A few weeks ago I was sitting in Jose’s kitchen, waiting for his monthly phone call. Once a month he gets a call on a voice-recognition system: at some point during a two hour window, the phone will ring. He answers, then has to call back within three minutes. A machine recites a string of numbers, which he repeats, and then he is okay for another month. Since getting Administrative Closure of his case a few years ago, this has been the only contact he has had with the immigration folks. Finally the phone rang. I watched as he called back, heard him repeat the string of numbers. And repeat it again, and again, four times altogether. Finally he turned to me, ashen-faced. “It says it’s going to report me,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “We just need to call your officer in the morning and explain that there must be something wrong with your phone.” In years past that happened a few times. Once mice had chewed the wires, back when he used a land line. Another time there was a bad connection. Always a bit of anxiety, but it had always been all right in the end.
The next day I went rummaging for the officer’s phone number, which we hadn’t needed in years. Surprise! The number was no good any more. Finally I was able to get the number of someone else’s officer (“Where did you get this number?”) – and learned that the office had moved to a different building, and he had a different officer, now, and no, the person on the other end would not give me his new officer’s phone number, but he did give me a name. “Just call the office, they’ll connect you with him.” No, they won’t. The one thing I did get was some reassurance – if there was really a problem we’d know it by now.
A week later I had that number and gave his officer a call. “Probably background noise, or something,” he said. “But he needs to come in, anyway. I need to verify his information.” Just a routine visit, but he hasn’t had a routine visit in years, and things have changed in this country in the meantime. How many stories begin, “It was supposed to be a routine visit…”
I told Jose we needed to go in, and that I believed it was true, it was just a routine visit. “Yeah,” he answered. “They’re gonna haul my ass back to Mexico!” That old liquid fear came rushing back – the fear we’ve had a break from, these past few years. The threat is always there, but since that administrative closure it’s been like it was behind glass, distant. Here it was in its full heart-stopping glory, again.
We chaplains talk about being a “non-anxious presence.” How do you be a non-anxious presence when your veins are full of molten ice? (Is there such a thing as molten ice? Maybe you know what I mean). One thing you do is pray. I drew Jose’s name surrounded by light in my journal. I asked friends to pray. My sister clergy. Alfredo, lighting a candle for him at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I believe in prayer, all that good energy, focused on one person. Or two. Pray for the officer, too, I requested.
As we made that hour long drive yesterday morning, my head was full of memories. Going to court with Oscar three years ago for the second time: absolutely everyone I had accompanied had gone to court the second time only to get a postponement for a year. Everyone. Except Oscar. “I want this taken care of today!” the judge had said, and we advocated for voluntary departure, at least, and within a month he was gone. A few months later, Suyapa followed. Or a year or two before that, the I-9 audit at the farm where everyone in the church worked, that had ended employment for every one of them. Or all those trips to report in, all those trips to court. For a long time the work of our church and my work as pastor was mostly about accompaniment as people went through the system. Suyapa, Oscar, Juan, Juanita, Miguel, Rutilio, Paco, all went back to Mexico.
Out on a lonely, snowy country road, a squirrel ran in front of the car. I swerved to miss it, but, confused, it turned around and ran toward the car. Oh, no! I looked in the rear view mirror, and saw it scampering safely away.
The guard at the immigration office was the same man who used to be there. “I don’t need to see your ID,” he told me. They used to joke that I ought to just get an office there. We waited in a small, crowded hallway. A woman with a baby, a couple, a man snoring in the corner. I saw someone leaving, and figured that was a good sign. Maybe there really was such a thing as a routine visit.
And actually, it was. Pretty much. But when I asked if it was because of the problem with the phone, the officer said, no. Everybody has to come in and update their information. And we have to go back again in a few months. But today, we are free.
In the lobby as we left I noticed a big Christmas tree that I hadn’t seen on the way up. Right at eye level was a big butterfly ornament. Butterflies are free… another good sign. But what does this remind me of? Everyone having to come in and report. Maybe – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” I thought of the woman with the baby. And other, more recent times when governments have made vulnerable people report in. It’s never because they love those people and want to see them, hey, how are you doing? I thought of the detention centers expanding, all those new spaces waiting to be filled. What did Jesus say? – “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Just breathe, and walk. Adelante: keep on going.
We went for lunch, and I ordered the breakfast I hadn’t had the stomach for, earlier. I took Jose’s hand to say grace, and all that would come out was “Thank you.” And on the way to his house Jose made up a song. “Gracias a Dios… Gracias a Dios… Gracias a Dios.” Another day of freedom.
There is a quote on the wall at church.
“But let us remember that Christ became a person of his people, of his time; he lived as a Jew; he labored as a worker in Nazareth, and ever since, he is made flesh in all people. If many have moved away from the church, it is precisely because the church has been a little alienated from humanity. But a church that would feel as its own, all that is human, and would wish to incarnate within itself the sorrow, hope and anguish, of all who suffer and rejoice, that church would be Christ loved and awaited, Christ present. And that depends on us.” Archbishop Oscar Romero, December 3 1978