"Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone." — Thomas Merton
I wrote earlier today about our journey with Camilia, a Mexican immigrant who is undocumented nearly two decades ago. I don't know how she entered the United States.
I should say her real name is not Camilia, and I have changed several details about her life and story her so as to protect her and make her unrecognizable.
She is brave and frightened.
How sad that I wouldn't dream of taking her photograph showing her face, even though she is trusting and would have permitted it. She is anxious, but not ashamed. She is much-loved and admired. I am used to a country where people can be open.
When she gave her long time factory job to her daughter, who couldn't find work, she was relatively late in life, she left her life behind and came here to work so she could support the rest of her family.
She does grueling work in bitter cold and the heat of the summer, work that no American teenager or adult would take, the farmers can't imagine how they can survive without these hard and loyal workers.
Camilia has sacrificed everything for her daughter and grandchildren, there was no other motive for coming to our country. She is no threat to us, our families, or our jobs. She is not a terrorist or rapist or "bad hombre." She is as gentle as a Spring garden.
There were simply no jobs for everyone, and she was getting older, when Mexican workers tend to be replaced and sometimes have the option of bequeathing their precious jobs to family members.
There was a time when Camilia would have been hailed as a hero in America and celebrated for her hard work, generous spirit, and devotion to freedom and family. She could easily have inspired a Willa Cather novel or a movie.
She personifies the weary and dispossessed, striving to be free. She does the work nobody wants. It was either come here or see her family lose their home and go hungry. She gave up everything she had, years of benefits and savings to get to the United States.
She has a boyfriend she loves, and fears being separated from him.
Today, there are many people, including many with enormous political power, who consider her a criminal, just like murderers and rapists. So do many ordinary people. "She is a criminal," posted Melanie on my Facebook page this morning. "She isn't undocumented…she is illegal." What can I say, really? I cannot argue with a heart that has turned to stone. I did ask Melanie if she had been to a supermarket recently, she probably bought some food this criminal planted or picked.
Where did that leave us? She didn't respond, they never do.
We took Camilia to see an immigration attorney, his offices are about an hour from us, he is quite busy these days, overwhelmed.
"It is heartbreaking to be an immigration lawyer right now," he said, shaking his head. Very few of his clients have the money to pay for legal struggles with the U.S. government. I have no good news to share, he said.
Camilia does not speak much English, we told the lawyer as much of her story as we could, she kept showing him the records of the state tax payments she has made voluntarily every year she has been there. She thought they might matter. They didn't. It was helpful that she had been here a long time, he said, and had committed no crimes.
He explained some of the visa and other options available to people seeking to stay in America, some might apply to her, most don't any longer. It is not possible for her to seek citizenship and most of the visa options are extraordinarily complex and time-consuming. They are also expensive, take years, or would require her to leave the country and try to return.
Increasingly, undocumented workers have been arrested and rushed out of the country, they have no rights or access to due process in most cases.
Immigration agents have stepped up their raids on dairy farms in New York State, the lawyer said, and have been pulling workers out of dairy barns and taking them away. They do not come back or have lawyers. Some police departments might check her papers and citizenship status, others might not. You just never know, he said. You have to be prepared for the worst and try to live your life.
Camilia is an agricultural worker, she works hard all day every day, her farmer depends greatly on her, as many farmers do on their immigrant workers. It would cost her thousands of dollars and might take years to get a visa approved, and the lawyer said it almost certainly would be impossible under the new rules and proposals of the current political administration.
We know something of Camilia's back story and I asked if she might have the option of seeking political asylum.
He suggested we return in a week or so and meet with a lawyer in his firm who speaks Spanish. The odds were very long, he said, almost impossible, but there were some things about her situation that was worth exploring. Her farmer and some others she works with have suggested they will help her with legal fees. They are very supportive of her, they are all good people, deeply conservative members of the Republican Party.
As of now, these consultations are free. The lawyers were not charging any fees. If they decide to proceed or go further, that will change. Court proceedings are expensive.
We were all a bit long in the face when we left, the lawyer made it clear that the prospects for people like Camilia were grim and worsening. We wanted to be up for her, but the lawyer made no false promises. He saw no light at the end of the tunnel over the next few years. He said she needs to learn her rights and prepare what she might say if she is stopped by the police or arrested by immigration agents. They are becoming more aggressive and more visible by the day, he said.
And the president wants to hire 10,000 more immigration agents.
All you can do is be prepared, he said. And Maria and I have to stay grounded and hopeful.
Camilia has no prospects left in Mexico, no work for her to do. She will have some hard decisions to make about her life now, we will do everything we can to help her.
The day was sobering, it made me wonder if this was really the America my grandparents fled to for refuge or that I have always known. After the meeting we were silent, we drove to a nearby Dunkin' Donuts and I saw that Camilia was anxious. She no longer goes to public places in the daytime, she and her boyfriend only go out at night, and then, to places they know well.
Beyond that, she had never been to a Dunkin' Donuts, it seemed a luxury to her.
We ordered coffee and a sandwich — she offered to pay – and I saw the world in a different way. My life of privilege was going out of focus. Not once in my years of life did I ever fear going out for a cup of coffee, even in some of the allegedly most dangerous parts of America.
Three elderly women, dressed up and with lots of jewelry, were staring at us, they heard Camilia trying to talk to us in her halting English and were pointing. I became concerned, as she was, that they were watching her too closely. They just knew, their look was so hostile, I felt my spine tingling.
I also felt a wave of empathy. I was standing in Camilia's shoes and looking at the door, calculating how quickly we could move on and get out of there if one of the women took out their cellphones or got up to talk to the manager. I started thinking of back roads I could take to get home, and then checked my self. Don't rush ahead, stay in the now. We finished our coffee and sandwiches and went out to the car.
The women's eyes followed us all the way.
I don't know what they were thinking, but were clearly hostile to us. Fear is contagious, we both are so sorry this good woman is branded a criminal by people and by our government, and is afraid to have a cup of coffee in public. We will go back to see the Spanish-speaking lawyer in a week or so. We will keep on trying.
Next time, she insisted, lunch is on me.
Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.