Friday, August 28, 2015

Stephanie's Story; Part 1 of ?

The other day I wrote about immigration, and I mentioned a young lady who came to our country from El Salvador as a refugee. I have talked with her and asked her permission to tell her story and she has given me permission to tell her story.

Stephanie, 21, grew up in the outskirts of a town in the southern part of El Salvador, close to the Pacific Ocean. Her decision to leave her country did not come easily, it never does. How can one pick up and leave family behind and go into a country where you don't speak the language, don't understand the cultures, and don't even feel welcomed? The Vietnamese felt that way in the 70's, but that is another blog for another day. Yet, the Vietnamese and the Salvadorans have much in common; a government that is corrupt, local politicians that hold sway over the populace by way of gangs who extort the people, at gunpoint if necessary.

This is the stifling atmosphere that Stephanie was born into, her grandparents ran a successful business, despite being extorted repeatedly by the local gangs. At one point her grandmother had a pistol pointed at her head, at point blank range. Stephanie was finding herself in situations where she ended up transferring to three different universities and yet she was still being threatened by the local gangs.

She went to apply for a Visa, twice, and both times was rejected. Apparently a "mordida" was not in the offering. So she decided to make the dangerous trip up through Guatemala and Mexico and into the U.S. With the help of her Grandmother (financially helping her) she was able to secure the help of a "coyote" (one who smuggles people into another country). She did not tell me how much she spent in order to come here, but from my experience of talking with immigrants and working on immigration issues, to cross the border can run into the thousands of dollars.

After six weeks of traveling through two countries, she arrives in the U.S. (of course after entering without proper documentation). She then applies for refugee status because of the history of her country, the U.S. government has determined to have individual deportation hearings for those coming from Central America. So she has her deportation hearing this January, 2016. She now has another reason to stay here. She has married a U.S. citizen, after a 4 month courtship, she married a wonderful young man from California. Now for those who might think this was an arranged marriage, or that it was done for her to get her papers, let me tell you that my parents met and married in six weeks time (and not because they had to). Both families said it would never last, my Dad was 26, my Mom was 18, even people at their church said it was a mistake, but they were married for 52 years when my Dad passed away 7 years ago; So a 4 month courtship is not too short in my book. So why do I tell this story that has not ended yet? Because Stephanie is someone I met at lunch one day after a Sunday Mass, when my oldest son brought her to meet us. Yes, that nice young man from California is my oldest son. They married in Las Vegas (her passport being a valid identification for licensing purposes) and we are looking at the Blessing in the Catholic Church this December.

More on how they met and how they built their relationship in my next blog.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Another view of our current Immigration "problem"

My friends who know me, know that for the last 31 years, I have been in a relationship with a wonderful and beautiful woman from Mexico. Two years of dating and 29 years of Holy Matrimony (this November 29, 2015 if God wills). In my life with Martha, and her family, I have learned many things about Mexican Culture, Mexican Mindset, and Mexican Values. This I know, that you cannot pigeonhole Mexicans with a stereotype, anymore than you can pigeonhole a citizen of the United States with a stereotype.

One of the issues that I have become involved in, is that of Immigration. This is for a myriad of reasons, but the most important reason is that of human dignity. In my experience, study, and ministry, I have come to learn to see the immigrant, the stranger, the other, as myself. The immigrant is not that "illegal" Mexican that is a "child rapist", as some like Donald Trump would assert, we had a problem with molestation long before we had a problem with immigration. That problem comes from a bad heart, no matter who does it.

My heart, my love for those who come to this country to seek a better life comes from an experience of walking with these folks, hearing their stories, sharing their fears and tears. Yes, I believe we need Immigration Reform, we have needed it for many years, but we also need another kind of reform, that of reform of the heart, which can only come about through an encounter outside of ourselves. That encounter being an encounter with the Living Lord, who alone has the ability and the desire to change the hearts of all people.

But there are those who come to this country, not to seek a better life, per se, but because the life they have in their country is no longer a viable option to pursue. When a country becomes so corrupt, so violent, so overrun with gangs and government troops that extort the people (many times you cannot tell the difference between the troops and the gangs), the people have no other option but to leave everything and seek refuge in a safer country. This is what has been happening for the last few years in Central America. The U.S.A. has abandoned the C.A. countries after years of trying to support "democratic" governments, most of them being nothing more than military juntas. I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the assassinations of various priests and religious in various countries of central America, most notably the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria and the martyrs of the University of Central America. Killed by ammunition, guns manufactured in, and troops trained by the United States. Not to mention my personal experience of knowing a Franciscan Priest who was attacked in Guatemala (his Bishop was killed in the attack), who came to the US to work (he lived and worked at my parish), who went to Tijuana to have a doctor remove the last bullet from his stomach, and upon return to the U.S. was denied entry because his Visa had expired (an oversight). He had to return to Guatemala to renew his Visa, and the government completed what they had started to do years before and gave Father Francisco Cisneros a bullet to the head.

I share this, because again, God has caused my path to cross with one who is a refugee from El Salvador. A young woman of 21, she carries herself with a wisdom and strength beyond those years. She tells me her story of a 6+ week trip through Guatemala and Mexico in order to arrive in the U.S. (this because her visa application was turned down twice, even though she had proof her life was in danger). Her strength and resilience shines through her beautiful smile. She knows that despite the dangers that were on the road to get here, it was worth it. She has a hearing before a judge in January 2016, but it doesn't mean she is on the government dole. She has family here, and her family back home sends what they can to assist her in her expenses (she is not a drain on taxpayers....). This, in a way was a reason she fled, her family was being extorted because of their "success" and she was in danger of either kidnapping, rape, torture, or death.

She has given me a clearer vision that my work in advocacy for immigrants rights is the right thing to do. Why do we always blame the "other" for our own problems? An undocumented immigrant, who had been deported many times, ends up killing a woman on a San Francisco pier. A tragedy indeed, one that should not have happened. The man was a repeat felon and should have still been in prison, but many take that tragedy and project it on all undocumented people. That is not fair. Where is the outcry when violence takes the life of so many Americans in the suburbs of Chicago, D.C., Baltimore, etc. by other Americans? We are a xenophobic nation to be sure.

All I ask, is for US to open our eyes to see the reality of the world we live in, and in many respects shaped this world to be like it is. To open our minds to understand that we are a great force in this world and with great power comes great responsibility (thanks Uncle Ben Parker). And to open our hearts to those who come to our country for refuge from the storms in their own countries (storms that we had a major hand in creating). Is that too much to ask for?