Immigrant Families Under Fire: A Call to Compassion in the Heartland

Their names were Josseline, Marlen, Areceli, Omar, Gustavo, Daniel and Yolanda. Their stories were riveting and heartbreaking. Their lives are lived in fear and jeopardy. The reality of these undocumented immigrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico was described by Margaret Regan, author and journalist from Tucson, to a crowd of 200 Dubuque-area people at Loras College, Thursday evening, March 30.

Called “Immigrant Families Under Fire, A Call to Compassion in the Heartland,” Margaret Regan shared the plight of immigrants trying to cross the border, navigating the harsh desert and living indefinitely in one of the 250 U.S. detention centers holding parents and children who await a court hearing regarding their future. She noted the thousands of deportations of undocumented individuals in the last 10 years; deportations are still occurring every day in the U.S.

The event was organized by Crossing Borders of Dubuque, a group of concerned citizens whose mission is to educate and advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and to raise awareness about issues affecting the lives of immigrants and refugees. Sponsors included 19 local churches, religious congregations, Catholic Charities and individual donors.

Margaret Regan was born Irish Catholic in Philadelphia. She described the plight of her Irish ancestors, immigrants who came to the U.S. in the wake of the famine in the mid-1800s. They arrived with no welcome and no assurance for their future. “The same (negative) things heard about the wave of immigrants since this country started” are now applied to immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, especially since the year 2000, she said.  Caught in extremely traumatic cultures rampant with war, gangs and abuse, moms, dads, babies and teens head for the border. Younger immigrants are sometimes unaccompanied. If parents make it across the border they are willing to take jobs in hotel maintenance, hospitals, fields of California, apple orchards in New York, and meatpacking plants in Nebraska – mostly jobs that U.S. citizens won’t take. They live in constant fear of being discovered and deported.

As a journalist for the Tucson Weekly news, she heard about the deaths of Mexicans trying to cross the desert—then the only path to the border—and decided to investigate and interview the situation. “Deaths began to mount up,” she said. One story was about Josseline, 14, from Mexico whose mother had raised enough money to bring her children to the U.S. to reunite the family. Undocumented, Josseline and her 10-year-old brother crossed with a coyote-led group to safety in Los Angeles. When Josseline fell ill and couldn’t walk another step, she was left behind. Her dead body was found weeks later, and she was one of 183 bodies found in the desert in 2008.

In the past 17 years 3,115 dead bodies have been found.

When undocumented people are stopped because of small infractions (such as a burned-out car light) or caught navigating the desert by border patrol, they are arrested, fingerprinted, and sent to detention centers in Colorado or Arizona. Noting centers named Dilley and Elroy, Margaret said that once in detention centers they languish with no idea how long they’ll be there. They are often treated like criminals surrounded by barbed wire and cinderblock walls. Margaret showed photos of a women’s “pod” where women just sat all day with nothing to do. If lucky, some are hired for menial tasks at $1 per day. To break the monotony undocumented Yolanda mopped floors, hoping to be assigned to a judge’s chambers so she might be noticed and perhaps be seen as a hard worker to speed up her case.

Margaret emphasized that currently refugees are being labeled “bad hombres” by the Trump administration. Additional speaker, Catholic charities immigration lawyer Ver Vang explained the very difficult process for immigrants now living in Dubuque to obtain documentation. “These are not faceless individuals, they’re human beings,” she said.

Crossing Borders member, Mira Mosle, BVM noted the concerned and sober silence of the crowd and said: “What to do? We want to pray. We want to weep. We want to do something. How will we find and encourage compassion in the heartland for our brothers and sisters?”

Crossing Borders member Mary McCauley, BVM concluded: “I am convinced that the first step in transforming our immigration system is to transform hearts. What better way to transform hearts than to listen to the stories of those directly affected by our current immigration system and then to make that happen.

Speaker Margaret Regan has written two books about undocumented workers Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire (2015)  and The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from Arizona Borderlands (2008).

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