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Promised land?

Marcela Berrios | Friday, September 29, 2006

It’s no secret that there are millions of Latin American undocumented immigrants residing and working in the United States.

To many law-abiding U.S. citizens this is an outrage, and the mere thought of the undocumented immigrants stealing away jobs from lower-class Americans is revolting. For me, a summer in Houston dispersed many of the common misconceptions surrounding the immigrants’ situation.

While living on site at a Catholic Worker house of hospitality open to Latin American campesinos, I encountered the most desperate mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. I had previously heard the horror stories of coyotes smuggling people across the border in the back of a truck, running the risk of asphyxiation, or of immigrants walking under the boiling Texan sun over the desert. I was even aware of the immigrants’ dangerous practice of boarding moving trains, assuming their arms will resist the body’s weight for the day-long ride.

Surprisingly though, the hardest part of the immigrants’ odyssey is not the arrival. Surely the gang members, rapists, and the corrupt policemen pose a threat, but the greater difficulty awaits within the promised land. The prejudice and the exploitation the immigrants encounter immediately shatter the dream that America is paved in streets of gold and that work is abundant. Though their intentions may be to earn an honest living to feed a family of starving children, the immigrants are greeted as immoral criminals, with suspicion.

There are civilian border patrols, known as the Minutemen, armed and vigilant, denouncing the immigrants’ unwanted presence to the authorities.

There are opportunistic employers who – conscious of the fact that there are no laws to protect undocumented immigrants – exploit them with beast-like work and insignificant pay. One of the women I lived with was offered a full-time position in a Mexican restaurant, for a meager $0.18 per hour. Who would even dare make such an insulting offer to a law-abiding United States citizen? One could get into trouble for doing such a ghastly, unconstitutional thing. No, the Latin American immigrants are not stealing anybody’s jobs. While they are toiling away and contributing to the nation’s economy, they receive no benefits.

People trying to escape the street violence and poverty come in search of a better future for their families, but for them the American Dream is nothing more than just a dream. Their hard work, honesty and prayers don’t help make the situation better, a reality that Benjamin Franklin did not conceive. Families are separated in the deportation process, babies taken from the arms of their mothers. The Second Vatican Council, in reaction to this horrifying procedure, classified deportation as a capital sin, in the same league as slavery, torture, and genocide, as all of these offenses degrade a person and strip him or her of all human dignity.

Once a haven for immigrants, the United States today cannot boast of a Statue of Liberty on the Rio Grande.