For most of her life, Karla did not know that she was an undocumented resident of the United States of America. She grew up in a densely populated neighborhood in South Philadelphia. She went to high school and got a job as a waitress in her teenage years. Her parents worked hard, sent money to relatives in Mexico, and were active members in a local church. When it was time to think about college, Karla learned that she was not eligible for federally subsidized student loans because she was not a citizen. Depression swiftly set in. Her dreams of studying, travel, and a vibrant life were dashed.
In the forthcoming edition of America, author David Golemboski outlines many of the issues currently affecting Latin American countries and reasons why families like Karla’s choose to immigrate to the United States. He describes a protest over working conditions in a General Motors plant in Colombia that has received attention from human rights organizations. Yet, he notes that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—typically vocal on immigration and workers rights issues— has not released a public statement supporting the factory workers.
Golemboski argues that Americans (and American Catholics) no longer consider our neighbors to the south to be in harm’s way, despite the very real incidence of political instability and violence they face, along with the negative impact of inequitable trade agreements. Those who flee to escape these pervasive problems may find themselves like Karla did, at home in a new country at the age of seven, safe, but prevented from thriving once they reach adulthood.
Congress abandoned a national immigration reform plan in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Absent their leadership, President Obama issued an Executive Order in August called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to assist young adults who were brought to this country as children and have proven themselves to be contributing members of society. A Pennsylvania based immigration advocacy group calls DACA, “a promising program which will finally allow many young hard working immigrants to finally step out of the shadows and stop fearing deportation. Many will be able to continue their studies and hard work in the United States, the only home that most of them know.”
Karla Roja became one of the first people in Philadelphia to benefit from the president’s initiative. She was granted a two-year reprieve from deportation and can now get a job on the books. Her status can potentially be renewed. Her story was covered in the local paper and she was featured on MSNBC in November. This week, Karla spoke about her experience with a group of twenty college students visiting Philadelphia for a service trip celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of freedom and justice.
The discussion eventually turned from her own personal narrative to the broader implications for countries on both sides of the border when young people lack viable access to education and employment. Karla explained that she is involved in a local group that is headed to Washington, DC to advocate for more systemic reforms to immigration policy. She encouraged those with legal status to join her in solidarity. The backdrop for her talk was a parish-based center that facilitates service immersion experiences in a multi-cultural, urban setting, thus bringing a challenge like Golemboski’s to the fore. As he concluded, “…people of faith in the United States need not wait for a pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops to take action.”