Thursday, December 23, 2010

An immigrant's Christmas

A child born in mean circumstance, poor but full of promise and hope. He is carried in arms by a young woman in flight from one country to another. It is her bid for survival. The family is desperate, persecuted, and ultimately, condemned.

If the season makes you think it's a synopsis of Christ's life I'm referring to, think again.


Unless you see Christ's story in the immigrant story I'm going to tell you.

Every year since I've had a blog I've reposted the same story - the story of Erica, who crossed over the border with her baby in arms, to settle eventually, in Philadelphia. The story of Erica's brother, Beto, who disappeared off a subway platform in the same city, only to be heard from again once authorities had put him on his way back to Mexico.

I retell this story every year for a personal reason: this is the story that made me want to write and keep a blog.

But I also retell this story every year for another reason: things haven't changed for Erica, or her brother, or any number of undocumented laborers who we might pass every day on the street without inkling of the road they've travelled - or are travelling.

"People hate the undocumented because they don't hear their stories." This is what immigration advocates tell me, and I believe them.

Well, then.

Here's Erica's story - why she crossed the border without proper documentation, and how. Here's her brother's story of deportation, as well. And the stories of how people are detained before deportation - while seeking work or even simply while sleeping in their homes.


-- Because nothing has changed since the original posts (I'll include their original posting dates). If anything, life has become more difficult for the undocumented in the ensuing years. Raids have increased, deportation numbers have skyrocketed, rhetoric has become more vitriolic.

-- Because Jesus, Erica's 5-year-old-son - who will most likely grow up thinking himself an American and remembering no home but this one - will be unable, after last Saturday's DREAM Act vote in Congress, to earn citizenship for himself. No matter if he is a stellar student with promise enough to change the world. No matter if he is willing to put his life on the line in defense of this country. No matter if he wants, with the same desperation his mother showed by carrying him over the border as an infant, to be part of something better and more promising than what he was born into.

I've decided this year, to also include reposts of raids - both at a local Home Depot and in an immigrant's home, so you experience the whole of the undocumented immigrant's experience: crossing over, seeking work, detention, deportation.

During this season when Christians celebrate the birth of a God who enjoined us to see Him in every face around around us, this is Christ's story.

ubstitute His name for Erica's, for Beto's, for the others whose names you'll see in the repostings, and then tell me how you feel about their treatment. A

nd tell me who you will stand with - those condemning from some sense of righteous indignation about laws and proscriptions breached, or those who see beyond the immediate to the eternal,to divine law.

This is the radical nature of Christ's commandment to love your neighbor - if you wouldn't abide it happening to Him, you cannot abide it happening to any other.

So sit back and listen to the stories. Again
Crossing over
(Original post Oct. 28, 2008)

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?

“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.

Detenton #1
(Jan. 11, 2010)

Immigration Customs and Enforcement broke down doors at numerous homes in South Philadelphia taking 30 suspected undocumented immigrants into detention, according to CS&T sources.
More information as we receive it...

Pre-school and school-age children were in many of the homes raided. Mothers were not taken into detention so they could stay with the children. According to our source, children were "traumatized" by the doors being broken down by agents.

UPDATE AT 1:30 P.M.:
Two of the addresses of houses in raid had been given to ICE several months ago as suspected hubs for human trafficking and/or a prostitution ring. Other homes in the area appear to have been targeted separately , and the undocumented immigrants picked up at those are not believed to be associated with the human trafficking/prostitution ring, according to our sources.

UPDATE AT 4:30 P.M.:
Inside one of the houses raided.

E., who is the second-trimester of her pregnancy, was asleep at 6:50 a.m. today. An insistent knocking at the door woke her. Her husband, and the nephews who share the house with them, had left at 6:30 a.m. for their jobs as cooks -- E. was alone with her 5-year-old son. She didn't answer the door. But in a matter of minutes, eight armed ICE agents where inside her house and then inside the room where she had been sleeping.

"They didn't break down the (front) door," she said, "so they must have done something to force the lock to get inside."

She was terrified, she told me during a brief interview we conducted over the phone, but was grateful that her son was asleep when the men entered the house. Otherwise, no doubt he would have been as frightened as she was, she said.

"Who lives here?" she said the agents asked her.

"My nephews, husband, my son and I," she said she answered.

They asked her whether her child was born here (he's a citizen) and then asked her for the names and birth dates of all of the members of her household, as well as their phone numbers. She wanted not to give them the information, but she complied.

"I was scared," she said. "Pretty much alone in the house with these men asking me questions, and never telling me what it was they were looking for."

The agents looked around her house, E. said, and found a passport that belonged to one of her nephews. They took that with them.

When they left they didn't tell her what is expected of her now (she is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, as is her husband) or whether they will be back when they anticipate her husband and nephews will be home from work -- but that is what E. guesses will happen.

Of course, she called her husband as soon as the ICE agents left.

E. is spending the night at a friend's house tonight; her nephews and husband will also be staying with friends. They don't know for how long, E. said. What's more, they have no idea what they can, should or are required to do now. None of the agents answered any of her questions.

"But I can't go back home," she said. "Not to wake up again like that -- to eight men with guns. In my house."

Detention #2
(Oct. 22, 2009)

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."

(Oct. 23, 2008)

The story begins on Thursday, March 15, 2007.

Erica shares an apartment with her three sisters and two brothers. She is still asleep that morning when Beto gets up to go to work at the restaurant where he is a cook.

Usually he leaves for work in the early morning and doesn’t get home until 1 or 2 a.m. He speaks some English, and Erica describes him as “tranquilo” (even-tempered) and “muy cumplido” (reliable).
On that day, he wears a jacket and carries a backpack. He has his cell phone on him, and his pay for the past week, some $500 in cash, by Erica’s accounting.

He calls from the subway platform on his way to work, speaks briefly to one of the family members and ends the call by saying he’ll call again later.

At 1 p.m., a co-worker at the restaurant calls the apartment. “What happened to Beto?” he asks. “He didn’t show up for work.”

The family tries to find him. They call the police, who ask for a description, what clothing and shoes he was wearing. One of the family members runs a photo of him down to the station.
They worry that he might be hurt or dead – that his girlfriend’s ex has killed him in some fit of jealousy. The next day, they seek her out and she refuses to open the door or answer any of their questions. It seems to confirm their worst fears.

Still, they spend the rest of that day, and Saturday and Sunday also, posting flyers with his photo, and asking around whether anyone has seen him. They call hospitals and inquire about every John Doe. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, a friend of the family, utterly desperate, calls Sister Lorena.

“None of us thought about ‘la migra,’” Erica says to me, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement by its nickname. “It hadn’t even crossed our minds.”

But it crosses Sister Lorena’s mind. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, March 19 she calls the York County Prison where most undocumented immigrants from the Philadelphia area are taken.
By the time they ascertain he was taken there, he’s already gone.

What happened to Beto? Erica recounts the detention story Beto tells her when he is finally able to make a call to them: He’s on the platform at 15th and Market waiting for his usual train. He notices Philadelphia police on the platform checking people’s backpacks, but doesn’t think much about it. At some point, a policeman approaches him, asks him what time it is. When he hears Beto respond, the policeman asks him if he has documents proving he’s a legal immigrant.

Beto, Erica continues, tells the policeman he has papers, even though he really doesn’t. He is loaded into a van with 15 other young Latino men from the train platform, and taken to the local precinct.
The police turn him over to immigration authorities in Philadelphia. There, the I.C.E. agents take his watch, his jacket, his wallet and his cell phone. Before Beto is shipped off to the detention center in York, his wallet is returned to him with approximately $100 of his original $500. He has to plead with them to get his cell phone back.

He’s not at York long. Within days he’s taken first to Texas, and then to Arizona, where he is finally able to contact Erica. He’s on his way to be dropped across the border -- Ciudad Juárez, Sister Lorena guesses – to find his way back to their hometown in Puebla.

Another waitress where I work [as a busboy] knows someone who was picked up the same way, at the same station,” Erica tells me when she finishes recounting her brother’s story.

Then simply, with no drama: “I no longer take the trains."

Perhaps you do not think this is a Christmas story to be told a few days before Christmas.

And yet it is.

I open at random the new translation of the book of psalms one of the newspaper's columnists has given me today. It opens to the last lines of psalm 39: "For I am a sojourner with You, a new settler like all of my fathers...."

We are all sojourners.

All new settlers.

Just so.

1 comment:

  1. I can't think of anything I've enjoyed reading less.

    It's beyond me how our country can get some things so right and some things so terribly wrong.


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