Garcia’s lessons on the poor

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Garcia’s lessons on the poor

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On April 7, at the Center for Global Citizenship, former “Texan of the Year” Reuben Garcia shared his experience working with immigrants since 1978 in El Paso, Texas, through a program called Annunciation House. Garcia was introduced by Bryan Sokol of the Center for Service and Community Engagement – himself a former yearlong volunteer at Annunciation House – and the president of Alpha Sigma Nu, the organization that hosted the lecture series, which seeks speakers whose lives exhibit “the spirit of the Gospels.”

Garcia, a graduate of a Jesuit high school, college and graduate school, felt that he was on “home turf” at SLU, since it is a Jesuit institution. Jesuit education, for Garcia, helped convince him that “all are called to place themselves ‘on the line.” Garcia stressed that “one of the challenges of the first world is that we convince ourselves that we are indispensable,” and that when we engage in service, we believe “that we have a lot more to offer [the people we serve].” One crucial point that Garcia shares with all yearlong volunteers at Annunciation House is that “you do not live your life without coming to terms with the reality of the poor in the world.”

Three quotes served as the main points of Garcia’s talk. The first was from the former Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahoney, who promised in a letter to US Senators that if they were to pass a bill making it illegal to help undocumented migrants in the US, he would encourage all parishes in his diocese, the largest in the country, to disobey the law. For the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church to encourage civil disobedience, according to Garcia, is simply to adhere to the “pride of place” that the poor, widows, orphans and aliens are called to have based on the teachings of Christ.

The second quote was much longer and came from a human right affidavit given by a migrant to the US, who was kidnapped by a Mexican gang, held hostage, stripped naked and beaten along with 64 other migrants. The gang was seeking to extort their families for money. One of the child hostages was killed by the group, who cut off his arms, legs and head before placing the body parts in a trash bag and burning them. The kidneys of hostages deemed healthy enough were removed by a small medical team working together with the gang. Garcia shared the report as on of many horrifying experiences of those who seek to enter the US in order to flee violence in their home countries.

The final quote offered by Garcia was the story of the Good Samaritan and its meaning for Americans today. Garcia explained how anyone who crosses the border today is the injured man from the Gospel story, and that American citizens have “become the robbers with our laws, policies and fear of the poor.” The poor, for Garcia, are “giving us an invitation to walk into that world that Jesus is talking about.” In the gospel story, it is not a coincidence that the man who calls the Samaritan his neighbor is a lawyer from a theocracy. It is the lawyer who realizes that breaking the law meant being neighborly to another in need.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service was founded around 1894, of the 180 officers it allocated to the new government department, 140 were sent to Ellis Island, 39 to other parts of the American border and just 1 to the border with Mexico. That said, for hundreds of years, people have gone back and forth across the Mexican border. It was a “non-event,” but then, according to Garcia, “we started to change.” Garcia challenged those in attendance to ask themselves: “Who are we? Who have we become?” Garcia believes that removing the Statue of Liberty is in order because it is no longer our truth as a country. “We are no longer that anymore. We do not want the tempted, the tossed, the poor. We want one to five million-dollar business investors. That is more reflective about who we have become.” Immigrants are drawn by the illusion of protection that the US is believed to be able to offer them, but these same immigrants are often turned away at the border, or detained while the credibility of their claims is investigated.

Garcia gave an example of one such detainee, an 18-year-old Guatemalan, Giovani Fuentes, whose family has already passed a “credible fear interview” but who is still being detained by immigration officials. Garcia finds it unacceptable that “All of this has been done in our name” and is currently putting pressure on the field director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and another immigration officer who both have the authority to release Fuentes.

Garcia closed his comments by sharing once more his conviction that, “Every last one of us is called” to be our authentic selves and to help make a difference. For Garcia, the poor and migrants he has worked with have taught him about life, justice and faithfulness, and he said that he knew nothing until he started working with them. The people that Garcia has worked with –and what they have given him – motivate him to continue his fight for immigration reform.