US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Justice for immigrant workers, no matter where they are from

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Immigration jumped out at me yesterday, as I read the L.A. Times while staying in Los Angeles for a few days on my return from Australia. A couple of things that I've mentioned previously in this blog seem to have been given greater credibility by two reports: The Pew Hispanic Center confirmed from recent census data that the numbers of undocumented crossing the border has drastically declined because of the economy, and a study by National Justice Immigration Center reported that most detained undocumented do not have access to information on what their legal rights are.

In other news, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, "America's toughest sheriff," is again being sued by the federal government for extending his mistreatment of minorities to his political rivals. The Dream Act, which would afford undocumented youth who were brought to this country at young ages a pathway to citizenship through military service or college education, will be attached by Democrats to the defense appropriation bill next week--along with other controversial amendments.

What caught my eye especially, though, was a local news item on a police investigation of a shooting and subsequent demonstration in the West Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. My family used to live in West Lake and the contiguous Wilshire-Western neighborhood. It was white, middle-class with an up-scale shopping strip then.

It soon turned Hispanic, becoming the home of many Central Americans fleeing the dirty wars of the Reagan years. It also became the home of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang that even exported its violence back to El Salvador. At the center of the neighborhood is MacArthur Park. A lively patch of green, usually encircled by food street vendors, it was the scene of police riots against Hispanics that took a peculiarly nasty turn when the police turned on reporters and television cameras. It led to a massive shake-up in the LAPD.

A few weeks ago a drunken Guatemalan undocumented immigrant was shot dead by police. Witnesses claimed the shooting was unnecessary and an investigation is ongoing. (See columnist Tim Rutten's comments on the incident.)

West Lake, long a troubled community, is even more so because of the economy. There are ever more street vendors or day-labor shape-ups that invite police scrutiny and misunderstanding. The three officers involved in the shooting incident were themselves Hispanics and fluent in Spanish, but increasingly the Central Americans are Indian and have a poor command of Spanish. Many resent the "mexification" of the local Hispanic culture--needing to pose as a Mexican to get a job, affecting a Mexican accent and lying about where you come from. To read more on the plight of the Mayan immigrants see Hector Tobar's column. Activists are planning further demonstrations to call attention the broader issues of the Guatemalans (LA Times).

The incident and its follow-up got me to thinking about the shifts in migration. The Pew report speaks of an overall decline in crossing the Mexican border, but the sharpest decline seems to have been from Hispanics other than Mexicans. I suspect that once the economy starts reviving, the flow from Central America will pick up. Already remittances sent back from neighborhoods such as West Lake are vital to the national economies of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

The Salvadorans and Nicaraguans legally entered the country during the dirty wars of the 1980s, and they can bring family members in through the legal immigration process now. Hondurans and Guatemalans will not be so lucky. They still have to brave "the way of the cross" through Mexico and the Arizona desert.

Comprehensive immigration reform discussions often seem also to be "mexicanized," seen in the perspective of Mexico's needs. But the undocumented population is much broader. Besides the Central Americans, there are the Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Caribbeans, Indians, and others. While "a path to citizenship" is the central issue in immigration reform, a credible and generous guest worker program is as well.

I started my interest in social justice in California in the 1950s and the issue was the woe and oppressive bracero program--the war-time guest worker program. The plight of the Maya in West Lake only points to the fact that, while the neighborhood changed from the 1950s, the cry for justice for the immigrant worker hasn't.