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Between migrants and future lie new dangers

Scalabrini Fr. Ademar Barilli of Brazil put the dilemma for many migrants from the South in stark terms: “If their choice is to die of hunger on their farm in Honduras or to die in Mexico taking a bold step toward a new horizon, they prefer the latter” (see cover story).

So they “throw themselves here,” Rigoni said, referring to the increasingly dangerous border between Mexico and Guatemala, “preferring to die outside their country rather than face the shame of dying defeated and broken on their land at home.”

This is not a good time for migrants. On the way north they are treated more severely than ever in the wake of Sept. 11. Should they make it through all the borders, they face an increasingly hostile attitude in the United States.

For starters, with anti-terrorist fever increasing border patrols, migrants coming from Mexico are forced to take more dangerous routes, risking death at sea or in long treks across desert and mountain.

Once we celebrated such heroic pursuit of the future. Now we see the movement of people through our borders as burdensome. We don’t mind if they pick fruits and vegetables for our tables or perform any number of menial tasks U.S. citizens shun, but we don’t want to pay them a living wage or even give them the benefit of our laws.

In a distressing decision this week, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the government, in the form of the National Labor Relations Board, has no authority to make employers pay back wages to undocumented immigrants who were illegally fired for labor organizing efforts.

As dissenting justices noted, the ruling will only provide businesses an incentive to hire more illegal aliens knowing they will be allowed to fire them without legal liability if illegal immigrants dare join a union.

Human rights and religious groups are also raising their voices in an attempt to come to the aid of unaccompanied immigrant children, who make their way to the United States often as a way of escaping oppression and political persecution. Once here, though, they are often incarcerated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

According to a New York Times account, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., told a hearing in February that more than 30 percent of the 5,000 immigrant children detained each year are housed in juvenile jails. Others, he said, are kept in shelters for months without access to translators, education or medical care. Things could change if pending legislation, which would create an Office of Children’s Services within the Department of Justice, is adopted.

Meantime, the urge to survive and to seek a future will continue to override the dangers of detention or even the real possibility of death in the trek north.

Rigoni understands those urges. What once was depressing work on the Guatemala border has become a celebration of what he calls a “living Eucharist of a humanity that wants to survive, that wants to believe there is a future.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002