header icons

“You Shall Not Wrong Any Widow or Orphan”: Seeking a Better Way Than Family Separation

by Brandon Curry, St. John’s College High School

One of our guests sat weeping in our office as she contemplated her future. Her husband was in immigration detention and the possibilities for his release were not good. Our Honduran guest (we will call her Suyapa), eight months pregnant, had been released while her husband was sent to further detention in Georgia. Their baby was born here a few days ago. We were very glad to receive her so she would not be homeless or in a detention center jail as she had her baby, but now Suyapa said, “I have nowhere to go. I am depending on my husband. Lawyers visit  where he is in detention, but they are very expensive and we have no money. I don’t know what will happen to me if he is deported. He might be released if we knew of a person who would promise to be his sponsor, take temporary practical and financial responsibility for him.” (Casa Juan Diego wrote a letter that we would receive him if he were released, but that was not accepted, as such a letter sometimes is.)

Suyapa‘s situation is all too common.

In the Bible, in the book of Exodus chapter 22, God pronounces judgment on our current immigration practices:

“You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.

“If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”

Official policy in the United States and in many other countries is doing the opposite of what the Lord asks so clearly in this passage. We are not helping widows and orphans. Instead, as we separate children from their parents and target husbands for deportation while receiving some pregnant mothers (thank the Lord we receive the mothers), governments are creating widows and orphans who may never see their husbands or fathers or mothers again.

According to press reports, government lawyers recently argued that it was not necessary to provide toothbrushes or soap or beds for detained unaccompanied children – that cement floors were quite good enough. These are de facto orphans being mistreated.

There are other ways to respond the cries of the poor. There are ways to address immigration without creating widows and orphans or oppressing the stranger in overcrowded, cruel, and dangerous  conditions.

Casa Juan Diego is receiving a steady stream of immigrant and refugee families and individuals, many from Honduras, but also from the Congo. Guatemalan families are appearing in many parts of Houston.

Forced Migration or Why Do People Come?

According to Msgr. Arturo Buñuelas of El Paso, “Human rights violations in the countries of origin are the cause of forced migration. It is essential that the human rights of immigrants are protected upon their arrival at our border, and it is also imperative that we focus on human rights violations as a cause and not just a consequence of migration.”

Msgr. Buñuelas told of his recent visit to Guatemala and what uproots the people: “We visited Guatemala last month and witnessed what is emblematic of all Central America: that is, life-threatening poverty; extreme hunger; lack of school teachers; scarcity of health care; relentless death threats; dreadful non-stop violence; victimization by organized crime; inadequate one room dirt floor houses for eight persons; displacement from land by corporations like the African Palm industry; shameful government corruption; servitude with undignified low wages and long working hours; repression; and painful trauma as the result of civil war. Basic human rights are not afforded the poor, so they are forced to leave simply to survive.”

Solidarity: Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo

Arturo Buñuelas relates salvation history as lived today to the plight of immigrants and refugees among us:  “For us, people of faith, the plight of immigrants is the point of departure for the manifestation and unfolding salvation plans of God among us today. The struggling immigrants, seeking a new life beyond their sufferings, call us to a special encounter of solidarity that goes beyond empathy and charity.

“My indigenous ancestors, in their wisdom, teach us the meaning of this encounter of solidarity. They say: Tu eres mi otro yo – you are my other self. We are all intimately interrelated, interdependent, and essentially a sacred part of each other. Tu eres mi otro yo binds us so closely together so that, if I hurt you, I hurt myself. If I am part of your light shining, mine shines all the brighter.” (From the 2019 Fr. Lydio F. Tomasi, C.S. Annual Lecture on International Migration – Border Spirituality).

Why  People Are Leaving Their Countries

Violence, threats of violence, and relentless poverty have overwhelmed many. The stories recounted to us of the realities from the Congo are difficult to hear, and the stories of the journey  almost as bad.

The numbers of Hondurans leaving their homes reflect their terrible reality.

During their Assembly in June of this year the Catholic Bishops of Honduras put out a statement on the current crisis situation. They spoke of the consequences of problems not only in health care and education (where massive protests against privatization have paralyzed the country), but “problems in the way the National Congress of Honduras legislates, problems of the decision of the Executive Branch, the crisis of State businesses, in the services of energy, water, transport, etc.” – warning of “consequences that can sink Honduras into a crisis that will be difficult to overcome.”

A brief look at not very distant history leads us to see the footprints of the United States in the countries of the northern triangle of Central America, source of so many desperate immigrants. Honduras is a dramatic example.

In 2016 a well-known indigenous Honduran environmental activist, Berta Cáceres, was gunned down in her hometown. Writing in the NCRin 2016 Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, declared that she was “just one of thousands of indigenous activists, peasant leaders, trade unionists, journalists, environmentalists, judges, opposition political candidates, human rights activists, and others murdered since a military coup ousted the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009.” Zunes noted that the United States, in this case, did not cause the coup, but neither did we support the president who had made some initial steps toward raising the minimum wage, providing nutritional assistance for young children, and assisting with education and transportation for the people. This apparently caused the wealthy and powerful, feeling threatened, to act to protect their interests. A general trained at the infamous School of the Americas in the United States, led the coup, removing the president physically. The United States  did not support the president’s return, as most of the international community did, but instead played a leadership role in supporting the junta that carried out the coup and their very questionable elections that gave power to the junta. Democracy lost.

As Zunes noted in his 2016 article, “In the subsequent six years, the horrific repression and skyrocketing murder rate—now the highest in the world—has resulted in tens of thousands of refugees fleeing for safety in the United States.”

The response of the U. S. government to this situation has been to demonize the “terrible,” desperate people leaving their country.

Forced to Wait Outside Our Borders For Asylum Claims

Those fleeing violence in their own country are protected by international law with the right to apply for asylum, but the U. S. policy requires them to Remain in Mexico while they wait months for an appointment to present their asylum claim in the United States.

Church, government, and humanitarian groups have housed and provided food for as many as they can on the Mexican side. Among families waiting there are refugees from violence in Africa, from conditions of hunger and coercion in Cuba, and the large numbers of Central Americans seeking a way to survive. The children have sometimes been traveling for a year or more through various countries. They are traumatized, have serious health problems, and may not have been to school for a year or two.

We address some of the health problems when refugees arrive at Casa Juan Diego before they become so serious that the children may not live. We provide food each week for families in Houston who do not live at Casa Juan Diego.

Tragic History of Separation of Families

Separation of families is not new in the history of immigration to the United States. We were quite surprised to hear some years ago from an Italian priest of the Scalabrini order who celebrated Mass for us that when Italian immigrants came to the U.S. many years ago, the men were separated from their families and sent to Brazil. According to our visiting priest, it was those Italian men in Brazil who wrote to Bishop Scalabrini in Italy and asked him to send priests to them there, and the Scalabrini order was founded.

We can do better now in our age and not continue to repeat the mistakes and sins of the past.

by Daniel Erlander

Income Equality and Scapegoating Immigrants

The average person hardly needs academics to remind him or her of the fact that “The richest 0.1% take in 188 times as much as the bottom 90% (Emmanuel Saez, UC Berkeley, Inequality.org). It is painfully obvious.

Those who do not belong to the 0.1% are often frustrated. Headlines blare that the economy is doing very well, that there is very low unemployment. If one only goes by measures like the GDP, it sounds as if that is all true. The economy has been doing well for the 0.1%, for CEO’s. But jobs do not pay enough for the workers and their families in this economy. The families are often on the edge of disaster, financially. Who should they blame?

Some blame immigrants and refugees for their difficult financial situation instead of the real culprits who engineer the economy and the tax code to ensure the inequality.

Various commentators trace the growth of populism/nationalism around the world through this stark inequality. Unfortunately politicians in various countries have encouraged people to find scapegoats for inequality in immigrants and refugees leaving the dangers and terrible inequities of the homelands to seek peace.

The papal ambassador to the U. S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, recently commented on this tendency: “When the migrants are ‘new’ people – new for their race, their color, their religion and so forth – it creates a lot of fear. This is what happens today,” he said. “I think it’s important for the politicians, for those who govern the nations, not to take the opportunity to exacerbate the feeling of the people, and to build upon the fear for pure electoral reasons.” (CRUX, 6/11/2019.)

“Christ Sees Everything That is Done to Poor People.”

Reflecting on the masses of low-income people in the United States or those leaving their countries in droves when life has become insupportable, one can become discouraged or desperate.

In December of 1977, when death squads roamed the streets in El Salvador, torturing and killing anyone involved in group reflections on the Gospel and daily life, Archbishop Oscar Romero. gave a homily addressed to the mothers who had lost children who were “disappeared” during that time, never to be seen again.

Saint Oscar Romero’s words led us again to reflections on the mothers (and fathers) separated today from their children and/or their husbands or wives by cruel immigration policies:

“Like Mary at the foot of the cross, every mother who sees her child maltreated is a denunciation. Mary is the sorrowful mother standing against the power of Pontius Pilate who has unjustly killed her son. She is the voice of justice, love, and peace; she is the voice of what God desires standing against what God does not want, against abuse and all that should not exist…

“And so we declare: This must not be! Return these children to the place that the rights of God and the law of the Lord demand!”

In another of Archbishop Romero’s sermons, on October 29, 1978 the first reading of the Mass was from Exodus 22 (quoted above). His commentary: “Christ sees everything that is done to poor people.”

At Casa Juan Diego we are finding inspiration in the homilies of Oscar Romero. We have been able to acquire a six-volume collection of his sermons. At present they are our spiritual reading and content for our “clarification of thought” discussions. Saint Romero’s profound faith and spiritual/biblical/Catholic social teaching perspective can bring hope in this difficult time. We recommend it for spiritual reading: A Prophetic Bishop Speaks To His People: The Complete Homilies of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero(6 vols.) translated by Joseph Owens, SJ, published by Convivium, now available from The Crossroad Publishing Company.

May the Holy Spirit Bring Peace

Pope Francis teaches us all to be hospitable to immigrants and refugees, to get to know them as persona.  In his homily on Pentecost this year, Pope Francis spoke of the unity of peoples that can be brought by the Holy Spirit. We pray that that same Holy Spirit can help us to understand the suffering peoples on the move and understand our faith from a perspective of unity with them:

“In today’s world, lack of harmony has led to stark divisions. There are those who have too much and those who have nothing, those who want to live to a hundred and those who cannot even be born… We need the Spirit of unity to regenerate us as Church, as God’s People and as a human family.  May he regenerate us! …

“The Holy Spirit brings together those who were distant, unites those far off, brings home those who were scattered.  He blends different tonalities in a single harmony, because before all else he sees goodness. He looks at individuals before looking at their mistakes, at persons before their actions.  Nowadays it is fashionable to hurl adjectives and, sadly, even insults. It could be said that we are living in a culture of adjectives that forgets about the nouns that name the reality of things. But also a culture of the insult as the first reaction to any opinion that I do not share. Repaying evil for evil, passing from victims to aggressors, is no way to go through life.

“Those who live by the Spirit, however, bring peace where there is discord, concord where there is conflict. Those who are spiritual repay evil with good. They respond to arrogance with meekness, to malice with goodness, to shouting with silence, to gossip with prayer, to defeatism with encouragement.

“Brothers and sisters, let us daily implore the gift of the Spirit.

“Holy Spirit, harmony of God, you who turn fear into trust and self-centredness into self-gift, come to us.  Grant us the joy of the resurrection and perennially young hearts. Holy Spirit, our harmony, you who make of us one body, pour forth your peace upon the Church and our world. Holy Spirit, make us builders of concord, sowers of goodness, apostles of hope.”

Houston Catholic Worker, July-September 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3.