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Looking Back: Jesuit Volunteers bridge the immigration divide

By Kris Berggren

This #JVStories post was originally published in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Magazine in 2010. The piece is written by Kris Berggren, a FJV who served in 1985 and a former staff member. She’s married to FJV Ben Olk who served in Detroit in 1984, their daughter Rita served as a JV in 2015-2016 at Brother Booker Ashe House. As we look back into JVC History we take a moment to reflect on the transformative experiences that JVs have had standing with the immigrant and refugee populations. Since 2010, migration, immigration and the realities of those on the margins, as well as the JVs serving immigrants and refugees has shifted. May we continue to pray and unite around injustice to create a more hopeful world.


The struggle for dignity and human rights for immigrants and refugees is at least as old as the book of Exodus. You know, the story where the Israelites flee Egypt after generations as slave laborers. They sought the freedom God held forth, but endured many hardships en route to the Promised Land.


Many immigrants in the United States today are living that ancient story. Their difficult journey often features poverty, deplorable housing conditions, limited access to education and health care, and exploitation. As they hold onto faith and hope that they’ll find a better life, Jesuit Volunteers from border to border walk with them.

The “Ellis Island of the Southwest”

Stephanie Gharakhanian (Portland ‘07, El Paso ‘08) was placed at Sacred Heart Church, El Paso, Texas during her second volunteer year, just four blocks from the border between Juarez, Mexico, and Texas. Known as the “Ellis Island of the Southwest,” she said, it’s often the first stop for those entering the U.S. Among them,  an estimated 30,000 Mexicans have crossed the border legally with temporary visas, and  stayed instead of returning to Juarez, hoping to escape the drug wars.


“Many were witness to murder, or knew someone murdered, or owned a business that was extorted,” explained Gharakhanian, yet their asylum applications are usually denied because they don’t fall into a “persecuted” category.


After JVC, Gharakhanian moved into Annunciation House, a Catholic Worker-style house for women and children in El Paso. There, she deepened her relationships with the residents by sharing daily life. Advocating for their rights to basic needs—food, shelter and a living wage—in the face of intransigent government policies, however, often left Stephanie feeling “trapped,” she said, or to use an Ignatian term, in “desolation.”


“I found myself… being pushed to my limits more—the limits of my heart, my body, how much work I can do. The extent to which I can be generous, or smile at the end of the day. When I need to be by myself,” she said.


However, she also experienced small victories, like watching a little girl take her first steps, or sharing someone’s joy at finally prevailing through the legal process of getting their papers.


“Here, more than anywhere, I have experienced love in action as ‘a harsh and dreadful thing,’” she said, citing a Dostoevsky line often quoted by Dorothy Day, “but also a beautiful thing.”


Beyond the headlines to the front lines

For many JVs, the immigration debate has become personal through the triumphs and tragedies they’ve witnessed. They wish other Americans could meet the people they know who are working hard just to survive.

“Immigration is such a broad term because there are so many faces,” said Delphine Broccard (Brooklyn ‘09). “I’m an immigrant, but my dad’s a doctor,” said the Swiss-born Broccard, who moved to Minnesota at age eight and just became a U.S. citizen last year. “You can say coming here illegally isn’t the best idea, but regardless, they are people and they’re here now and how can we not help them in the best ways?”


As a public benefits and housing advocate with Make the Road, a New York membership organization of low-income immigrants, Broccard helps people apply for food stamps or file complaints with the city’s public housing agency about problems like rat-infested apartments or unfair rent inflation. The agency is dedicated to informing members about their legal and civil rights.


Educating workers about “wage theft” was a big part of Bobby Johnsen’s (San Francisco ’09) placement at La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco. Employers may shortchange immigrant workers on payday.


“It’s especially easy for day laborers to be exploited because they are compensated in cash or personal checks and there isn’t a paper trail,” he said. “But many times they are in such need they will accept a lower pay rate if it means having work at all.”


The problem is also common in Phoenix, said Cristina Sanidad (Phoenix ‘08), who organizes undocumented workers with Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, where she was also placed as a JV; and in rural Georgia, according to Cassie Jendzejec (Atlanta ‘08), an outreach and education coordinator with Georgia Legal Services.


When Arizona’s controversial SB1070, which gave law enforcement wider authority to request identification from suspected illegal immigrants, took effect, Sanidad organized picketing at businesses that systematically fail to pay workers to demand contracts and owed wages. The action also symbolized the law as a tool of oppression, as is the daily violation of workers’ rights through wage theft.


The employer may hire undocumented people, then when it is time to pay, he will threaten their lives or families’ lives, and refuse to pay,” Sanidad said. “Immigration status has become a weapon, or tool, employers have used to not pay workers.” She met workers owed as little as $150 and as much as $30,000.


On the farms of Georgia, foreign workers with H2As, temporary agricultural visas, are hired for seasonal labor but are frequently paid by the piece instead of the promised minimum wage. They are given substandard housing, such as 25 men to a cabin with one bathroom. Employers commonly collect workers’ documents, purportedly for safekeeping, and workers can’t leave.


Jendzejec said she was sometimes “chased off” of farms as she tried to talk to farm workers about their rights. She had better luck in town laundromats or Walmart parking lots on Sundays.


Education and advocacy are also big parts of Make the Road’s mission. Even in more established immigrant communities, exploitation still occurs. Bureaucratic processes and language barriers can mean housing or food stamp delays for desperate families. Broccard advocates for clients navigating through the red tape.  “They already have a voice,” she said. “We are just kind of the loudspeakers for them.”


“[JVC] really had a tremendously positive impact on our ability to do good work, especially in the area of public benefits,” said John Whitlow, Make the Road’s supervising attorney. “It’s safe to say our services would be significantly less robust if we were without the JV.”


JVC helps agencies meet rising needs for services

Other agency representatives agree JVs help them stretch modest budgets and carry out their missions.


At Los Angeles’ Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles (CARECEN), this year’s JV will work with a new wave of domestic abuse cases, said Legal Services Director Daniel Sharp. Rising needs result from increased reports among undocumented women and a “huge shortage” of service providers. Immigrant women are also fleeing what Sharp called a “femicide epidemic” taking place, especially in Guatemala, where impunity toward domestic violence, and even murder, is the norm.


JVC is “a huge part of our program,” said Sharp, who was the agency’s very first JV in 1997. “It’s allowed us to take on a much larger caseload.”


Breaking through interior borders

Anyone who has ever been a Jesuit Volunteer can tell you that sharing experiences is a key way of breaking down an “us” and “them” mentality.


Like her clients in a Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program, Shannon Johnson (Phoenix ’09) lacked a car in the auto-dependent city. She rode her bike and learned the bus system, which gave her insight to advising others about public transportation.


“I [could] sit down with clients, look them in the eye, and say this is how it’s going to work,” said Johnson. She also found her daily 12-mile bike commute was a chance to “exercise, pray and introspect. I found a lot of enrichment out of something I thought was going to be awful.


Jendzejec said witnessing the language barriers, loneliness, and exploitation confronted by farm workers brought those realities home more viscerally than all her college texts and documentary films.


“The in-your-face exposure I got during my JVC year gave me a much clearer sense of social injustice that happens in our country,” she said. Now a social worker in Boston, Jendzejec visits detained immigrants through a chaplaincy program. For some, she’s the only visitor they’ve had for years.

The story continues

In a nation of immigrants, these stories are not the first to be told and are far from the last. These FJVs are among the many who have developed a life-long passion for civic engagement in the pursuit of social justice. As immigration debates continue in the political arena, JVs strives to serve the common good of the communities they serve and the human dignity of the individuals they encounter.