The Human Face of Immigration Reform

The United States needs comprehensive immigration reform. We need it now. There is a twelve-year-old girl on a crumbling stoop in inner city Philadelphia who can tell you why.

She is a U.S. citizen, but is currently experiencing the trauma and pain of having a mother who is not. Clutching a bag of food from the church pantry, Maria* climbs the last step to her home and gives me a quick wave before she darts into the battered entryway. The door shuts with a creak and I’m left standing alone on the sidewalk in a soft spring rain.

As I’ve written before, my job consistently puts me front and center to observe vignettes that are right out of the Gospels: If a man asks for bread, do you give him a stone? If he asks for your cloak, give him your shirt too. Is there room at the inn? However, I don’t often feel equipped to respond to these situations.  I’m not a trained social worker or a pastoral associate. My very large parish has several of each, and so the requests for food, shelter, and clothing often land with them. I usually observe the exchange or hear about it over dinner at the rectory. I’m proud to be part of a team that does good work, but I provide support in different ways.

I have spent ten years working in and around the context of asylum, migration, and immigration, including the undocumented. On this particular day though, I was pulled into Maria’s story, and the abstract nature of legislation and regulation faded away.

The transformation commenced when I was typing away on a grant application at my desk. I heard a soft knock on the office door and one of our priests walked in to ask for the phone number of the law fellow who runs our legal clinic at the center. This is what I do well, connecting the dots and coordinating programs. I gave it to him and went back to crafting the perfect sentence that will persuade someone to give us the dollars we need for things like the legal clinic.

A good twenty minutes later I went to the kitchen to fetch my lunch. I came across the priest sitting in the center’s dining room with a woman and girl. They were involved in a heated discussion taking place in Spanish, English, and sign language. The mother appeared to be exhausted. The daughter was animated. The gist of the conversation was that the single mom and her two daughters were evicted illegally and were trying to get legal assistance at our clinic.  Unfortunately, due to the rain and a long walk, and perhaps a communication gap, they were two hours late for their appointment and missed the lawyers entirely.

I mustered what little Spanish I could and offered hospitality in the form of a plate of cookies, coffee, and water. Then I went back to my desk. I should have known that wouldn’t be the end of it. I heard a small voice asking, “¿Puedo tener un bolso?” The cookies went into the bag and then into the mother’s purse, prompting a conversation about food. Not only were they illegally evicted, but they had also been forced out of the apartment in the middle of the night and were not allowed to take any belongings with them.

I pulled two loaves of bread out of the center’s freezer, left behind by a recent service learning group, and we all trooped over to the rectory where we loaded up two more bags of non-perishables. The mother was intent on matching up ingredients for a meal, asking if a can of tomato sauce would go with the pasta. The priest left the room to try to call the lawyers again and I was left with the mother and daughter.

That’s when Maria asked me softly if we had any clothes.  No food, no clothes, and temporary shelter at a non-Spanish speaking neighbor’s. Clearly embarrassed, she ducked her head after making the request.  I took down the sizes from the daughter, but we were interrupted by a loud cry from the mother who demanded to see what I had written. She insisted in a combination of Spanish and sign language that her young daughter was sprouting like a tree and should really have a larger size than what the daughter herself had told me. This was a turning point for Maria. She curled her small but gangly frame into a large, ornate chair and shared more of their story.

Her mother is from Honduras. Maria and her seven year old sister were born in the U.S. The mother is deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the second with a handful of other ailments. In the last few weeks, they got behind on the rent. When the landlord threatened eviction, they scrounged, begged, and borrowed and came up with the balance. He said the debt was paid. Then followed the middle of the night intrusion and subsequent removal from the apartment. It seems that the mother’s undocumented status was used as a threat. Exit the apartment or face deportation?

Everything about the eviction was illegal. Papers or no papers, tenant rights in Philadelphia are very clear: “It is illegal for a landlord to lock out a tenant without a Sheriff or Landlord-Tenant officer. The landlord may not evict any tenant unless they have followed the legal process and obtained a Writ of Possession and/or an Alias Writ of Possession. It is also illegal for any landlord to try to evict tenants by force, by turning off their utilities, by removing their possessions, by boarding up their doors or windows, or by any other means designed to force the tenant to vacate their home, unless the legal eviction process has been followed.”

I cringed as I watched the beleaguered twelve-year-old translate for her mother as the priest, in the absence of the lawyers, reviewed each of the above terms with the two. “Did you go to court?” “When were the locks changed?” “Do you have the lease for the apartment with you?” As a child, I overheard many an argument by my parents regarding finances, but I was never emotionally invested as the interpreter. I never once had to carry the burden of clarity or precision that this young girl was doing right now. I never bore the weight of legal or financial or medical communication. Maria has three times the responsibility that I did growing up. In addition to being the first born, she is able bodied, bilingual, and a citizen in a family with illness, limited communication, and no papers.

At the same time, she also has the freedom and opportunity that her mother so desperately wanted for her children when deciding to immigrate to the United States. Yet, I’d like to believe that the American Dream isn’t only for those who survive displacement, oppression, and abandonment. I’d like to believe that initiative, hard work, and persistence matter more.

As I drove the two back to the apartment where they were staying with a neighbor, Maria told me proudly that she would be going to school on Monday anyway, even though it would now be a longer walk. She then asked me a series of precocious questions, including “Is this your own car?” and “How does the green arrow know where to go?” in relation to the turn signal. A conversation about how cars work ensued.

Maria and her family have a very long road ahead.

I don’t know what will happen with their apartment, if they will ever see their belongings again. I don’t know if a daughter ever fully heals from taking care of her mother in the way that Maria has had to do over the years. I do think that, armed with the curiosity and determination she demonstrated on Saturday, Maria will survive and even thrive.

Last month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced that the time was right for immigration reform. The result must be humane. It must be compassionate. It must shine a light into the shadows and dispel the fear that this family knows too well.

*Name changed to protect privacy