He jumped ship in New York harbor. He didn’t defraud the owners of the German steamer. When he signed on as a cook in Bremen, it was understood that he wouldn’t be paid until the ship returned to homeport. A single man, he had left behind his parents and siblings in Odessa, Russia. He came to America, because he didn’t want to serve in the Czar’s army.
Family lore says that my grandfather, Ludwig Anton Klein, spoke eleven languages. Unfortunately, they didn’t include English. He sold his accordion on the lower east side of Manhattan and used the money to purchase a train ticket. He was searching for a relative—my family always called him as “Uncle Eddie”—who farmed in Oklahoma. The ticket took my grandfather as far as Cincinnati; from there, he walked to Oklahoma.
For work, he followed the wheat harvests from Texas to the Dakotas. In 1915, with the First World War raging, he married my Grandmother, Katie Hamburger, a young woman from Weatherford, Oklahoma. They came north, by wagon, into Kansas, to homestead in Rush County. There would be almost no contact with the family in Russia, though my Grandfather did send packages to brothers who had written to say that they had been detained in camps.
Beti was born into an ordinary Guatemalan family. In 1994 the country was in the midst of civil war. Entire villages “disappeared” as the government scoured the country for guerillas. Beti was only a year and a half old, when her father, who had been given a choice of joining the guerillas or dying, fled to the United States. He didn’t have the money needed to file for political asylum. Beti was seven when her mother went to join her husband in the U.S., leaving her in the care of grandparents.
In 2009 someone threatened to kidnap Beti and her cousins, unless her parents, aunts and uncles, paid eight thousand dollars. Two years later, an additional eight thousand was demanded. Sister Janice Thome, of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, who met Beti in Garden City, Kansas continues the story:
They could not pay because they were still paying off what they had borrowed earlier. The young people moved to another city. They lived two years looking over their shoulders in case the person(s) would find them and kill them for running away. The past year’s kidnappings have increased so one by one the cousins have come up to the US. Beti was the last one and only one caught.
Beti came by “coyote” and was arrested in the desert. At the first detention center they were given only bread and water for two days and they slept on the floor because there are not enough beds. At the second center they received a sack lunch both days and slept on the floor. In the third, because there was not enough room on the floor, they gave Beti an order of supervision and called her parents to wire $225 for bus fare.
This autumn, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is asking Catholics to support comprehensive immigration reform. Of course, many would argue that current U.S. immigration laws need to be enforced. After all, every government has a responsibility to control its borders.
That’s true, but no civil law, passed by any government, overrides the human right to flee death and political oppression, or to seek a basic standard of life for one’s impoverished family. The Prophet Amos castigates those who exorcise their obligation to care for the poor by the recitation of manmade laws.
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land: “When will the new moon be over,” you ask, “that we may sell our grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the grain-bins? (8:4-5).
My grandfather never knew if the aid packages he sent back to Russia reached his brothers. He died in Kansas, never seeing any of them again. When a second world war came, two of his sons, who were old enough, fought for the United States in the Pacific. Mr. Roosevelt’s army wasn’t the Czar’s.
Sister Janice writes, “The miracle is that instead of instant deportation, Beti gets to be with her parents and meet her three younger siblings. The down side is that this does usually end in deportation.”
Jesus reminds us that we will be judged as stewards, not masters, of our blessings.
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon (Lk 16: 12-13).
Those of us born in the United States have been blessed by God. Hopefully we’ve worked hard for what we now enjoy, but being born into freedom, and in a land of opportunity, was pure gift. That is why we must recognize ourselves as stewards, not masters. A steward realizes that the master could have ordered all things differently. We could have been born on the other side of a border, just as our immigrant forebears were.
Stewards pass laws and expect them to be observed, but stewards have a profound moral obligation to enact laws that are just, that do not separate families, that do not lead to exploitation, or cause the deaths of thousands who die on the trek to find a better life.
Ludwig and Beti, and so many others, felt compelled to make the choices they did. And we? Do we feel no compunction?
Amos 8: 4-7 1 Timothy 2: 1-8 Luke 16: 1-13