Robert Meza is a 40-year-old Arizona state legislator. The district he represents covers portions of central Phoenix, including both middle-class areas of old Phoenix and poor ones populated by Mexican-Americans. During his first term, he heard complaints from those Mexican-American constituents about the problems created by the influx of illegal migrants to the city. That the accusations came from poor, hardworking Hispanics who believed they had become the victims of the uncontrolled flow of new migrants gave their concerns special poignancy.
The same “coyotes” who smuggled workers into the country were keeping many in virtual slavery. Purchasing “McMansions” in the ever-expanding Phoenix suburbs, they would house as many as a dozen families in a single dwelling and arrange for their employment at wages so low that when they were paid, they assured the workers’ continued dependence on the smugglers. Crime rose; so did the drug trade.
A particular concern voiced by Mr. Meza’s constituents was the mounting incidence of motor vehicle accidents involving unlicensed drivers and uninsured autos. At their prompting Mr. Meza prepared a bill to penalize those responsible for such accidents. The day he introduced the bill to the state legislature, his car was hit by an unlicensed driver. The car was totaled and rescuers had to employ the “jaws of life” to help pull the lawmaker from the driver’s seat. The legislature promptly approved the bill.
Mr. Meza’s story illustrates how pressing the migration issue is for residents in the border regions. Soon after his bill passed, Arizona’s Governor Janet Napolitano and her neighbor in New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson, both Democrats, declared states of emergency in their respective states to help cope with the social pressures brought on by illegal immigration.
Robert Meza is a 1986 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Daniel Groody, now a Holy Cross priest and professor of Hispanic theology at Notre Dame, was his classmate. Groody has always taken a fresh, even daring approach to issues of poverty and spirituality. As a theology student at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, he wrote a licentiate thesis on the spirituality of street people in five U.S. cities. This past year he published a study of a spiritual renewal program for Mexican-Americans in southern California’s Coachella Valley under the title Border of Death, Valley of Life (Rowman and Littlefield).
Based on Father Groody’s own pastoral experience as a young priest and on his later dissertation at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, the book describes the conversion and maturation of Mexican migrants beginning with a retreat in the Valley Missionary Program, a unique Catholic renewal and evangelistic outreach program begun by Holy Cross priests and run by the immigrants themselves.
The retreat is a colorful, sensory-rich experience keyed to the immigrants’ Mexican background and their immigrant experience. Father Groody demonstrates how the program transforms the lives of its participants. It heals the wounds of Mexicans’ poverty and of their alienation as migrants in America. It develops their sense of being loved by God and others; and it turns them into dedicated disciples and evangelists, who carry the Gospel to their neighbors and even back to their native Mexico. As it strengthens their Christian identity, the program sustains their human dignity and heightens their social commitment.
The migrant worker problem is a national one. In northern Virginia, the city of Herndon has constructed a center for the migrant day laborers from Mexico and Central America who used to crowd local parking lots waiting to be picked up by employers. For its good work, it is under attack from anti-immigrant activists, who claim Herndon is abetting immigration violations. The city says in response that its job is not to enforce borders but deal with local problems.
Migration, including migration for economic reasons, is a right the Catholic Church upholds along with the duty of receiving nations to integrate newcomers into their countries. Recognizing the importance of migration issues to Catholics in the United States and elsewhere, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, has been exploring ways in which the Bush administration can collaborate with the Vatican on migration problems.
Notre Dame’s famous president emeritus Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., spearheaded U.S. immigration reform in the 1970’s and 80’s. Now people like Robert Meza, Daniel Groody and Francis Rooney, show that Catholics of a younger generation are poised to make significant contributions, from many sides, to immigration reform in the 00’s as well..