Thursday, October 22, 2009

You can do it, we can help

On Oct. 13, 80 jornaleros (day workers) gathered early on the parking lot of Home Depot on Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia. They were hoping for a day's work, a day's wage.

At 8:30 a.m., two police officers from the second district drove on to the lot and told them to disperse.

Parts of what happened next cannot be verified.

One of the day workers may have refused to leave the parking lot. Perhaps he became belligerent. Or perhaps he argued -- as other jornaleros would say later -- that the store's management had never before complained about them trying to get work on that parking lot ....

In any case, the eyewitness who called the Office of Hispanic Catholics of the Archdiocese moments after the incident occurred alleged that the jornalero in question was beaten with a nightstick and taken into custody by the police, his face bloodied.

The eyewitness, also a jornalero rousted that morning from the parking lot, didn't want to talk about it to anyone other than the staff at the Office of Hispanic Catholics. He didn't trust anyone else.

And that, as much as any other part of the story, is the story.

Not all day workers who gather outside of stores to find work are undocumented, but many are. They don't know each other's names or documentation status but they know some things:

1) If they taken into custody and found to be undocumented they'll be whisked off to a detention center. They may end up being repatriated so fast their names never make it on to the lists of those held for deportation. Their families may not find out where they are or what has happened to them until weeks after they have disappeared. Or, conversely, they may languish in detention centers for months, even years.

2) They can't report crimes or even come forth as eyewitnesses for fear that any such action will precipitate their deportation, or an investigation of the documentation status of their families, coworkers and friends.

3) They can turn to the Catholic Church in whose priests, sisters and committed laity they have found advocates for humane and compassionate treatment -- no matter what their documentation status.

Within minutes of the call from the eyewitness, the director of the Office of Hispanic Catholics, Anna Vega, had called the second police district trying to ascertain whether the jornalero who had been picked up had been injured. She had called the office of Councilwoman Marion Tasco (in whose district the incident occurred) and Regan Cooper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition to make sure they were aware of the incident.

And she had called the archdiocesan Vicar for Hispanic Catholics, Msgr. Hugh Shields, to recount what the eyewitness had said.

By the time I found out about it, Msgr. Shields had already been to the second police district, where he had been able to confirm that an African American man was taken into custody that morning from the Home Depot parking lot. But without a name, the police officer he spoke to could not release any other information -- not whether the day worker was still in custody, what he was charged with, not even whether he was hurt.

Msgr. had also been to Home Depot, where a few day workers, at the edges of the parking lot, had re-gathered. Speaking to them in Spanish, he asked them if any of them had been there during the earlier incident. A few nodded their heads.

"We received a call that the man who was taken away was hurt," he said. "Did any of you see that?" Again some nods.

"Do you know his name?" This time the jornaleros shook their heads.

"And he was a Latino?" Msgr. asked.

"Haitian, Father," one of the jornaleros answered. After a beat he added, "It's the same island."

Haiti, the nation that shares its island with the Dominican Republic, isn't Hispanic. Haitians speak French and Creole, and ministering to the Haitian immigrant community isn't, strictly speaking, the purview of the Office of the Vicar for Hispanic Catholics.

But mercy and loving-kindness know nothing of purviews, or distinct languages, or man-made borders dividing one landmass into separate nations.

The Catholic Church has an incredible tradition of saints, blesseds and servants of God who have seen Christ on the breadline, in lepers, in the abandoned elderly -- in society's underclasses throughout the ages and throughout the globe.

Why not in the parking lot of Home Depot on Roosevelt Avenue?

Why not in the frightened day worker who feared his fellow human being was hurt and called those he knew would care?

Why not in the voice of a man, waiting for work, who recognizes that our world and our shared humanity means it's the same island for all of us.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard about this kind of thing happening in many U.S. cities at home improvement stores.

    It will be quite some time before any politician is going to have the cajones to stand up and say this behavior is wrong and must be stopped. Sadly, it's not a popular opinion among the great unwashed.


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