Sunday, October 25, 2009

Disappeared in Philadelphia, update

When I started blogging a year ago, this is the story I most wanted to get out into the blogosphere. I interviewed Erica, initially, because her brother had been disappeared right off the platform at Market Street station in Philadelphia. But as I interviewed Erica I realized her story of migration to the U.S., though in some ways less dramatic than her brother’s story of detention and deportation, was equally resonant.

I’ve come to think of them as “bookend” immigration stories: Erica’s hopeful, difficult trek into the U.S.; Beto’s efficient, pitiless ejection from it.

I’d like to report that Erica’s life has improved in the intervening year, but the latest news is that her boyfriend was also detained, and has now been deported. Another loss for her, another loved one she will not easily see again.

She and her son are still in Philadelphia.

Part 1:
(Originally posted Oct. 23, 2008)

“Some people have disappeared on their way to work.”

It is one sentence among many during an interview I am conducting about outreach to immigrants in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The people sitting at the table with me are a priest, a nun and a layperson – all remarkable advocates for the communities they serve.
I wonder if they notice that the sentence makes me flinch.

When I was 15, my family moved to the United States from Guatemala – a country that was then escalating from civil war to genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared during those years – on their way to work, or school, or the corner store. I can’t hear a sentence like the one that opens this piece without thinking about life in those days – of how our ordinary routines were flanked by fear, limned by caution.

“What do you mean, ‘people have disappeared?’” I ask. “In Philadelphia?”

“Let me see if I can get someone to talk to you about it,” Sister Lorena says.

Several weeks later I find myself in the rectory of a church in Philadelphia of which I am not a parishioner. Erica, a 26-year-old woman dressed in jeans and sneakers, sits across from me, her 5-year-old son fidgeting on the sofa next to her. They’re not parishioners of this church either. Sister Lorena has brought us together here so I can hear about Beto, Erica’s 18-year-old brother.

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.”

Nothing but questions
As I try to find my way through a section of Philadelphia I don’t know after my two-hour conversation with Erica, I’m struck by her poise. She’s managed to tell me her brother’s story, as well as her own (look for subsequent blog entries) calmly and with a self-possession I don’t feel after talking to her.

I seethe with questions.

Are there really police staked out at certain train stations in Philadelphia doing immigration checks?

On what basis are people being asked to present documents – on that train platform or anywhere else in the city and suburbs for that matter? Their “Latino” look? Their accents? Their “immigrant” backpacks?

Are immigration officials temporarily confiscating the cell phones of detainees to deprive them of legal counsel? Or to pull the telephone numbers in the memories of those phones so they can chase down other potential “illegals?”

Mostly I ask myself how anyone endures the anguish of having a loved one disappear so inexplicably. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, this is not a new question for me. What is new is that I’m asking it in the United States.

Part 2:
(Originally posted Nov. 7, 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?

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.”

* * *

These are not the original images that ran with these posts. I've chosen two images of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt to illustrate this update.

There has been a lot of talk, as the immigration debate has gotten nastier, about the "quality" of immigrants.

"I wouldn't be opposed to easing immigration restrictions, but only for professionals" is one comment I've heard, and, "it'd be different if it weren't just a bunch of primitives immigrating" is another. Yes, I've actually heard otherwise fairly reasonable people make these exact arguments.

For those Catholics and Christians, I'd issue this gentle reminder: Mary was a teen mother; Joseph, a simple carpenter. Neither of them would have gotten a green card under current visa issuing requirements.

Just saying.

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.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Target's "Illegal Alien" Halloween costume


Target's removing it from its web site since a number of complaints have been lodged.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who’s counting?

Unbelievably, I started blogging exactly one year ago. Just in time for the Hispanic Heritage Mass then and now. This year’s Mass will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 11 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Cardinal Justin Rigali will be the celebrant, and as in past years, he’ll be joined by many priests from across the Archdiocese that minister to the Latino community.

And a growing community it is.

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states with at least a half-million Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (The others are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.)

The estimated Hispanic population of the United States as of July 1, 2008 is 46.9 million, making people of Hispanic origin the largest ethnic or race minority in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics are 15 percent of the nation’s total population.

And to these totals you can add the 4 million residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (which is included in the U.S. Census report’s “national summary” data, but not in its “national totals”).

The Hispanic population in the U.S. is younger than the population as a whole. Hispanics comprise 22 percent of children younger than 18 in the nation, 25 percent of children younger than 5. The U. S. Census Bureau projects that by July 1, 2050, the Hispanic population of the United States will reach 132.8 million, and be 30 percent of the nation’s total population.

There were 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses in 2002, and the rate of growth of these businesses between the census of 1997 and 2002 was 31 percent. The national average rate of growth for all businesses during the same time period was 10 percent. Hispanic owned businesses generated revenues of $222 billion in 2002, according to census sources, up 19 percent from 1997.

Still, if you read my blog, or other Latino blogs, you already know that the violence, hate and animosity toward Latinos has increased markedly in recent years. The FBI reported a 35 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos from 2003 to 2006 and a 3.3 percent increase in 2007 alone. Certain communities (Suffolk, N.Y., for example) have become something like hunting grounds where gangs of ruffians target their Latino neighbors for death, and juries and elected officials look the other way. Mainstream Latino advocacy organizations such as the NCLR have been vilified, and the first Latina Supreme Court justice was lampooned with openly racist caricatures during the period preceding her confirmation.

The vitriol in the immigration reform debate has contributed greatly to anti-Latino sentiment.

It is faulty logic to presume that all immigrants are Latino and all Latinos are immigrants, but nativists and commentators with nativist sympathies have reinforced this spurious syllogism. Ongoing air time devoted to the “invasion of America” (commentator Pat Buchanan) by hordes of “primitives” and “women with mustaches” (radio host Jay Severin) who are “changing the complexion of America” (Bill O’Reilly) and are “invaders” and carriers of “leprosy and tuberculosis” (Lou Dobbs) has had its effect on people’s ideas about Latinos and immigrants.

Even those who don’t wholeheartedly buy into anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric express irritation at Spanish-language phone options, or celebrations and parades wherein flags of Latin American countries are flown alongside the U.S. flag. Would the same level of irritation be manifest if the language option were German, say, or Polish? Do the St. Patrick’s and Columbus Day parades with their Irish and Italian flags proudly flown generate the same animus? Clearly not.

Much of current anti-immigrant rhetoric centers around the differences between new waves of immigration and historic ones – but the differences are largely myth.

Earlier immigrant groups also initially settled in mono-ethnic neighborhoods, spoke their own languages, went to church at personal parishes where Mass was celebrated in their native languages and set up businesses that not only served their fellow immigrants but contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy. They eventually learned English, became naturalized citizens, gave birth to U. S. citizens and grew to be integral to the weave of contemporary America.

It has been said that new immigrants don’t want to learn English, yet demand for English as a Second Language classes for adult learners far exceeds supply. With classes or without, more than 75 percent of current immigrants learn to speak English proficiently within 10 years of emigrating.

We’ve also heard that the new immigrants, unlike their predecessors, don’t want to become citizens. But according to U.S. Census Bureau and Bureaus of Citizenship and Immigration Services data, more than 33 percent of immigrants become naturalized citizens. This, of course, can’t begin to reflect the number of immigrants who might want to become citizens if a path to legal residency and citizenship were open to them.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born stands at 11.5 percent currently. In the early 20th century, it stood at 15 percent. Immigrants in those days also dealt with anti-immigrant fears about the number of them coming to America, and the same derogatory attitudes about people “without papers” -- the genesis of at least one ethnic slur.

Myth has it that most immigrants today are undocumented. But the Immigration and Naturalization Services statistical yearbook records that 75 percent of current immigrants have legal permanent visas. And they pay U.S. taxes – between $90 and $140 billion a year. (Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes – as evidenced by the Social Security Administration’s “suspense file” -- taxes that cannot be matched to workers’ names and social security numbers -- which drew $20 billion between 1990 and 1998.)

Current immigrants, like their predecessors, contribute to the U.S. economy through their consumer spending and through the income generated by the businesses they set up. According to the Cato Institute and the Inter-American Development Bank, consumer spending of immigrant households and business contribute $162 billion in tax revenue to U.S. federal, state and local governments.

And Alan Greenspan, while he headed the Federal Reserve, pointed out that 70 percent of immigrants arrive to the U.S, in prime working years. As part of our workforce they will contribute $500 billion toward our social security system over the next 20 years.

An enduring myth about current immigrants is that they emigrate to receive public benefits. There is data from the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Urban Institute that shows that immigrant tax payments total $20 to $30 billion more than the amount of government services they receive.

Recent surveys have shown that new immigrants are actually much healthier than longtime immigrants (who in turn are healthier than native citizens). Which is lucky because legal immigrants are restricted from accessing any public health benefits for the first five years of their residence in the United States. Undocumented immigrants are precluded from accessing any public benefits at all.

It is hard to believe that any of us want to see our fellow human beings ill and suffering and barred from receiving any medical treatment; just as it is hard to believe any of us want to see people dying while trying to be reunited with their families, or while trying to escape violence or poverty. And yet, existing health care legislation and immigration policies compound these problems while offering no solutions.

Fortunately, we are heirs to a system of governance that permits us to challenge standing legislation. We can pass better laws. Laws that create a path to citizenship for people who desperately want to be here. Laws that ensure that U.S. citizen children aren’t separated from their undocumented parents. Laws that reflect compassion for our brothers and sisters in need, and that open to hope rather than a wall.

In the year I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve shown you signs that read “Hispanics keep out” and “Speak English.” I’ve posted videos that portray immigrants the same way blacks were depicted in early minstrel shows, and have referenced news about a teen who endured ethnic taunts while being dragged with a noose around his neck. I’ve written about a young man who was snatched right off a train platform on the basis of his Spanish accent, and linked you to horrifying stories about hate-crimes against Ecuadorian and Mexican immigrants in this and adjoining states.

But I’ve also written about people who stand for more and better.

Peter Pedemonti and his cohorts at the Catholic Worker house and in the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia who believe they are “entertaining angels” when they welcome the stranger.

Msgr. Hugh Shields. Anna Vega, Tim O’Connell, Sister Lorena and countless other unnamed religious folk and laypeople who believe we are all one family under God and so extend to immigrants the love we usually reserve for blood family.

Robert Nix, who journeyed to Shenendoah, Pa. after Luis Ramirez was killed to publicly urge community reconciliation.

I’ve pointed you to El Diario/La Prensa, which reports stories about immigrants and Latinos the mainstream media doesn’t even venture to cover.

And I’ve quoted the words of the U.S. Bishops, including our own Cardinal Justin Rigali, who have consistently sought to remind us that, in the words of Christ, “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

Going into my second year of writing this, I’m not sure what effect, if any, blogs can have in our thinking about issues as complex as immigration or the upswing in anti-Latino sentiment in the nation. Particularly blogs like this one, with a small readership that, in all likelihood, already recognizes popular immigration myths for what they are and finds the words of the nativists and anti-immigrant commentators as repugnant as I do.

But I have to think it’s worth it.

There are local voices here that are too quiet to be heard in the nasty national debate. There are voices of local immigrants, and the voices of local people of faith who walk with them. There are voices of those who have overcome unbearable hardship and the voices of those who have taken up their advocacy. Not all of those voices are in the blog posts – some are in the comments, both public and private, made in response to the posts.

And despite the bad news and bad feelings I sometimes point to in my posts, it is the wonder and awe of knowing there are good people out there -- willing to protect and love and do for their fellow human beings -- that really keeps me writing.