header icons

Immigrant Mother Struggles to Reunite with Her Children

                     by L. V. Diaz

It seems like we are living in the book of Job lately. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires; suffering and loss of almost every kind throughout the continent. In response to these tragic events, our community has been sorely tested on our call to hold as sacred the life and dignity of the human person, to serve first the poor and vulnerable, and to act in solidarity as one human family.

In a great blessing, while we had some damage to our roofs from Hurricane Harvey, none of the Casa Juan Diego houses flooded. But the areas around us were hit hard. Grocery stores were sold out long before the rains stopped, so we were scrambling to find food and supplies to distribute to the community. As predicted, as soon as roads were passable, people started coming to Casa Juan Diego, and for weeks afterwards they came in larger and larger numbers. The need was unprecedented. Homes damaged or destroyed, workers unable to get to their jobs, families evicted from their apartments, people unable to pay the rent or buy food – the needs of the community were far beyond our ability to meet.

As we have done so many times before, in our hour of need we turned to our beloved community for help. Our loyal supporters called and dropped by, just to see what they could do for others. People we had never seen before stepped up to get us what the people we serve needed. Diapers, food, shoes, blankets, etc. went out the door as quickly as they came in.

These generous gifts of time and treasure were essential and heartwarming, and came at a critical time. The assault on those we serve was not just the rising water, it was, and is, a rising tide of anti-immigrant hostility. It was only a week after Hurricane Harvey hit that President Trump moved to end DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was providing work permits and protection from deportation for DREAMers, young adults without documents brought here as children by their parents. It seemed the final insult, the clearest manifestation of cruelty, to threaten to deport the best among us, young people who had done absolutely nothing wrong, and have, in fact, done everything we asked them to do.

These back-to-back traumas, on top of the anti-immigrant tide, have taken a toll on those we see at Casa Juan Diego. Never have I seen such insecurity and fear, and conversely, never have I seen such an outpouring of support and solidarity from our larger community. Every donation at the door, every request to volunteer, every email of support is a reassurance that we are not alone and that our community of refugees and asylum seekers, our DREAMers with their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, are also not alone. Many times, in the first few weeks after Hurricane Harvey, I cried tears of joy and exhaustion in response to the near constant flow of love and concern and solidarity from our parish communities for all the Samaritans among us.

In addition to this much-needed support and solidarity, the other thing that keeps us going is that miracles happen, large and small. One of these miracles, and one that is still in progress involves Sofia and her children, the family that I have worked with the longest at Casa Juan Diego. Sofia initially came for shelter and hospitality before my time, fleeing a violent husband and father of her children. She stayed with us a while as the court found her husband guilty and then imprisoned (and later deported) him. A few years later, in late 2011, Sofia returned all alone – Child Protective Services had removed her children. She was a broken woman. She did not understand what had happened or what to do. All she knew was that the children were removed and she could not see or talk to them. The Catholic Workers who had worked with her in the past remembered her as a loving and caring mother, strongly bonded to her children. Without them, she was totally lost.

For the next year, we tried as hard as we could to reunite this family. We failed in our efforts to convince Child Protective Services that Sofia, with our support was perfectly capable of parenting her children. The bureaucracy was unyielding. The progress she had made did not matter. There was to be no second chance. She would never see her children again.

Sofia had been diagnosed at the time of the CPS termination of parental rights process with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, and somehow kept on going in a kind of daze. As she moved in and out of one crisis or another over the years that followed, we stayed with her. I cannot emphasize enough how important the Church’s teaching to hold sacred the dignity of the human person was in keeping her alive and moving forward. She had to be ready when her children would need her in the future. We all clung to the hope that this could occur.

We consulted lawyers of course, but they held out little hope. What she needed was not an attorney, but a miracle. And earlier this year, we received just that. Our miracle arrived at Casa Juan Diego via certified mail.

Due to a mistake that no one could explain, we were mailed a court hearing notice for one of the children, her youngest daughter. There was no reason for Sofia to be notified, since she had no standing, no right at all to any of her children, and was to be given no information at all about them. I contacted the county attorney immediately and pleaded our case over the phone. I must have sounded like a crazy person, but she heard me out and allowed me to come to court and speak to the judge directly. It helped greatly that Sofia had recently received her lawful permanent residency (green card) status; the fact that she had been here on only a temporary visa and the children were U.S. citizens had been held against her by Child Protective Services. After one more hearing, the Judge approved two hours of visitation a month.

Monica, a former Catholic Worker who helped Sofia survive her breast cancer surgery and treatment, took her to her first visit. Sofia could hardly stop sobbing; she had not seen or heard from her daughter in five years. In the photo that Monica sent me of the two of them together after all these years, Sofia was clearly overcome by emotion, and her daughter, now a beautiful teenager, was beaming.

I accompanied Sofia to the second visit. She brought presents for her daughter, including some makeup that she had asked for. I watched them in their miracle or reunification, communicating without words. Sitting close together, her daughter trying the mascara and lip gloss under her mother’s kind guidance and approval, saying very little in their own tiny world of the visitation room. Sofia told me later that she was simply gazing at how beautiful her daughter had become.

There is a long way to go before this family is reunited, of course. We need an appropriate apartment for Sofia so that the court can order a home study for longer visits, and then we can begin the process of a permanent reunification. After that, there are the other two children to locate. But a giant step has been taken, thanks to a notification that should never have been sent.

This good news reminds me of the Good News of the Gospel. I am comforted constantly at Casa Juan Diego by Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed; that the most beautiful thing, the Kingdom of Heaven, will come from the smallest of things. Even among those in great need and in great fear and sorrow, even when we are unkind or frustrated in the work, we continue planting our own tiny mustard seeds of service, solidarity, and affirmation, one guest at a time. The love and support of our greater community in these troubled times, and the miracle of Sofia are reminders that even when all seems lost and hopeless, our mustard seeds have taken root.

Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4.