Sheila Gomez of the Catholic Diocese in Little Rock says one of the illegal Mexican immigrants rounded up at the Petit Jean Poultry Plant near Arkadelphia last week and plopped on the other side of the border was a young mother with an infant son, a natural-born American citizen.
The border is no safe place, especially for an unaccompanied woman, Gomez says.
The woman’s husband came to the Diocese in tears, his wife suddenly gone and his baby needing his mother.
What ensued qualifies as real irony: Gomez helped with the paperwork by which an American citizen, a baby, was allowed to cross the border going the other way.
On this side were daddy, natural-born citizenship and opportunity. But mommy was on the other.
Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they asked these 119 victims of human herding if they had children, and that many said they didn’t though it turned out they did.
Why would they lie? Gomez says maybe the child was at home with a spouse who was illegal, or maybe the child was with a sitter who was illegal.
It was all about fear, in other words.
One of the most untidy aspects of Hispanic immigration is that even immediate families tend not to be all legal or all illegal.
“That’s one of the problems of using the plant as a battleground, rounding up workers all at one time, without regard for individual circumstances,” Gomez says.
It can get confusing.
Gomez says a legal immigrant in Gurdon told her that her son was afraid for his own family because his best friend’s family had been forced to return to Mexico. “But we’re OK, we’re Americans,” the mother told her son, who replied that his friend and his friend’s family were Americans, too.
The Catholic Church advocates top-to-bottom immigration reform that keeps workers employed and families together. And it provides some of the most thorough and sensitive services available to Hispanic immigrants.
If you begin inquiring about the Arkadelphia incident, you’ll consistently be routed to Gomez.
“Something like this forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror,” she says. “It forces us to ask ourselves as a country — who are we? What have we become?”
We have become something less kind.
Here’s how Catholic bishops put it in a recent pastoral letter: “We are a nation with a long, rich tradition of welcoming newcomers. Government policies that unfairly and inappropriately confuse immigration with terrorism do not make us safer, [they] tarnish our heritage and damage our standing abroad.”
The Catholic bishops have endorsed federal legislation that provides for safe and orderly movement of Hispanic workers to America, grants them guest worker status, puts them on a clear path to American citizenship and allows workers’ immediate family members to live here legally as well.
Hard work, seeking a better life, keeping families together — these supposedly are our most basic and most profound American principles.
The bishops also call for international efforts to improve the Mexican economy so that flight won’t be necessary. That’s the eventual answer, of course. It’s one of the things NAFTA was supposed to be about.
We’ll know we’ve progressed when Hispanic families begin to cross the border going the other way, not because someone took their wives and mothers from them, but for jobs.