Marcelino Ramos, a gardener, crossed the border between Mexico and the U.S. in the trunk of a car in 1967. With him were his wife Maria, eldest son Humberto and eldest daughter Rosa. The Ramoses, parents of 10 children, fit the paradigm of immigrants who, from the beginning, have continually renewed the Catholic Church and strengthened the nation.
When I met the oldest son Humberto, he was the assistant director of Hispanic ministry at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His brother Sergio had become a priest. Hector was a physician; Rosa, a city corrections officer; Ricardo, an architect; Ramiro, a state corrections officer; Jaime, an economist with a doctorate degree; Estella, a psychologist; Gloria, a teacher with a master’s degree from Harvard; and Lorena, the youngest, was still in college.
Another immigrant who arrived in the trunk of a car is Hugo Ortega, who came to Houston in 1984 at the age of 17. Profiled with other immigrants by the Smithsonian magazine, he bounced around for several years, staying with one relative or another or sleeping in the streets. Then Salvadorans took pity and helped him find a job at the Backstreet Cafe, run by a young woman named Tracy Vaught, whom he eventually married.
During the amnesty signed in late 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Ortega gained his green card, put himself through cooking school and today he and Vaught operate three leading Houston restaurants and have a 19-year-old daughter.
A more recent arrival is Osiris Hoil, son of poor farmers in the small village of Tekax, Yucatan. At the age of 18, he came to Denver on a visitor’s visa to see his older brother who was working at a restaurant and bar. Hoil got a job at the same bar, worked his way up to cook, learning English from the late-night drinkers, and in 2005 married a waitress named Jennifer, who had grown up in Virginia, where they moved to be closer to her family.
Hoil worked in construction but was laid off after the economic collapse of 2008. He spent eight months searching for a job, desperate to support himself and his wife, who was pregnant. In 2009, as he sat on the front porch of his next door neighbor, Marc Wallace, an entrepreneur who had started his own software company, Wallace asked him what he would really like to do. Hoil said he would like to own a restaurant where he could cook like his mother had cooked.
Seeing Hoil as "a trustworthy, hard worker with a lot of integrity, charisma and passion," Wallace and close friends agreed to launch him with a hot dog cart customized at a cost of $25,000. They also helped him to incorporate the business, District Taco, and create a website and logo. In an interview with The Washington Post, Wallace said: "Our experience starting businesses before allowed us to move fast, and Osiris was able to make some incredible recipes for us to start with. We knew quickly out the gate that we were onto something special."
Today, the taco cart has been replaced by seven restaurants, with two more to open soon. And Hoil, now 33, is co-owner of an enterprise that employs more than 300, asks: "Who would have thought?"
There are countless sagas like these, but the current political discourse is all about deporting the undocumented and building a 2,000-mile-long wall across the Mexican border. These actions are seen as the way to make America great again.
No, the success of these immigrants and the story of those who have built bridges of compassion and understanding to them is what makes America great. It has always been so. And if America is to maintain greatness, it must continue to be open and welcoming to "the other."
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service