Posts Tagged ‘undocumented worker’

Saint Patrick’s Day in Postville

March 25, 2009

Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints.  Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.”  Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.

Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000.  Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse.  Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting.  A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot.  With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008.  Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery.  Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.

In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt.  Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents.  (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid)  The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences.  Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.

Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour.  He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May.  “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me.  “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.'”  Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid.  “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months.  Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year.  Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education.  These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make.  Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.

As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May.  With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over.  It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this.  We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform.  We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized.  We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.

Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church.  I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform.  For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville.  We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them.  Please urge our administration to do the same.

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

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Jesus as Just a Gardener

March 23, 2008

    Last night’s rain glistens most in the morning’s sun. This Easter morn puddles reflect greening trees, blossoming trumpet lilies, and confetti from cascarones left from yesterday’s children’s celebrations. This Semana Santa in Brownsville is poignant in its quietude.

    So it must have been that morning of the third day, when Mary Magdalene was maudlinly pacing the grounds around the empty tomb. She was searching for a clue to where Jesus had disappeared. In John 20, Mary comes across but a single person in her worried walk. “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away” (John 20:15). Supposing him to be a gardener, she at first missed recognizing the very Jesus she sought.

    While Mary at first mistook Jesus for a gardener, we too often fail to see Jesus in the gardeners of this world. Jesus charged us all saying, “…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). How often I fail to recognize the face of Jesus in everyone I meet! I marvel that it is much easier for me to see the hand of God in the blooming tulips and daffodils of a garden than the face of Jesus in the eyes of the poor and the mouth of the voiceless.

    Supposing families of immigrants to be “illegal” and thus beyond our call of care, how many of us fail to minister to them as if they were the Holy Family sojourning in Egypt? Supposing gardeners to be merely undocumented workers, how vocally do we advocate for legislation which will allow them full rights and responsibilities of citizenship? Supposing refugees and immigrants to be outsiders, how loathe we are to welcome them into our country which needs them? Supposing immigrants to be only people, how often do we miss out on an opportunity to minister to a risen Jesus? Supposing all border-crossers to be terrorists, how acquiescent we are to accept a border wall which disrespects humanity?

    The most amazing thing about the Easter story is that Jesus is not confined to the constraints of a tomb or to the limitations of His earthly body either. No, as Jesus pointed out when He told Mary, “Stop clinging to me…,” He can now be seen and ministered to in the needy, the poor, the voiceless, the stranger among us. The kingdom of God He preached about and embodied in His life will be brought about when everyone on earth recognizes the spark of the divine, the image of God, the very face of Jesus in each and every brother and sister the world over. Mother Theresa said and lived the idea that, “Every person is Christ for me and since there is only one Jesus, the person I am meeting is the one person in the world at that moment” (Spink, Kathryn Mother Theresa). Supposing Jesus to be only a gardener, or an extralegal resident, or a refugee, or a manual laborer, or an uninsured child, or a working single-mother, may we treat each person as if they are Jesus Christ who lives today.

Gardener at Chico