El Mensajero (English)

Posted: July 10, 2017

A beautiful example of compassion

A quote from Helen Keller, cited in different contexts, forms the perfect backdrop for my column's theme this month. Keller, who was blind and deaf, an author, political activist and lecturer in the 20th century, wrote:

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched -- they must be felt with the heart."

An outpouring of compassion in Connecticut recently on behalf of a Guatemalan refugee and his family certainly belongs in that category.

Luis Barrios, a 51-year-old man who is a sanitation worker in the town of Derby, was facing imminent deportation for having entered the United States without documents 24 years ago, in 1992, when he was 27, seeking admission of a refugee. Fearing for his life, he had fled because of death threats.

His father was killed shortly afterward and his brother was murdered in 2004, according to reports in the Hartford Courant. His application for political asylum was denied in 1998 when he missed attending a hearing.

In the meantime, Barrios had married, and he and his wife, Dora, were rearing their four children: Jessica, now 19 and in college, 16-year-old Lester, and 11-year-old twin daughters, Gabriela and Sindy. All are U.S. citizens.

In 2011, a state trooper stopped him for driving with a broken taillight, the only time he came to the attention of the police, who turned him over to federal authorities. That year, his wife's 16-year-old-niece in Guatemala was kidnapped and murdered, and two of her nephews were shot, one fatally.

Facing deportation since then, Barrios won a stay, renewed annually until this year. Recently, he came within one day of being deported.

But compassion on his behalf bloomed like spring flowers. Connecticut's two U.S. senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro made a strong case, as did community, immigrant and Working Families organizations, and labor unions.

One hundred people demonstrated at the federal building in Hartford, 19 of whom were arrested. Erin O'Neil-Baker, Barrios' lawyer, worked hard to save him. The Hartford Courant and local TV stations reported regularly on Barrios' plight.

After immigration authorities granted a 30-day reprieve, Courant reporters Kathleen Megan and Rebecca Lurye wrote that DeLauro told the tearful family: "I just want to cry with joy. I am so, so happy for all of you ... and we thank God. Above all, thank God they decided to do this."

DeLauro, Murphy and Blumenthal continued working with the Department of Homeland Security, and on May 13, Barrios received a two-year stay. Blumenthal said Barrios faced "serious risks of death, torture or serious injury" if he were sent back to Guatemala.

Blumenthal called the case of Barrios exceptional, adding that there are other undocumented immigrants in Connecticut facing deportation even though they have no criminal record. 

Indeed, The New York Times reports that nationwide from Jan. 22 to April 29, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 41,318 immigrants, over half of whom committed no crime other than being in the country without permission. Historically, that has been a civil violation, not a crime.

Fortunately, throughout the nation, compassion has been sprouting as well. Recently, CBS' "60 Minutes" program highlighted churches, mayors and cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries. In West Hartford, I see more and more placards on lawns saying, in English, Spanish and Arabic: "It does not matter where you are from. We are happy you are our neighbor."

At a lecture in 1916, Helen Keller said that helping our fellow men is one's only reason for being in this world and that in doing things to help one's fellows lies the secret of lasting happiness.

Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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