Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tales from nuestra lucha

There have been so many articles and incidents lately that highlight the difficulties our immigrant community is facing. Let's share some stories:

1. Juan Gomez: He is a young man born in Colombia but who has been living in the United States since his parents moved here when he was 2 years old to escape the political violence and economic depression in their home country. Juan is virtually completely Americanized, speaks English better than he speaks Spanish and is a student at Georgetown University. Juan's parents were deported after their political asylum petition was denied but Juan has been able to stay due to a series of personal resolutions passed by Congress affecting only himself but, unless a senator is willing to sponsor him again this year, Juan will be deported to a country he has never known as an adult and will not be able to complete his degree. Cases like Juan's would have been covered by the DREAM Act, but that did not pass. Please read the excellent article in this Sunday's Washington Post. You will be moved to call your senators and ask for someone to please step up to the plate, have the courage to do what's right and help this young man who only wants to get his college degree.

2. Felipe C.: We talked about him earlier -- the Peruvian friend from my parish who was taken by ICE for deportation. We now know where he is: in a jail in Hanover, Virginia, which is a 2 1/2 to 3 hour drive from Arlington. The jail has visitation only for certain hours in the morning and night on weekdays. No Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays. Children under 18 are permitted with a parent or legal guardian. Only two people may visit at a time. Felipe has two children ages 11 and 15 who live with his ex-wife. How many rules must be waived for them to be able to see him before he is deported? The odds are not very good. And this is typical of what happens to people awaiting deportation. Some will say that we should be grateful he's being held in the same state but given the prison regs, he might as well be in Texas or California. This is why it is urgent for our country to review its deportation policies that are breaking up our immigrant families.

3. Agueda Dominguez: She is a Salvadoran woman residing legally in this country who was pulled from her car, pepper-sprayed and beaten by a police officer during a routine traffic stop in Manassas Park, VA . The officer was angered when Mrs. Dominguez, who does not speak much English, attempted to explain that she had accidentally left her driver's license at home and then declined to sign the traffic ticket because she could not understand it. Mrs. Dominguez requested a Spanish-speaking officer but instead was assaulted by the officer before being arrested. The incident was ironic to me because a key part of a training I had just received on how to help immigrants learn and protect their rights was instructing them never to sign anything they can't understand without requesting a translator. Now, it's true that we are required to sign traffic tickets or go to jail but nowhere does the law authorize an officer to beat up a sister or brother in the process.

4. José Sanchez: He was a 31-year old homeless Salvadoran man who died of his injuries after being pushed to the sidewalk during an argument in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, DC. He lay on the pavement for almost 20 minutes and over 150 people walked by. Nobody called 911 until eventually an employee of a nearby market did. According to the Washington Post: "Bystanders and community leaders said many were afraid to call authorities for fear of being asked about their immigration status. " Mayor Fenty and other city officials are trying to reassure the Hispanic community that it's OK to call emergency services but given the raids, deportations and incidents of police brutality splashed across the front pages and TV screens in the Hispanic media, is it any wonder that our community is not hearing this message? Do I believe a politician or my experience?

5. Letitia C: She is a friend, a Guatemalan mother who called me because her son was beaten up in his predominantly African-American Prince George's County high school. Letty doesn't speak much English and has only a 3rd grade education but she wants to do right by her son. She is in this country legally and her boy was born here, in Fairfax Hospital. They have arrested one of the boys who attacked her son, the only one of his assailants that he could positively identify.

The problem came later when Letty tried to meet with the school principal to discuss what measures the school would take to minimize future incidents. Despite repeated requests, Letty has not been able to get school authorities to sit down and work with her. She had to insist to be allowed to even see the area where the assault took place and she made several observations about the lack of lighting, the position of the security cameras, etc...things that a responsible school system should want to address. Because Letty only speaks Spanish, the school sent a lower-level Puerto Rican employee to talk to her. When she insisted on meeting with the principal, this man told her that she was wasting her time because the school "always discriminates against Hispanics". By the way, Letty's boy was not the only Hispanic student to be assaulted in the school, but the other parents were afraid to make a fuss because they are undocumented.

I want to share these vignettes because this is how the world looks from the Hispanic immigrant perspective. These are only 5 tales that have happened in the last month, only a sample of the daily discrimination that Hispanics face. It's why we need a new civil rights movement, why we need immigration reform, and why the Church needs to wake up, stand up, and not just let Hispanics defend Hispanics. It's great that Fr. Hoyos can speak out but we also need Bishop Loverde. It's great that Fr. Vidal will stand up and pray for Mr. Sanchez (see photo above). Where is the Episcopalian bishop of Washington? Donde están los pastores mientras los lobos están atacando a sus ovejas?

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