At the recent commencement ceremony at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., Jasiel Morales, 18, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was the youngest graduate. And although she came to Yonkers, N.Y., just five years ago and found a new language and culture "challenging," she was the top student in the class of 2010. Next fall she will enter New York University to study business and then go to law school, according to the local paper. Among 1,581 graduates, there were young men and women from 30 countries, including South American nations stretching from Argentina to Venezuela.
In the current anti-immigrant climate, public opinion clings to the view that Hispanics are a dysfunctional culture with the potential of lowering the nation’s standard of living. That is at the base of the opposition to undocumented immigrants. Lawrence Downes of The New York Times wrote that bigots pour all their loathing of Spanish-speaking people into the word "illegal," and "call them congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean."
The success of Jasiel Morales and of many others challenges that perception. In the recent ordination ceremony for the Archdiocese of New York, two of the 10 new priests are immigrants from Latin America: Enrique Salvo from Nicaragua and Fredy Patino Montoya from Colombia. The young man who eventually succeeded me as editor of Revista Maryknoll is David Aquije, an immigrant from Peru. The woman who drew my blood for a medical test the other day told me she is from Ecuador. The dental assistant who recently took my X-rays at my brother’s clinic in Aurora, Colo., came from Honduras.
Of course, immigrants from all over the world are all around us, many in leadership positions. In my parish in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., priests from various parts of Africa have served short-term assignments in recent years. Father Loyola Amalraj, from India, has been parochial vicar for years.
The priest shortage hit home a few weeks ago. Father Michael Keane, the pastor, announced the end of one Sunday Mass. To get incardinated, Father Amalraj must serve in another parish. There is no one to replace him.
Father Keane said that only the presence of several hundred priests from other countries will enable the archdiocese to avoid dire cuts in coming years. Mainstream society is simply not producing enough priests, to say nothing about sisters, brothers and deacons.
The same thing is happening in the workplace. In my neighborhood, the workers I see shoveling snow in the winter, mowing lawns in the summer, replacing roofs, building stone walls, cleaning yards and gutters or houses and hotel rooms are all Hispanics.
The other day, for the first time, I saw one about 60 feet above ground roped to a cable between two huge branches and systematically cutting chunks of one of them with a chainsaw hanging from his safety belt. When I looked up, he gave me a big grin and made the sign of the cross.
These workers are happy at what they do, whether it’s dangerous or not.
People see a brown-faced person and assume he or she is an illegal alien. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the estimated 50 million Hispanics in the United States are citizens or legal residents. Millions are the descendants of Spaniards who came to the Southwest 250 years before it became part of the United States. Others are Puerto Ricans whose ancestors were declared citizens by Congress in 1917. Still other millions – Cubans and Central and South Americans — were admitted as refugees.
Today’s immigrants are here because our aging society needs them.
In God’s eyes, there are no illegals.
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.