On Monday, Pope Francis made his first apostolic visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island roughly 75 miles from the coast of Tunisia, where many African immigrants have made their way through to enter the country. An estimated 20,000 immigrants have died in the sea while making the treacherous journey to Lampedusa.
The Pontiff’s visit made headlines around the world for bringing up the issue of immigration in a completely different light: from viewing the issue of immigration as a “problem” to the “plight” of immigrants. The Holy Father’s homily struck a nerve with many when focusing on God’s words to Cain: “Where is your brother?”. Through his words and his visit, the Holy Father sought to bring reconciliation between the residents of Lampedusa and the countless African migrants who continue to enter the country through the island.
To a certain extent, the situation in Lampedusa is a microcosm of the rising debate on immigration and immigration reform throughout Europe and in particular the United States. ZENIT spoke with Cesar Martin Estela, a Catholic and an immigration lawyer from Newark, New Jersey, on the impact of the Holy Father’s trip to Lampedusa and its relevance to the issue of immigration.
* * *
ZENIT: What is your initial reaction to the Pope’s words on the plight of immigrants? Have you encountered people going through the same struggles the Holy Father describes?
Estela: I agree entirely with his statements. (Dr. MLK, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”). As a nation, and on a larger context, as a country, we have forgotten an unwritten duty owed to the least of our society. (“A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members” Winston Churchill & Mt. 25:41-46 (Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me). Immigrants very easily fit into this category. In America, they are vilified, scapegoated, incarcerated, arrested without cause, paid the lowest wages, discriminated against, ridiculed, racially profiled, and are unable to participate in democracy. They are part of the society (working in rigorous jobs, usually jobs no one else can fill, harvesting crops, caring for children, without many of the labor protections afforded other members of society). The motivation for an immigrant to come to a faraway land is extremely forceful. An immigrant leaves everything he knows, loves, and cherishes: his town, his neighborhood, his friends, his family, his job, his church, and travels by bus, boat, car, plane or foot for hundreds if not thousands of miles. Migration for the vast majority of the world’s citizens: Mexicans, Peruvians, Sudanese, Libyans, Tunisians is not a pleasant ordeal with the biggest hassle being having to get through customs. I have encountered numerous people who have undergone terrible journeys to arrive in America simply to feed and clothe their family. They chose to feed their family but cannot be with their family.
As an immigrant, as an immigration lawyer, a citizen of the USA (country of immigrants, religious exiles, etc.) and Catholic (“universal” citizen or citizen of humanity), I feel duty bound to the plight of immigrants. I can empathize with fellow immigrants; I can rationalize their motivations and fears; I can sympathize with their struggles; and I am able to help them in this deeply personal, terrifying and complicated ordeal (forced migration). I believe that the parable of the Good Samaritan is revealing because it emphasizes the lack of ill will that most of us feel toward immigrants but also the lack of action in the face of suffering.
Estela: One young man walked from El Salvador to Miami on foot to enter the US. I know an Ecuadorian family in NJ whose thirteen year old daughter went missing for six months when the coyotes stopped answering all calls. Their daughter turned up in Washington state with an American family who found her through the state welfare office. Their daughter now has serious emotional trauma from her experience.
I also know of a thirteen year old girl who was forced to travel alone to the United States after witnessing her three uncles murdered. There was also another client of mine who was seeking asylum to avoid forced prostitution in her home country.
ZENIT: In your work as an immigration lawyer, have you encountered or confirm what the Pope describes as a “globalized indifference” when it comes to migrants?
Estela: On a micro and macro level, yes and no. There are certain national policies in place today in the immigration system that demonstrates charity toward these immigrants. Certain cases are closed out, certain cases are not referred to deportation anymore, certain individuals are released from jails because of their family ties (this was not normal a few years ago) and certain men and women who entered as children are granted lawful status. Yet, in the political realm, in Washington, the immigration “problem” is analyzed from that lens. Many religious minded elected officials put forth anti-immigration arguments: its not our problem they are here illegally and should just leave; its unjust for immigrants to be given a status as it is a reward for breaking the law or its unjust to reward their children who entered as minors with lawful status so that they can fully participate in the only society that they know. Many individuals feel justified in denying the 11 million or so undocumented aliens in the United States any form of lawful status because they broke the law to get here (regardless of the motivation: I stole a loaf a bread to find my child). The globalized indifference is palpable when you hear elected officials argue against granting lawful status to young men and women who have broken no laws, have studied in the United States and are Americanized in every way. (They are this country’s progeny whether you grant them lawful status or not). The globalized indifference is palpable when you hear about the possible use of weaponized drones on the US/Mexico border. The globalized indifference is palpable when you have to speak to deportation officers who care little to nothing at all about the psychological and emotional trauma placed on person who must wear an ankle bracelet and report daily/weekly to deportation. Their response: “at least he is not in jail.” As if someone should be grateful to their master for keeping him a slave. The globalized indifference is palpable when undocumented immigrants get a different set of justice and rules applied to them in the courts. The globalized indifference is palpable when the undocumented immigrants are often times serving prison sentences for being undocumented that are many times longer than if they had committed a violent, drug or theft crime.
ZENIT: Now that the US Senate has voted in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, what do you think is the next step for the government to address the need of those living in the country seeking a better life in America?
Estela: I believe that immigration is not a problem that will be solved through beefing up the border or security. I believe immigration is a response to socio/political/economic motivators in the immigrant’s home country. I do not believe that the USA should be responsible for fixing another nation’s problems, but it should accept its role in the world as the beacon of hope for immigrants. It should not be seen as a burden but as a medal of honor that the world has bestowed on America. The government’s next step is to create a temporary immigrant program to address the consequences of immigration. Simply scolding immigrants and bemoaning perceived negative impacts of immigrants is not a legal solution.
ZENIT: In what areas of your work does your faith come in and sustain you or even give you insight when dealing with cases.
Estela: The Catholic social doctrine that has been ingrained in me moves me in dealing with clients and in handling their cases. In dealing with clients, I am compassionate as I listen to these “least members of society.” I am sympathetic to their phone calls, their complaints, and their personal dilemmas. I have a lot of single mothers as clients. So, do the math. A single, undocumented mother works 2 to 3 jobs, suffers sexual harassment, receives low wages and works in sweatshop-like conditions. She gets around on bus and foot in the sweltering heat and blistering cold. I know to be compassionate when explaining her legal opportunities or lack thereof. I know that often times, an immigrant simply wants to be heard and taken into account, so I just listen on the phone as they ask me about legal matters we previously addressed.
In dealing with cases before the immigration court or immigration service, I try to make the immigrant personal to the judge or adjudicator. It is not just another Mexican/Honduran/Chinese. This is all too common when we treat cases of immigrants as just another of the same. By making a case personal I remove it from the zone of indifference.
A guiding principle for me is family unity. For most of the immigrants, the choice to remain in the United States is at odds with their ability to live with their family (spouse/children). My faith helps me explain to those clients who perhaps have no legal way of remaining in the USA that moving back home is not the end of the world and may be God’s way of helping them save their family from a far greater peril than poverty.
ZENIT: What message does the Holy Father’s visit to Lampedusa bring to countries, such as the US, who are still figuring out how to deal with immigration and immigration reform?
Estela: The Pope’s homily and message redirects our focus from dealing with the “problem of immigration” (I believe that most countries in Europe and the USA especially speak of it in the those terms) to addressing the plight of immigrants. It moves us to see other nations as our neighbors to the south/north/east/west. It is a call for us (individually and collectively) to see immigrants as integral members of our “society” and treat them accordingly. It promotes a change in heart and consequently in actions (more like the Good Samaritan less like the pharisee and priest). In the context of immigration reform, basic considerations for an immigrants family unity, ability to remain employed, travel, obtain a driver’s license are paramount so that the weakest among us may enjoy equality, respect, safety and care. I am not even talking about residency or citizenship just basic documents.