A Valley of Tears: Immigration Uncertainty Rattles the Catholic Church in America this Holy Week

The single largest diocese supported by Catholic Extension is the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, which is home to a whopping 1.7 million Catholics, making this 39-year-old diocese more populous than the 209-year-old Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Yet, the younger San Bernardino diocese has only 10 percent of the financial resources of the more-established Philly Church, hence Catholic Extension exists to help strengthen the Church’s presence and ministry in this and many other burgeoning dioceses of the U.S.

Field workers live in the Desert Mobile Home Park near Thermal, California

The 27,000-square-mile Diocese of San Bernardino also claims one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in the country, many of whom settle in the area for farming work in the fertile Coachella Valley. This more than $626-million-dollar-a-year industry in the valley has been very profitable thanks to the hard work of thousands of manual laborers who plant and harvest the grapes, lemons and dates that grow in abundance there.

Most of these laborers are immigrants, many have U.S.-born children, and a vast majority are Catholic.

Catholic Extension has always had a major role in supporting Catholic immigrant communities. In a 1906 article in Extension magazine, our founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley, called readers’ attention to the needs of Italian immigrant laborers, who at the time were building railroads along the eastern seaboard. This article reveals that immigrant communities and their struggles were hidden to the rest of American Catholics 111 years ago, the same way they are hidden today in places like the Coachella Valley.

A girl holds the fruits of her mother’s daily labor.

In many respects the Coachella Valley is a sort of paradise in the California desert; a veritable land “flowing with milk and honey,” to borrow familiar biblical language. Vacationers flock to this region for the great golf courses, the beautiful mountains, the unending sunshine, and starting this weekend they will come for the famed Coachella Music Festival, which annually attracts legendary musicians and thousands of concert revelers.

In spite of all this fun and recreation, however, Coachella has also become a “valley of tears” for many immigrants. With our country’s recent change in tone and policy toward immigrants, there is great fear and deep sorrow overshadowing many families.

Consequently, instead of wondering what songs Lady Gaga is going to perform at the festival this week, these Coachella immigrant households are preoccupied with more serious questions. What will happen if the children go to school one day and return home to find out that Mom and Dad have been removed from this country? How will the family survive if one or both of the breadwinners are gone?

On Good Friday Christians across the globe will prayerfully remember Christ’s passion and death and relive that unsettling moment when Jesus on the cross cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Many families today are feeling that same sense of cold abandonment.

I spoke with the pastor of one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino — Our Lady of Soledad — located in Coachella, which is a spiritual home to immigrant families. This one parish is as big as a small diocese. Each Sunday more than 5,000 people attend Mass at their overcrowded church, and on holy days as many as 10,000 make their way through the parish doors. When I asked Father Guy Wilson, a Missionary Servant of the Most Holy Trinity, what the children of immigrant parents are telling him amidst the current inundation of media chatter, political rhetoric, and executive action on the topic of immigration, he could not respond to my question without tears welling up in his eyes.

Leo, an immigrant worker, father, and leader in the community.

“It’s hard. They are so scared,” he said, as a fat teardrop fell on his clerical shirt.

“Some of the teenagers have told me. ‘My parents are good people. They have never even had a traffic ticket. Why would anyone want to take them away from me?’”

Bishop Gerald Barnes is the leader of this massive diocese, and like Father Wilson, he shares the wounds of the people that he pastors. There is a certain helplessness in the bishop’s voice when he talks about the pain and suffering that he personally witnesses in the hearts of thousands of people he meets across the diocese who are facing the tragic possibility of seeing their families separated.

Observers will correctly point out that deportations are not a new thing. So what exactly has changed? There has indeed been a palpable psychological shift in immigrant communities, which many pastors and bishops have noted across the country. Immigrants and those that love them are now living with a new uncertainty about their future. This uncertainty is both agonizing and mentally exhausting, and it disrupts family life in very real ways.

Many immigrants that Bishop Barnes encounters on his pastoral visits say, “Bishop, what should we do?” He laments that no one truly knows the answer to this frequently asked question. Like many other bishops, Bishop Barnes is urging preparedness among immigrant families by mobilizing teams to offer “Know your Rights” trainings. These teams also help families set up alternative guardianship arrangements for children in case parents are suddenly deported.

These immigrant parents have dreams for their children to be college educated.

But he still doesn’t feel like he is able to do enough. At a recent Mass that he celebrated with thousands of immigrants, he simply told the people, “The only thing I can offer you is my tears.” He then led the people in a heartfelt song following his homily, during which both he and hundreds more wept together as the family of God.

When Bishop Barnes told me this story, I remembered the words of one of the most revered prayers of our faith tradition, the Salve Regina. In that prayer we reach out to Mary with the words, “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Bishop Barnes, along with his brother bishops across the country, is asking all Catholics to turn to these “banished” immigrant peoples with compassion in the same way that we ask Mary, our mother, to do for us.

Bishop Barnes explained that when he meets someone who sincerely believes that undocumented immigrants are law breakers that must face the consequences for their actions, he simply asks them one question: “Do you feel compassion for these people?” Therein lies the essence of our required response as Christians: We are called to be merciful just as God shows us mercy. We must pray for “the gift of tears” as Pope Francis urged us when he celebrated Mass at the U.S. — Mexico border last year.

A visiting Catholic priest greets an immigrant family that resides in the valley.

Laws are made by us to serve the common good. In regard to our immigration laws, no Church leaders are arguing with the fact that a nation has a duty to protect its citizens from violent people. But the sad reality, according to faith leaders and advocates on the ground, is that most people who have been deported are not violent criminals but peaceful people and heads of households. Therefore we must look at our current situation and ask ourselves, ‘How does it ever benefit the common good to separate mothers and fathers from their children?’ Is there anyone who wins in that scenario?

Neighboring the Diocese of San Bernardino to the west is Los Angeles, the largest Catholic archdiocese in the country, and the second largest hub of immigrants in the nation. In one of his many beautifully worded statements on immigration this year, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, said, “A policy of enforcement only — without reform of the underlying system — will only lead to a human rights nightmare.”

In other words, until our nation can arrive at a sensible and compassionate reform of our laws, we are in danger of doing untold damage to millions of families, and thus to ourselves as a nation.

Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, reminds me that we have a special interest in immigrants because “these immigrant families are the bedrock of our American society, the backbone of some of our most profitable industries, and they are the very people who fill our pews on Sundays.”

Until the day comes when there is true reform of our laws that can serve the common good, the Church will continue to spill her tears with those caught in the middle, especially the children, living in this hour of great abandonment.

This Holy Week when we hear the Messiah’s words of anguish proclaimed in our churches, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” let us unite his words and our prayers to the cry of the poor, the immigrant and refugee, and the orphan, in whom we see the suffering face of Christ.