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Hundreds of Immigrants Arrive at Casa Juan Diego from the INS

On the first day of Christmas (Operation Overwhelm), the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent 44 guests from Honduras to Casa Juan Diego.

On the second day of Christmas (O.O.), the INS sent 47 guests from Guatemala.

On the third day of Christmas (0.0.), Immigration sent 67 Central Americans from various countries.

On the fourth day Christmas (0.0.), Immigration sent 91 from various countries.

On the fifth day of Christmas (0.0.), Days’ Inn allowed us to pick up 100 mattresses.

On the sixth day of Christmas not much happened.

On the seventh day of Christmas (0.0.), we stopped counting, but fortunately the last group arrived in the midst of an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) group from a local parish. RCIA is the arm of the parish that instructs people who want to be Catholic.

The RCIA group came to Casa Juan Diego to learn why we as Catholics are doing this work.

You can imagine the surprise on the face of these Catholic candidates when they discovered that part of being Catholic meant taking immigrants into your home. We prayed that none of them abandon their Catholic quest because of our reckless hospitality.

The twelve days of Christmas continued, with several guests arriving each day from Immigration along with others from Mexico-20 one day and 50 on another.

We write this on January 6, the real twelfth day of Christmas, when Latin Americans celebrate Christmas and our guests insist that we do also.

The three wise men did not come from the East, but 39 immigrants came from the South. Thirty-nine Jesus’s in the poor arrived from Laredo Immigration. More would come if we could figure how to get them to Houston. Letters began arriving at Casa Juan Diego from others among the several hundred in detention in Laredo begging us to send bus tickets for them so that they could be released.

San Antonio Immmigration called today also to tell us that they had 200 immigrants to send. We called the Diocese of San Antonio for assistance, but didn’t seem to get far until Bishop Fiorenza called to explain the situation and ask their help. Then San Antonio Catholic Charities began helping to put people on buses to come to Houston. Auxiliary Bishop Tamayo lent us his name to find assistance in Laredo where he was a pastor prior to coming to Houston. Catholic Charities in Laredo were delighted to cooperate and put immigrants on the bus to come to Houston. Some were also sent from the Valley, from San Benito.

We were at the bus station picking people up at 5:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m. and at all hours.

How Did all of this Come About?

Why was Immigration releasing all of these people? After protests from the Central American consulates, President Clinton’s White House had decided that it was improper to deport people back to Central America after the tremendous destruction of Hurricane Mitch.

After eighteen years, official Immigraton called unofficial immigration (Casa Juan Diego) with a Christmas present.

Would we accept 400 immigrants who were imprisoned in Texas jails? None of these prisoners had ever commmitted even the slightest offense, their only crime being born on the wrong side of the Rio Grande.

Said Yes

Because immigrants could not be released unless they had a place to receive them, we gave our Fiat-our yes– and received a slight hint of what Mother Mary said when she said yes. Being readers of Hans Urs von Balthasar made our fiat a lot easier. Chapter 25 of St. Matthew made it easier also, where Jesus says: When you serve the poor, I am born in your midst.

Houston Immigration was a model of efficiency, courtesy and cooperation in the process of releasing people to us day by day, and kept us informed minute by minute of all the details. They even transported people to Casa Juan Diego. One courteous INS employee would have liked a tour, but we reminded him that it would make our other guests too nervous. Some deportation officers said they wouldn’t enter the property because it was a sanctuary. It was hard to believe these immigration employes were imprisoning people.

Greyhound Says No

Our immediate response to over-crowding in our men’s house was to send people on Greyhound wherever they wanted to go. We had purchsed literally tens of thousands of dollars worth of tickets over the years at Greyhound with our checks to help immigrants.

But Greyhound said, No, to our checks. They said Telecheck wouldn’t allow it. We called Telecheck, very angrily. They responded, “Yes, your account is good. There is no reason why your checks would not be good.” But Greyhound still said No.

Our new Catholic Workers, David Fiore and Scott Possley were not daunted by a Greyhound “No.” They whipped out their credit cards and purchased several thousand dollars worth of tickets to send immigrants to their families.

Immigrants as Catholic Workers

Fortunately, the men’s house is managed by fourteen immigrants who are Catholic Workers–i.e., men who work without wages to serve Christ in the poor immigrant. Each one of them is in charge of a bedroom where three to four new immigrants stay. One of them takes responsibility for the cooking each day and one is in charge of the door and the phone. These men are free to work on other days and send money to their families.

Not too long ago, we were breakfasting with a prominent history professor and mentioned that immigrants were Catholic Workers and practice voluntary poverty. He almost choked on his blueberry muffin and then giggled in ridicule at the idea of asking the poor to be poor voluntarily to serve their immigrant brothers and sisters. He had momentarily forgotten that the only difference between “us” and “them” is the accident of birth.

This team at the men’s house responded immediately to the arrival of so many, adding more and more rice, beans and turkey from Thanksgiving and Christmas donations to the cooking pots, and helping us to make sure each man had a bed, even it if was a mattress on the floor.

We felt like we were in the midst of a whirlwind. In spite of all the activity we and some of the other Catholic Workers took time to listen to the people’s stories. The guests (including some women) who had come after Hurricane Mitch, had powerfully moving stories to tell.

We were glad to hear that the U.S. government is allowing Hondurans and Nicaraguans to apply for temporary permission to work so that they can send money to their hurricane-ravaged countries. Unfortunately, only those who arrived before December 30 may apply. The journey from Central America takes so long that many of those who lost all family members, homes and all worldly possessions will arrive after that date and have no possibility of any legal status.

Pray for us that we may continue to open wide our doors at Casa Juan Diego.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 1, January-February 1999.