Thirty-five years ago I graduated from college and began a vocation of full-time Christian ministry, eager to reach nonreligious young people with the love of Christ. After learning from Dr. John Perkins about his biblically informed philosophy of Christian community development, I felt compelled to move my young family from northern California to inner-city Chicago to minister in a Mexican barrio called La Villita (“Little Village”). There I had the privilege of helping to establish a church committed to Perkins’ vision.
Chicago is an unlikely place for Mexican immigrants to settle, with its extreme cold and long winters. But it has been a landing point for immigrants from south of the border ever since the end of the bracero program in 1964. Created by Congress during World War II, this program aimed to address the nation’s shortage of manual labor. By the war’s end, seventy-five thousand braceros (manual laborers) were working in the US railroad industry, with over fifty thousand in agriculture.
In the following years, the growth of Mexican labor in the United States exploded, soon drawing heated criticism. As a result, in 1954 over a million Mexican workers were deported in an action called Operation Wetback. Still, by the time the bracero program officially ended, more than half a million Mexicans had legally entered our country to work. Many of these stayed on in the United States without legal status. The government mostly turned a blind eye, since much of our economy continued to depend on cheap Mexican labor.
Instead of focusing our efforts in poor communities primarily on pulling drowning people out of the river, we need to go upstream to find out who is pushing them into the water in the first place.
Even though these workers played a needed role, they suffered harsh discrimination. In Texas, where I was born, Mexicans – like African-Americans – endured “white only” bathrooms and segregated lunch counters as well as deplorable living and working conditions. Though my parents were both born in the United States, they worked as farmhands and in low-paying factory jobs. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being warned by my grandfather – a Mexican native who became a legal United States resident after crossing the border with his family – to beware of mistreatment from the bolillos, a slang word for gringos.
As we started our church and got to know our neighbors in La Villita, I was reminded of my grandmother Juanita. Upon reaching retirement age, she asked one of my uncles to take her to the Social Security Administration offices in Weslaco to figure out what benefits she was entitled to. After looking up her Social Security number, the agent came back with bad news. “We have no record of you ever working or paying into the system.” Her response was quick and furious. “¿Como que no he trabajado? What do you mean I have never worked? I have worked at home every day raising nine children and taking care of my family!”
The same could be said of many of my friends in La Villita – they work extremely hard every day, and often receive little in return.
It was hard not to be inspired by Leticia. When I met her, I was impressed by her dignity and her determination to provide for her family. On Sunday mornings she was always on time for our church service, even though she often walked a mile in the rain or snow with her kids to get there. Her daughters and son were always the best-dressed children at church with their frilly lace and stylish tie. As I got to know Leticia, I found out she was an entrepreneur: she made and sold tamales, working herself to exhaustion to provide for her kids just as my grandmother had done. Leticia would wake up every day long before the roosters in our barrio began to crow, and would prepare the pollo, puerco, and masa she needed for the tamales. By 5:00 a.m. she would be out on 31st Street in her designated spot to provide her delicious food to the men and women heading out to work in factories, restaurants, and hotels. Even the day laborers who gathered at the Home Depot, praying to be picked up for a job, stopped to buy their breakfast from her. After she sold every last tamale, she rushed home in time to dress her children and send them off to school.
Hard-working men and women like Leticia are the most valuable asset in our immigrant community. Yet despite all the sweat and effort my neighbors invest, they seem to barely get by. Often, parents are forced to leave their teenagers unattended for hours as they work double shifts to make ends meet. In too many cases this leads to mischief and gang involvement.
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. –Leviticus 19:34
As a church, we felt we had to try to stop this sad pattern. Whenever we spoke to parents about their aspirations, they would inevitably talk to us about their children – like all parents, they wanted a better life for their kids and were willing to sacrifice their own needs and wants to make this happen. Accordingly, our church decided to focus our efforts on investing in children and young people. I was convinced that with the work ethic that existed in our community, we could create better-paying jobs, get young people into college, provide families with opportunities for homeownership, and help our neighbors find authentic faith in Jesus Christ.
In the first few years, we seemed to be on the right track. Our church membership grew, with an influx of barrio residents who were committed to loving their neighbors and being a witness for Christ in the community. We had programs to combat gang violence and to reach the youth. We offered small business loans to our members, and started a homeownership program. We launched educational and summer programs for kids. Lives were being healed and transformed.
Yet as time went on, I began to notice that there was something missing in our work of Christian community development – a gap that threatened any success our efforts might have.
My friend Fernando was always working, and always seemed to be looking for a better job. I found out that back home in Mexico he had studied civil engineering. Here in the United States he worked in low-wage construction jobs to feed his family. He was eager to grow in his faith, and often stopped by my house or the church office to talk. The more I found out about his life, the more I realized the godlike power our nation’s immigration system wielded over his family. Fernando, it turned out, was an “illegal.”
Fernando’s story was not an exception in La Villita, but rather the norm. I had known that the majority of the neighborhood’s residents were first-generation Mexican immigrants, but I had no idea that so many of them had entered our country illegally.
In 1986 President Reagan signed his controversial immigration-amnesty bill into law, opening a path to legal status for nearly three million undocumented immigrants. While that monumental law helped millions of people come out of the shadows of our society, it did little to fix the long-term problem. Our nation’s incoherent immigration policy continued to ensure that it was just a matter of time before the population of illegal immigrants grew again.
Today we have close to eleven million undocumented immigrants in our nation – three and a half times the number in President Reagan’s day. Many of them worship in our churches as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
When I moved to La Villita thirty-five years ago, I never intended to get involved in a contentious issue like immigration reform. My motivation was simply to reach my neighbors with the good news of Jesus Christ and to mobilize them to create a healthy, flourishing place to live. Yet as time went on, I heard too many stories from church members about the hardships of living and working without papers. Without legal status, they were often taken advantage of by their employers and endured indignity and abuse. Families I knew were repeatedly being devastated by sudden deportations.
Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. –Matthew 25:40
Determined to find a way to help, I connected a number of my undocumented friends with World Relief to get them immigration counseling. I was ready to pay whatever fees were necessary to get them the legal documentation they needed. I soon found how little I could do, thanks to a broken immigration system that made it virtually impossible for anyone coming into our country because of economic hardship to get legal status.
As time went on, I found it impossible to keep closing my eyes to this systematic inhumanity. I became convinced that in order to truly help my immigrant brothers and sisters caught in the web of this dysfunctional system, I needed to add an essential component to my ministry: the confrontation of injustice. Instead of simply blaming the undocumented for crossing our borders without legal permission, I had to recognize that the root causes are far deeper and broader than their risky decision to move north. Millions of men, women, and children were suffering terribly, and many of them were my neighbors.
Living side-by-side with my undocumented brothers and sisters, I saw that inviting them to one more Bible study, providing them with another bag of groceries, or establishing another program to bolster their education would not address a fundamental problem in their lives. Unexpectedly, I found myself working to change national immigration policy as an extension of my local ministry. As my CCDA colleague Mary Nelson remarked about our work in poor communities: “Instead of focusing on pulling drowning people out of the river, we need to go upstream to find out who is pushing them into the water in the first place!”
The more serious I became about addressing these systemic problems, the more convinced I became that it was not just the unlawful behavior of undocumented individuals that created the mess we were in. Large segments of our economy depended on the cheap labor provided by undocumented workers, who were now being scapegoated and blamed for problems with which they had nothing to do. In particular, the terrorist acts of 9/11 and the Great Recession beginning in 2008 both triggered a harsh backlash against undocumented immigrants. I often ask the Lord why I was so blessed to have been born just a few miles north of the border in Texas as a United States citizen.