ROCHESTER — During a rousing speech to several hundred supporters of immigrant rights, Father Laurence Tracy noted that proposed federal legislation would make criminals not only of illegal aliens, but also of those who minister to undocumented immigrants.
“I’m here today to say that I’m proud to be a criminal with you!” Father Tracy said, to cheers from the crowd.
Father Tracy, a longtime minister to the Hispanic community, made his remarks outside St. Michael’s Church April 10, the same day hundreds of thousands of demonstrators packed streets around the country to protest a House of Representatives bill that would make it a crime to be in the United States illegally. Father Tracy labeled the legislation “racist” and “xenophobic,” and compared the demonstrators’ struggle against it to Christ’s redemptive suffering on the cross.
“He struggled against evil, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” Father Tracy said.
Catholic opposition to the bill, known as H.R. 4437, has been particularly sharp, in part, because it also targets people — including church workers — who lend assistance to illegal aliens. The U.S. bishops, including Bishop Matthew H. Clark, instead have called for immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Catholics were heavily represented at the Rochester rally, which began at the Federal Building on State Street and wound its way through the city to St. Michael’s on North Clinton Avenue. Several protesters carried American flags or signs bearing such slogans as “No Human Being Is Illegal,” and chanted pro-immigrant slogans in Spanish and English.
The march drew Catholics from Geneva, Sodus, Brockport and other parts of the Diocese of Rochester. It was supported by the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St. Joseph; priests, religious and lay people in diocesan ministry to migrants; officials of diocesan Catholic Charities officials; representatives of labor unions and area colleges; as well as socialist and activist groups.
Catholic participants in the march were unanimous in their criticism of H.R. 4437. Father Jes√∫s Flores, diocesan director of migrant ministry, said the proposed legislation has already spread fear among the diocese’s migrant population, which numbers between 15,000 and 20,000. He urged the federal government to abandon its efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens.
“Maybe they don’t have any legal documents, but they are not criminals,” he said. “They are good — and honest — people, too.”
Sandra Rojas, coordinator of Hispanic Migrant Ministry in Brockport, said the migrants to whom she ministers are sad that the nation is considering penalizing them and added that she and other migrant supporters want amnesty for illegal aliens.
Rojas was accompanied at the march by several migrant workers, including a 26-year-old Mexican who asked that his name not be published because he is undocumented. As Rojas translated, the man said he had entered the country illegally because he can make $8 an hour on a farm here, whereas he earned just $2.50 a day working farms in Mexico. He added that Americans were making a “big mistake” by considering legislation like H.R. 4437.
“During the five years I am working here, I have never seen a Caucasian picking in the fields,” he said, adding that he has harvested onions, cabbage, apples and squash. “The migrant is the one doing the work,” he said.
Indeed, advocates repeatedly pointed out that the vast majority of those who enter the country illegally come to work, not to cause trouble. That was the view of Norma Lazano of Mexico, a resident alien living in Brockport who sings for the Spanish Masses each Sunday at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church.
Not counting transportation and other costs, Lazano said she initially had to spend $220 just to get the documents that allowed her to come to America in the early 1990s, and added that most Mexican migrants don’t have that kind of money. She noted that elderly Americans routinely move to Mexico to buy low-cost housing that won’t deplete their retirement funds. She said she can’t understand why it’s OK for Americans to take advantage of Mexico’s poor economy, but wrong for Mexicans to try to work in America’s good economy.
Lazano said undocumented workers are crucial to the area’s economy, a point also made by Luis Torres, Western New York Director of Rural & Migrant Ministry in Brockport, an ecumenical group supported by the diocese. Torres said Americans enjoy food that is less costly than that found in Europe, primarily because of the cheap labor provided by migrants. He added that he and other migrant ministers fear the effect H.R. 4437 may have if it becomes law.
“We believe that the provisions would put the undocumented worker into the shadows, and only criminalize the priest and the church lady who works for undocumented workers,” he said.