scribner said. “The strong educational efforts of the bishops, through the Justice for Immigrants Campaign and their own teachings, have helped generate support in the Catholic community for comprehensive reform.”
The U.S. bishops launched an educational initiative in 2005, entitled the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, to educate Catholics on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Days of violence and hate

Whoever says, "I am in the light," while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light.
- 1 John 2:9-10

Nov. 10 in Upper Darby, Pa.:
Hoa Pham and his wife are brutally attacked and tortured in their home -- he is killed and his wife is hospitalized with serious injuries. The Pham family are parishioners of St. Alice Parish in Upper Darby; the church is holding a week-long prayer vigil.
Pham, an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned for seven years in a communist prison camp before emigrating to the United States 17 years ago.
The funeral is set for Saturday.
Read the report from Channel 6-Philadelphia's ABC affiliate:

Nov. 9 in Patchogue, N.Y.:
Seven teens are charged with fatally stabbing an Ecuadorian immigrant. According to reports, they admit they were looking for a "Hispanic" to beat up. Authorities consider it a hate crime. Read the Newsday report:,0,5039497.story

And on Nov. 13 in Pottsville, Pa. there will be a hearing in the case against three teens who are charged with the brutal death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant working in Shenandoah, Pa. as a fruit picker and factory worker. Because the teens were allegedly screaming racial slurs at Ramirez, this is also considered a hate crime by some. The incident took place in July of this year.
Read about the scheduled hearing in the Republican Herald:

How does a community heal from the depth of violence and hatred evinced by these tragedies?

A while back, I spoke to Robert Nix, the chairman of the Police Advisory Commission in Philadelphia. He had spoken at a vigil in Shenandoah days after the attack on Ramirez about just that -- how to put a community back together.

"From what I've seen," he said, "healing communities takes a lot of honest effort and hard work. It takes open dialogue between everyone in the community -- all of the stakeholders. It takes strong and decisive local leadership. It takes a belief in the innate goodness of man. It takes fair and impartial justice. And it takes forgiveness from the heart."

"We need to have faith," he added. "Faith in our fellow man, and faith in God ... to rebuild a relationship of mutual trust among [the community's] members."

Please join your prayers to those of the Pham children and the Vietnamese community in Upper Darby, to the grieving family of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue and Ecuador, and to Luis Ramirez's family and friends in Shenandoah and Mexico.

Hearing immigrants' voices

The Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine St. in the Old City section of Philadelphia is hosting a performance titled "Underground America" from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12. It is a reading of oral histories by undocumented immigrants.
After the performance, Peter Orner (editor of the book "Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives"), two lawyers and the director of HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia address the legal, economic and humanitarian issues surrounding the immigration debate.
The event costs $15. Call 215-925-9914 for more information.
(Thanks to Regan Cooper for the heads-up.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Disappeared in Philadelphia, Part 2

(Read the first part of this story in the Oct. 23 post.)

The 26-year-old who sits before me on the sofa of a Philadelphia parish rectory is small and slight. Her young face is framed by loose, dark curls, and she smiles a lot – mostly when she turns to look at the 5-year-old seated beside her on the sofa.

Though he fidgets, he’s been remarkably good during the two hours it’s taken me to interview his mother. He follows the volley of Spanish conversation with his eyes, answers my few questions to him in both Spanish and English. Dressed neatly in dark trousers and a light shirt, and carrying a child-sized backpack he won’t remove even when he sits down, Jesús reminds me of my nephew or of my older brother at that age. Same dark hair and eyes; same precocious gravity amid childish smiles.

“Do you like school?” I ask him.

He attends a bilingual Head Start program, and an afterschool program at one of the local Catholic churches.

He nods, a serious expression on his face.

His mother watches him answer the question with that look mothers get – admixed pride and wonder and concern.

He is the reason this quiet young woman crossed the border into the United States about four years ago. She carried him over in her arms.

“My motive [for coming here] was my son,” she says to me. “Para sacarlo adelante.”

So that he has a chance. A future.

I think of my own daughter, at that moment probably just getting home from school and sitting down at the computer to do her homework. When she was little I would tuck her into bed telling her I loved her more than the sun and the moon and stars. And I meant it. Still do.

And yet, I find myself thinking, could I have done for her as this young woman did for her son?

A modern immigration story
“I come from a humble town,” Erica says to me, describing a town in Mexico where most of the parents cannot afford to buy their children shoes.

Erica and her baby lived with her parents, and two of her brothers, 15 and 7 years old.
“There was no work there, no way to make money,” Erica continues. “My parents didn’t have enough for food.”

A few minutes later she adds: “No hay prestamo para comer.”

There’s no loan you can get for food.

Getting a visa to come into the U.S. to work is nearly impossible for someone like Erica. An unskilled laborer, she fits into the lowest priority category of applicants for a pool of only 40,000 visas granted annually.

Even to visit the U.S. with a tourist visa isn’t an option for someone like her, I learn.
It costs $100 to get an interview to see about a visa. And to qualify for the visa, you have to give proof of substantial savings, or hold title to real estate in Mexico.

Erica didn’t have a hope of savings or real estate. But she had hope.

Several of Erica’s brothers had already crossed the border and settled into restaurant jobs in the Philadelphia area. She knew they worked 12-hour days, making about $8 per hour -- enough, she thought, for her son to have something better in his future.

Erica came across the border the way so many of the poor do – by hiring a “coyote” to lead her through some of the toughest terrain in Mexico and the United States.

“No se si aguante,” she tells me the coyote told her when she first approached him. He doubted she could make it across with a child in tow.

Somehow, she convinced him.

She carried her son – and his powdered formula and diapers – through forests and steep gorges and cornfields. She slogged through mud when it rained, and through cold nights.
Others made the journey also, following the same coyote on his trek to, and through, Nogales – a town about 60 miles south of Tucson on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border patrol caught them, and returned them to Nogales, where the coyote ditched them.

“No se va poder,” he said to them, shaking his head. “It’s not going to be possible.”

But Erica and the others did try to cross again. And got caught by the border patrol again.

It’s not clear to me what side of the border she and the others were on when they were assaulted by a gang of what Erica describes as “cholos” – young men in their 20s who stripped them of their rings, their jackets and shoes, and any money they had.

“They took the diaper off Jesús, and spilled out the powdered formula looking for money,” she tells me.

When they didn’t find any, they wrested the baby from her, beat her and tried to strip off her clothing.

She tells me she believes she might have been raped if a 16-year-old immigrant boy had not stood up to the gang. He claimed her as a sister, and was beaten by the gang in her stead.
Eventually they crossed the border into the United States, and after a 13-day ride in the back of a van, Erica and Jesús arrived in Philadelphia.

Within days Erica is working, Jesús is in his new home with uncles and aunts, and the prayers Erica intoned every night on her long and hope-filled journey seem to have been answered.

It should end this way, her story. Prayers answered are a good end.

But if you read the first “Disappeared in Philadelphia” entry you know this is no end.

Thinking out loud
Some 20-odd years ago, when I was in college, a writing professor handed back one of my short stories with this comment on it: “Honor everybody in the story.”

“I didn’t?” I asked him, incredulous.

“How many times did you let this character say what he said directly to us, the readers?” is how I remember my professor answering my question with a question. I think he was fond of doing that.

Then, less than a year ago I found myself in the archdiocesan office for Hispanic Catholics, ranting to the vicar, Msgr. Hugh Shields. Poor Monsignor, he suffers my rants rather more often than anybody else these days because he is kind, and reasonable, and doesn’t really have an effective escape route charted out.

As I recall, I was going on and on about how I didn’t understand why people judged undocumented immigrants so harshly.

“So few people hear their stories,” he said. “You know, if they could see their faces and hear their voices I believe it would be different.”

I trust their judgment, these two men of different vocations but similar insight.

Erica's voice:

“I wish people knew that we’re good people. That we don’t come here to harm anyone. That we’re willing to work hard, to do heavy work. That we just want to help our families, and get a little bit ahead.

“I wish there were work visas that would allow us to go back and forth to Mexico. I haven’t seen my parents in five years.

“You know what I dream of? Bringing my parents here.
“Being able to get them visas, and bringing them here the right way.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's almost Tuesday

To paraphrase poet Robert Browning, people have died trying to get to this place where we are now...
So go out and vote!

And, know your rights:

  1. Don’t be fooled by misleading flyers. Both Democrats and Republicans vote on Tuesday, November 4.
  2. If you receive a phone call offering to help you vote by phone, hang up and report the incident to 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  3. If you have a driver’s license, U.S. passport, or state-issued identification, bring it!
  4. If you do not, bring a document that shows your name and address, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck stub, government check, or other government document. If you do not have any of these forms of ID and are a registered voter, you can still cast a provisional ballot.
  5. If you need assistance reading or filling out the ballot, you have the right to bring someone with you to the polls to help you or to request assistance from a poll worker. Some locations, but not all, are required to have materials in Spanish or other languages. For a list of these locations, call 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  6. If you make a mistake on your voting ballot, you have the right to get a new one.
  7. If you have any problems, such as your name does not appear on the list, you do not have ID, or there are no more ballots, request a provisional ballot.
  8. If the election voting machine you are using does not work or flips your vote to another candidate, contact a poll worker. You have the right to use another machine or cast a paper ballot.
  9. If you are already in line by the time the polls close, you have the right to cast your vote.
  10. You have the right to vote in secret and without being intimidated.
  11. If you are denied a provisional ballot, have any problems that prevent you from casting your vote, or witness any questionable incidents, call 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  12. If you have lost your home to foreclosure, you still have the right to vote. Contact your local election board to inquire as to where you should go.

For more information on voting and state-specific information, visit

(Thanks to Elena Lacayo for this information.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Go fly a kite

Today, All Saints Day, people in Guatemala are flying kites at cemeteries (see for a great little video of the festivities in one Guatemalan town) as part of the two-day religious celebration of All Saints and All Souls that is a particular favorite for Catholics in Mexico and Guatemala.

If you wait out the video’s introduction of the year’s Queen and Princess of the Kites, you’ll see the amazing kites themselves – pieced from tissue paper and mounted on light wooden armatures. They are part catechetical picture-book, part sampler of the textile motifs found in the traditional garb of the town, and wholly Guatemalan.

You’ll see the blue and green-painted mausoleums of the cemetery, the sea of marigolds adorning gravesites, and the atmosphere that, despite being a Solemnity of the Catholic Church, can hardly be described as solemn.

For many years I think I saw this tradition as a marvel of folk art – the need to create that finds expression in ordinary people and everyday materials and turns into something extraordinary. But now, eight years after the death of my mother and four after the death of my father, I see in it something else.

It is like visual prayer, this kite flying.

The armatures, enormous and unwieldy, seem incapable of flight, and yet they soar high above us – where we envision the heavens, the communion of saints and Church triumphant, to be.
It is the community as a whole that gets those kites into the air. Some of it is skill, sure, and experience from past years. But most of it is faith that the kites can fly, and that by grace they will fly.

The same can be said of something that is happening in the Philadelphia area tomorrow, on All Souls Day. The first Spanish-language Mass to be televised across the region will take place at 6:30 a.m. on Telemundo WWSI-TV 62.

This, too, has been a community effort: Catholic entrepreneur Jorge Fernandez; the network’s general manager Clara Rivas; Msgr. Hugh Shields and Anna Vega, both from the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, have had this in the works for a long time. Cardinal Justin Rigali is the celebrant of the Mass --and it is a joy to hear the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s beautiful Spanish during the liturgy.

Getting this Mass on the air has been as much a labor of faith and shared commitment as getting those huge Guatemalan kites in the air. Both leave me a bit in awe of the sheer devotion they evince: to God, to the vitality of the pilgrim Church on earth, to traditions and heritage.

And ultimately, for me, there is no way to talk about heritage, to talk about these days of commemoration of the departed, without talking about my parents. That’s them in the photo at the top of this blog entry. It will be their gravesite I will visit at St. Joseph Parish cemetery tomorrow after the All Souls Day Mass.

In keeping with the Guatemalan and Mexican cultural traditions I inherited from my mother, I will bring yellow and orange flowers that resemble marigolds to place around their headstone. In keeping with the Catholic faith I also inherited from my mother, I will read: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

I will talk to my parents at their gravesite as if they were in front of me, and tell them how much I miss them. Then, I’ll come home and cook the foods they liked, to remember what we’ve shared across tables both literal and symbolic.

Two days later, I will enter a voting booth in the exercise of a right I inherited from my father; my citizenship earned by his blood.
I have been accused of turning everything into an argument for reforming our existing immigration laws and quotas, but in truth I cannot think about my parents without thinking about the ways lives are being shaped by our broken immigration system.

My father’s father, Leander Panayotis Vourvoulias, was born in Turkish-occupied Smyrna (what was then called Asia Minor) in 1894. He was the son of a Greek barber. According to a very skimpy bio that was written about him many years later when he was winning an award from the Consular Corps as Consul of the year, he had a college degree from American college in Smyrna.

It is unclear how my grandfather ended up in Havana, Cuba working for the National Bank of New York, but that same bio says he spent time in Chicago training in a bank before he moved to Cuba.

What is clear is that it was fortunate that he was in the Americas when his younger brother, George, was of the age to be forcibly conscripted into the Turkish army. My grandfather secured documents that allowed his brother to emigrate first to Cuba, and later, after coming to the U.S. via Key West, to Chicago, Ill.

It was to Chicago my grandfather also eventually returned, with my grandmother, for a year or so before moving to first to Colombia, and later to Mexico. My father was born in Chicago, in that sliver of time they lived in the U.S.

If this were happening today, my grandfather would never have gotten a visa to enter the United States as anything but a tourist. Because he would not have had an advanced degree or a post as an “outstanding professor or researcher” or be possessed already of managerial or executive status with his employer, he would not have qualified for the first two categories of employment-based visas issued in the U.S.

He might have qualified under the third employment-based preference, which gives first priority to those with bachelor’s degrees, second to skilled workers and third to unskilled workers. But the total annual quota for all three of these categories under this preference is only 40,000 visas a year.

If my grandfather’s story were happening today, even if he had lucked out and gotten a visa and then applied for either permanent residency or citizenship, our family history would be quite different.

As a citizen, it would take him 6 to 12 months to get papers to have his wife join in Chicago legally; if he were a permanent resident, it would take him five years, or longer.

Today, as a citizen, my grandfather could expect to wait seven years, or longer, to be able to bring his brother out of harm’s way. As a permanent resident, he wouldn’t even be allowed to try.

Let’s face it, if today’s quotas had been in effect during the great waves of German, Polish, Italian and Irish immigration of the past two centuries, the majority of us would not be able to claim American citizenship.

Skilled laborers like the German and Italian stonemasons responsible for some of our most beautiful architectural structures would have ranked penultimate on the visa quota list. And forget the unskilled laborers who built the infrastructure and kept us in food – the nation would have welcomed with open hearts only those who were already privileged, educated and white-collar.

As we do now, with our existing quota system.

It should not be lost on anyone with immigrant roots that the 14th Amendment – the one that says you get to be a U.S. citizen if one of your parents is one (jus sanguinis) or if you were born in the United States (jus soli) – has been the target of anti-immigrant rhetoric during this electoral cycle. Two early candidates in the race advocated eliminating the jus soli right for children born in the U.S. of undocumented parents. They still advocate it.

On All Saints/All Souls, I hope more than just Guatemalans fly some prayers up to heaven.

I hope that in commemorating our beloved departed we can hear clearly the stories they have for us – stories of love and faith and family, of how we are all immigrants seeking sanctuary, saved by amnesty and in search of Promised Land.