header icons

Who Are These Terrible Immigrants?

It was mind boggling. We were sitting in this beautiful dining room
 meeting one gracious woman after another, all bright blue-eyed and all
 asking about our work.

Sister Loyola Hegerty, former Mother Superior, made a point of
 introducing us to all these Sisters of Charity and bragging on us, how
 we have served thousands of immigrants over the years.

We in turn bragged on Sr. Loyola and the Sisters of Charity, who helped
 us make a great start fifteen years ago by paying off the property of
 our present women’s center and later helped with many others to
 construct the fireproof building we now have. The ability to help so
 many so soon was possible through this generosity. The bragging on each other stopped. There was a silence.

Then, solemnly, as if before a judge and jury, Sister Loyola said that
 she had something to say. She proclaimed solemnly: “I am an

Our mouths dropped open. It was the aura that surrounded Damien the
 Leper, who upon discovery that he had contacted leprosy from the lepers, announced, “My fellow lepers.”

We gasped: Sister Loyola is an immigrant! Much worse, all those
 beautiful people we met were immigrants. This convent is another Casa
 Juan Diego!

Fifty-four percent of Americans, according to Newsweek (April 8 ) feel 
that immigrants have done harm to their communities and forty three
 percent fear immigrants and see them as criminals.

What crime have these Sisters committed?

– opening the San José clinic decades ago to serve poor immigrants and
 continuing to serve those who pay on a sliding scale according to 

– opening hospitals, sixteen of them, in the Southwest to serve the

– teaching in Catholic schools of the poor.

– going to still other countries to serve the poor in Africa, in

We asked Sister Loyola if immigration came to the convent to check on
 them or to their clinic and hospitals?

Or if the police came busting into the convent as they do at Casa Juan
 Diego with guns drawn looking for criminals?

Sister Loyola said they hadn’t come yet, but if xenophobia (fear of
 foreigners) continues, they probably will–“but we’ll be ready for 
them,” she added.

Other “Criminals”

Juan is another one of those criminals like the Sisters. His boss has
 not paid him in over a month–i.e., not a penny for six weeks, which
 means no funds for rent, food, utilities. His boss did promise–as he 
talked to Juan from his beautiful, expensive home in Sugarland, that he
 would pay him someday.

Two of Juan’s friends have not been paid, either. Someone is ahead
$10,000 or so. The boss could vacation in Acapulco or Cancún for quite
 awhile on this amount. The boss thinks this would make up for his
 robbing the men. If they have Mexican relatives who work in these 
vacation spots, this would make up for his not paying them. After all,
 Mexicans are still getting the money.

Robbing men of their pay is a common occurrence among a percentage of
 workers at Casa Juan Diego and at other locations. Millions of dollars 
are gained by Americans in this way–quite a contribution to the
 economy. Maybe this is reason enough for turning a blind eye with
 respect to immigration. It pays.

One wonders how many houses have been built, how many new roofs put on, how many ditches dug, how many houses painted by these “volunteers.”

Juan, although unpaid, didn’t suffer as badly as Gonzalo, who, when he
 demanded his pay, was beaten to a bloody pulp because he didn’t know his place.

Rita the Thief

Rita, like all the immigrants, wants to work, to get any kind of work. 
An American couple asked her to work with the children and offered to
 pay her $100 per week.

She was happy to have work and have money to send to her mother, who was caring for her children. Her husband was deceased and her family was really poor.

The hitch in this job was that the husband stayed home some days and
 insisted on having sex with Rita. She was uncomfortable with his offers 
and refused. “We may be poor wetbacks,” she said, “but we are decent.”
 She threatened to tell the spouse, but the husband was relentless. Rita
 told the spouse and was fired for being a thief. No proofs given. Rita
 found refuge at Casa Juan Diego.

Rosa the Prostitute and her Friend

Rosa fared no better than Rita. She was hired by a woman who was
 fronting for a divorced man who had two little girls. She was told the 
job was with a married couple. She was to be a live-in babysitter,
 since the couple worked different shifts in their jobs.

The hitch was that it was not a couple, but a single man who actually
 employed her. When it was time to go to bed, the man said that she
 would have to sleep with him, since there was only one bed. She
 refused. She was fired by the man, who accused her of being a

Rosa’s friend, a live-in maid, didn’t have a bed, either. She slept in
 the bedroom of the baby so she could care for her. There was a crib,
 but no bed for Rosa. There was carpet, however.

Mario the Crook

Mario does not fit the image of the other “criminals.” He is 14 years
 old, but looks older. He is light-skinned, dresses nicely and is, to
 say the least, handsome with his wiry hair. He is young, but most young
 men his age in Guatemala are expected to work.

Like most immigrants, he is dying to work, so goes to the street corners
 in the neighborhood.

However, Mario cannot find work, as he keeps getting accosted by older
 men wanting to pay him for sex, even waving money at him. They offer
 sandwiches or used clothing or offer to help him take a shower. When he refuses, they call him a crook and lazy. Others in the neighborhood
 keep trying to line up a place for him to live with an older man.

Mario is upset. He wants to work for money, not sex, and even the
 thought of making money this way drives him crazy. But it is so
 difficult when your family is hungry.

The older men don’t feel that they are breaking the law by employing
 “illegal aliens” for sex.

We have talked to these perpetrators. One of them said openly that he
 only hires (for sex) teenagers over 18 and added, “I’ve checked with my
 lawyer and the police and they tell me there is no problem. I’m
 Catholic, you know.” We suggested that they try other areas where they
 may find adults, since prostitution is not good for teenagers.

Pedro the Fake

Pedro’s hand was swollen out of all proportion and looked more like a 
melon than a hand. Pedro was in great pain and burning up with fever.
 He had been injured on the job, he said. His boss dropped him off at
 Casa Juan Diego.

When we asked Pedro’s boss why he didn’t get medical help for him, he
 said there wasn’t anything wrong with him. “Pedro is a fake and doesn’t
 want to work. He is not getting my money!” The boss refused to pay him 
for two weeks of work that was due. Pedro sought assistance at Casa
 Juan Diego. The doctors at Ben Taub told us that he just about lost his 

Isabel and her Enterprise

Isabel, a new immigrant, had been sold to an enterprise that specialized in providing prostitutes for businesses. She was told that if she worked hard, she could buy her way out.

Originally, the people told her she was to work as a secretary.
 Unfortunately, Isabel was very pregnant, so the enterprise decided to
 spend some money on their commodity for the first time. They took her 
to an abortion clinic, where an abortion would be performed on her child of six months. Isabel was very upset. She had many reasons to be.

Someone in front of the abortion clinic asked why she was crying. She
 explained the enterprise and asked help in escaping. The people in
 front of the clinic arranged the escape of both.

Immigrant women are vulnerable target for exploitation–a way of
 increasing capital.

Marta the Wetback

Marta married a citizen from the United States. They were “well
 married” both in church and civil court. Her cousin was a priest. 
Her husband Julio, an American, wanted a humble woman, and for this
 reason he went to Mexico to look for a wife.

Marta came to the States. She tried to be humble, but Julio was
 dissatisfied and no amount of humility would satisfy him. He beat her 
up constantly. “What was she doing wrong?”

Julio kept saying he was going to call Immigration on her, since she was
 illegal, but he never used the word illegal undocumented. The only 
words he used were “dumb wetback.” He told her, “You wetbacks are all the same. You don’t appreciate anything. I am going to have the Migra (Immigration) come and deport you if you don’t behave.”

The “Migra” didn’t come, but what did come were awful blows and kicks in the face. (It would have been better if Immigration or the police did come.)

Marta came to Casa Juan Diego. Her face was a mass of black and blue
 and her jaw was broken.

Crucifixion I

The immigrants experience crucifixion, first on their journey to the
 United States when they are robbed or raped in various countries in
 which they pass through and during which they spend days without eating, many hours without drinking water, exposure to all kinds of insects and mosquitoes, wild animals and snakes. Some never arrive, but are killed or drown on the way.

The crucifixion is a crucifixion of a people caught between dying of
 poverty in their own countries or dying trying to get here or being 
treated in about the same way that mules are treated once arrived. Once
 here immigrants cannot be treated like a pound of flesh. They are not

Of course it would be better to stay home, but one cannot expect people 
to live a life of destitution without enough to feed their children or
 send them to school. With the new global economy, with the
 multinational companies taking advantage of cheap labor in their
 countries, people cannot earn enough to simply live. And with the
 requirements of the World Bank for readjusting their economies, Third
 World countries have had to redirect all agriculture for export and cut
 social and educational services. Many are forced to emigrate.

And then when they arrive in the U.S. they are often victims of 
exploitation with experiences similar to those true stories recounted 
above. And then they can even feel the hatred some people here have for 
them. They ask us why do these people hate them so much?

Crucifixion II: Is our Work Easy?

Please don’t thank us for our help. We don’t want to romanticize our
 work with the poor. Our work is not lovey dovey in the least. We’re no
 Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa. It is very hard.

People sometimes praise us for perseverance in our work after sixteen
 years of giving hospitality, but it is often more like a crucifixion
 also for us and our fellow Catholic Workers, who give their lives to the
 service of the poor.

The vast majority of our guests are a joy. But there are a few who have
 been through too much or who have learned to manipulate and hate others in order to survive.

Our guests, immigrants, battered Spanish-speaking women, pregnant women, homeless immigrant women with children, injured men, are just like any other people in their responses. People respond to our generosity (and to being dependent, totally dependent) by either resentment or gratitude. Many only stay a few days and are able to get on their feet.

Others may have to stay a long time, especially women and children or
 injured men. Battered or pregnant women with several small children 
need more time to make a life for themselves. Guests may become 
dependent and over-dependency is not healthy.

Sometimes the reality of being dependent for a lengthy period of time 
triggers an incredible hostile reaction and rage.

A few guests who have had many failures in their lives or problem
 relationships with their parents place their frustrations or anger at 
life on those with whom they find hospitality.

The broken person cries out, sometimes in rage: “Heal me! Fix my
 problems!” (or worse)

And we Catholic Workers can help, but we are not God and we cannot solve all the problems. We sometimes lose patience with quarrels among guests and undisciplined, difficult children, or intoxicated, threatening men. Other guests do not meet all the expectations of some other guests, to put it mildly, and conflicts begin.

When people arrive at Casa Juan Diego they are ecstatic with delight and gratitude in finding an oasis of peace and protection and cannot thank
 us enough.

They would kiss our hands if we allowed it and call us Don and Doña if
 we permitted it. But for those who cannot handle dependency this
 changes quickly and they see us as the enemy within a short time.

Some guests call powerful people to report us. We regret that whatever
 powers that be that they have been able to find have never offered to
 house them.

We can see why Catholic Workers who serve white people soon abandon hospitality all together and refer to their early experience with
 housing as their “shelter” phase. They want hospitality behind
 them–way behind them.

A little better alternative is to hand-pick the people you accept in
 hospitality and limit it to only a few people. Small is beautiful if
 you don’t like hospitality. You have to be a nut to receive 100 or 200
in various houses each night–and that’s what we are, fools for Christ.

We can understand why it is almost impossible to get new people into the two major shelters for families in Houston (besides the great need) and why the Houston Area Women’s Center wants to focus on counseling rather than on housing, even though there is a serious shortage of places for battered women in Houston itself. We are sure they get tired of
 “shelter rage.”

The temptation is to avoid hospitality rage at any cost. Taking chance
 on this rage occurring is not worth it. After all, one does not want to
 be a masochist.

This work brings us to our knees. It seems that the Lord wants us to be
 broken like our guests, to realize that the seed and the Spirit bloom
 only in ploughed and cultivated, broken soil, not in the hard, smooth

It’s not easy. Only faith can underwrite this work day after day, night
 after night, year after year with no future except today’s challenges. 
We don’t have much of a choice, either: go to our knees or collapse. We
 believe or we die.

Pious Bull

People have a little trouble with us after all these years of being at
 the Catholic Worker. They say: “You used to be nice liberals, talking
 about politics, books, movies and good wine. Now you have become so
 darn pious, talking about carrying the cross and the crucifixion and
 all that old pious stuff. Give us a break!”

Over the years we have served various cultures and ethnic groups in the
 United States. Our experiences with all of these cultures have
 confirmed what Dorothy Day quoted so often from Dostoevsky in The 
Brothers Karamazov. In the story, a woman wants Fr. Zossima to tell her how she can have proof and be convinced of immortality.

William Miller tells us in his book about the Catholic Worker movement, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, that when the woman stated that she had to have gratitude as a repayment of the love she gave, Father Zossima responds with the Catholic Worker’s radical answer.

To the woman’s final demand of how she can have some proof of 
immortality, the monk replies: “By the experience of active love. In as 
far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and
 of the immortality of your soul.”

And what was meant by “active love,” the woman asked. She loved
 humanity. Often she dreamed of a life of service to the unfortunate
 that filled her with warmth. She could nurse the afflicted; she would
 be ready to kiss their wounds. But sometimes she wondered how she would react if she were not repaid in gratitude for her service. What if the person “began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)–what then?” She could not bear ingratitude. “I expect my payment at once–that is praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.”

Father Zossima answered in words that Dorothy Day has many times
 repeated: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to
 love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly
 performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if
 only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking
 and applauding as though on the stage. Active love is labour and
 fortitude, and for some people, too, perhaps a complete science. But I
 predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your
 efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to
it–at that very moment you will reach and behold clearly the miraculous
 power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously
 guiding you.”

For Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and many others who have lived in the
 spirit of the Catholic Worker, the first mark of their desire to redeem 
the universe has been to live at the “harsh and dreadful” front of 
active love. In the early period of the movement, Dorothy Day wrote in
 the Catholic Worker an editorial on love, and much of it was based on
 the reflections of Dostoevsky’s monk. ‘Hell is Not to Love Any More’
 was the editorial’s title. It was a statement of the Worker’s faith in 
love as the ultimate reality: “When one loves, there is at that time a
 correlation between the spiritual and the material. Even the flesh 
itself is energized , the human spirit is made strong. All sacrifice,
 all suffering is easy for the sake of love. This is the foundation
 stone of The Catholic Worker movement. It is on this that we build.”

Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than fear and frustration 
and we must love our enemies or even those who tell the world we are 
terrible people. In Catholic Worker houses one must be prepared to live 
the folly of the Cross.

In Matthew 25 Our Lord asks us to care for him in the least ones.

The new immigrants are the least ones of today. They are ignored or 
despised by many Christians. We at Casa Juan Diego cannot abandon the most broken ones because a few of them respond in frustration and anger. We share in their crucifixion and hope in the Resurrection.

As Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger recently reminded us in the National
 Catholic Register:

“The victory of the Risen One is a victory we carry in our hearts, as
 John writes (I Jn 5,4): ‘The victory that conquers the world is our 

And this is the proof we’re looking for. (In our work) we are tempted
 to consider death victorious rather than believe in the Resurrection.
 But the disciple who lets himself or herself be taken over by the power
 of the Risen One will henceforth no longer fear unhappiness and will be
 able to face all the threats of the world.

Why? Because from the tomb, Christ has emerged as conqueror of death
 and evil. He loves us–God our creator and redeemer–He who has sent us His son so that He would be our brother and our Savior. We have a part in His death and resurrection.

By the power of the Spirit, along with the entire Church, we are plunged
 into the joy of the Risen Lord, who invites us to follow Him into a life
 without end.”

Amen. Pray for us.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 3, May-June 1996.