Click here if you don’t see subscription options
George M. AndersonDecember 06, 2004

Joel Magallán, S.J., is the founder and executive director of the Asociación Tepeyac in New York City. (Tepeyac is the name of the hill near Mexico City where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to Blessed Juan Diego in 1531.) A network of 40 community and parish-based organizations, the association has been helping Latino immigrants since 1997. It serves 150,00 Latinos each year, most of them undocumented immigrants. At the request of the Archdiocese of New York, Brother Joel was missioned by the Jesuit provincial superior of Mexico to work with them.

How would you describe the Latino community in New York?

There are over 1.3 million undocumented Latino immigrants in the New York City area alone, half of them from Mexico. We think of them in terms of three groups. First are those who arrived 25 or more years ago. These have established themselves in good jobs and now have documentation. Born here, their children are citizens, many of whom have not only completed college, but have also gone on to obtain higher degrees. We look to this group to help with the newer generations of immigrants.

The second group are those who came in the last five to 18 years. Most are undocumented, but they have learned how to survive without documents. They hold jobs in restaurants, construction and the food industry, and their youngest children are now finishing high school. But these are also the ones who have trouble with their immigration status, because they arrived after 1986, the year the government granted an amnesty to immigrants already here.

The third group are those who have just arrived. They know nothing about how to survive and usually speak little or no English. They don’t know where to find help. When they get sick, they are afraid to go to the hospital because of their undocumented status; they only go if there is a serious accident. And for the same reason, sometimes they don’t send their children to school: they don’t realize that they can do this even if they are undocumented. So they are afraid to go anywhere for fear of being asked about their immigration status.

What about the jobs these most recent arrivals take? 

They are willing to take any kind of work, like landscaping and construction labor, as well as jobs in hotels and restaurants. Much of what they earn is sent back to Mexico to help support members of their families, but they don’t know about the minimum wage laws or about being paid for overtime. Employers often take advantage of this. One of our first demonstrations, in fact, was at a restaurant near Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan. At our first meeting of leaders in September of 1997, a worker from there came in: he was bleeding because he had been beaten by his boss. The leaders said, “This is our time!” There was TV coverage of our picketing. By then we were already organizing Latinos in the parishes in all the five boroughs.

Has the Archdiocese of New York been supportive? 

Absolutely. Cardinal O’Connor loaned us this building on West 14th Street, a former convent, and asked Catholic Charities to support us with salaries and utilities for the first five years. Cardinal Egan has kept up this support. At first, there were only two of us, but now the Asociación Tepeyac has 25 employees. We pay all our expenses through membership in neighborhood base organizations, cultural events and grants from foundations. The archdiocese now needs to sell our building, but gave us the opportunity to be the first purchaser. We hope to keep it, because immigrants are used to coming here. They can tell others, “Go to West 14th Street and ask around in the area as you look for the Tepeyac sign,” even if they don’t know the exact address. It takes time to spread the word among new immigrants about the programs we have for them and their children. Having just started our capital campaign to buy the building, we are not ready to move.

Have the unions been of help?  

Because immigrants are willing to take all kinds of jobs, including those that U.S. citizens don’t want to take, the unions do want new immigrants as members. But unions offer little help for the undocumented. If an undocumented worker at a restaurant is fired, for example, after working there for 10 or 15 years, the worker cannot go to the unemployment office because of his status; the union says it has no funds for fired workers who don’t have their documents, and it won’t help by sending the fired person somewhere else for work. Frankly, I don’t see much difference between being unionized and not unionized. Unions only ask for the minimum wage and for overtime—no more than what the law requires. However, we still have hopes that the unions might do more for undocumented immigrants, so we keep telling immigrants that being unionized could eventually lead to better working conditions for them.

What about driver licenses for undocumented people?

The laws on driver licenses vary from state to state. Here in New York State, the Legislature is trying to prevent undocumented workers from having them. For Latinos in upstate New York, this has become a big problem, because most live far enough from their jobs that driving is a necessity. We are lobbying the Legislature on that issue. Cardinal Egan and many pastors have been highly supportive in this regard. Here in the city, the harm is less, because the public transportation system works well: undocumented workers can get to and from their jobs with subways and buses.

Industry needs immigrants, and when these people cannot drive, they can’t supply their labor for industries like agriculture, restaurants, hotels and others. North Carolina understands this and lets undocumented workers get driver licenses. Half a million Mexicans are working in North Carolina, where there is much less public transportation than here, so legislators have said that to get a driver license, undocumented immigrants only need their tax ID number to prove that they are paying taxes.

The same is true in Georgia. I was in Atlanta five years ago, and with a boom going on then in construction, many Mexicans had come to work building houses. The immigration authorities conducted some raids and picked up the undocumented ones. But the businessmen in construction complained to the legislature, saying they needed those workers who had been deported back to Mexico. Their complaint was taken seriously, and there have been no more raids.

Generally, raids increase during election years, and are meant to send a political message that the immigration people are out there doing their job. In 2004, for example, during about three months starting in June, 11,000 people were detained in California, of whom 600 were sent back to Mexico. The others were released, again because of pressure from employers who complained. “Should I stop my business?” the employees asked after the raids. Since then there have been no more raids.

Is it more difficult now for undocumented Mexicans to enter the United States to work?

Because of the increase in the number of Border Patrol officers, it has become more difficult and more dangerous to cross the border, and also more expensive. The smugglers—called coyotes—have doubled and even tripled their prices. To go from Mexico to New York now costs $2,500 to $3,000. For Latinos trying to get here from countries like Ecuador and Colombia, the price is much higher, around $10,000. But from talking to undocumented immigrants who make it here, we believe this is because the coyotes pay a certain amount to the immigration officers for letting them cross without too many problems.

We conclude from this that the people who die of exposure in the desert or in the mountains are generally those who hired coyotes who did not want to pay off the immigration agents. That’s what happened last spring during Holy Week, when 80 immigrants were arrested after their arrival at the Newark airport in a flight from Los Angeles. We were visiting some of the people who had been taken to the local immigration detention center. A number of those arrested had simply come to meet the new arrivals, and got caught. Several had been living and working here for years, supporting their families. They were immediately deported. Some of the immigrants at the detention center told us the raid was made because the coyote in charge of this group from Los Angeles had not made the payment to the immigration people. We think there is a whole system of bribery that results from the United States’ need for millions of low-paid workers.

In addition to lobbying in the New York State Legislature, do you also lobby in Washington on the wider immigration issues?

We are part of a group called the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty, which was started in 1999. The coalition has developed a proposal for changing the immigration system, which we call the Freedom Act. It would legalize Latino immigrants who have already been living and working here for a number of years, and also those coming with a three-year work visa. We have visited both Democrats and Republicans in Congress over the past few years, and both parties have introduced bills that address these issues, so we’re hopeful that they will work together on a bipartisan bill. The efforts of Tepeyac are not just about fixing the daily problems of immigrants here, but also about working for change at the national level.

What about cultural and religious factors that undocumented Latinos find supportive?

Especially for Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe is an important part of our identity. That’s how Tepeyac, the hill where she revealed herself to Juan Diego, came to be part of our association’s name. She represents the most popular Marian devotion for new Latino immigrants; they see her as their protector, the one who views them as human beings with dignity and talent. Even some Episcopal churches and churches of other denominations now have Guadalupe banners—we see the banners when pastors of these other churches ask us to speak with them about the problems of new immigrants, many of whom go not just to Catholic churches, but to others too. It depends on the kind of welcome new immigrants get. If they do not feel welcome in a Catholic church, or if no one on the staff speaks Spanish, they go elsewhere, including to Protestant churches. So I work with several religious denominations on immigration issues.

As for cultural supports, three years ago Cardinal Egan encouraged us on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, to stay even closer to our tradition, and so every year since we have had the so-called Guadalupana “Antorcha” run from Mexico. Young Mexican relay runners start at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City at the beginning of October and run in relays through 60 cities all the way to New York City. They reach here in time for the Dec. 12 feast day. The run is a way of underlining our living connection with our heritage, and also our belief that the Virgin of Guadalupe is helping the millions of undocumented Latinos who are struggling to live difficult lives here in the United States.

Before conducting this interview, I had sat in the garden behind the Tepeyac building in Lower Manhattan. On one side was a scaffolding erected for a mural that was being painted on the wall by young Latino artists. Brother Magallán explained that the mural is based on an Aztec legend from the pre-Hispanic period. It shows a serpent whose head is a symbol of God. The length of the serpent, which stretches from one end of the wall to the other, signifies the enduring connection between Latinos in Mexico and those who live here and their reliance on God’s help.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024