At the close of the tobacco season in Tennessee last February, several migrant workers asked me, their priest, to come and offer a blessing for them before they returned to Mexico.
The night before the visit, I had a dream that on the day of departure, the wooden barracks, which housed more than 40, were filled with many excited Tennesseans, there to say thanks and good-bye to these migrants for the long hours of work that no one else seemed to want to do.
The farewell group wanted to be sure the workers were recovered after falling ill from working in the toxic fields, where many are forced to fast for fear of the dreaded vomiting from tobacco exposure. There were hugs and selfies in my dream, for a job well done.
When I awakened I went off to the camp to offer my blessing. These workers had spent the last eight months here with H-2A Seasonal Agricultural Visas (a hard-to-obtain visa that allows people to work in the fields).
When I arrived, there were no applauding fans; there were only the last of this year’s workers—10 eager men, ready to go home. Not even the boss was there, and the workers soon discovered there was no one to take them to the airport.
It happens all the time. During my 29 years as a priest, I have had the blessed opportunity to minister and grow among Hispanic migrants and their families from the tomato fields of Arkansas, to the land of Vidalia onions of Georgia, to the tobacco crop of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Those who come from foreign lands have been a source of inspiration for me in their love of family, for the joy they carry in spite of difficult conditions. They have sacrificed much to come to the United States.
As a Glenmary Home Missioner, I work in small, rural towns of the South and Appalachia to help bring the Catholic presence to areas without a Catholic church. In 1987, after ordination, I was sent to work in southeast Arkansas.
In towns named Crossett, Hamburg, Monticello, and Warren, in parishes that were small and in early development, I ministered amid rich fields of tomatoes.
Each year, hundreds of Hispanic farmworkers would arrive—mostly undocumented—to live out a dream of helping their families back home. Each day, I would see these workers far out in the fields working quickly.
I felt called with my missionary heart to find where they lived, and would visit them.
Migrants do not live on the main road; they live far out in the country. I would travel down many a dirt road seeking these strangers with my four spoken words of Spanish. We were not strangers for long. Maybe my being a priest helped, but a smile and a handshake go a long way.
Each time I visited, I was treated as a family member. I regularly visited 30 migrant camps located in the Arkansas pines. Once, a few days before Christmas, I visited a camp that I often went to, a camp of about 35 men, all from the same town in Mexico.
They lived in a converted chicken coop; the farmer built a newer coop for the chickens. The men inherited the old one. “What would you like for Christmas?” I asked. “Food? Blankets? What would make Christmas seem like back home?”
They all agreed they would like to have Mass. On December 25, during my first year as a priest, I celebrated Christmas Mass at 8 p.m. in a chicken coop. My Spanish was horrible.
The men, mostly from the same extended family, sang like a choir of angels. The Christ child blessed us with his love. That year began a few years of great opportunity.
President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty, and the farmworker programs, became the hope and the road to legalization for millions of undocumented people living in the United States. To participate, farmworkers were required to show that they had worked at least 90 days in the fields during the previous three years.
There were unscrupulous people who saw this new law as a moneymaker. Immigrants were willing to pay anything to have the security of having papers. These townspeople would help the workers get papers, but often at an unjust cost.
Some became rich at the expense of the poor. Some migrants would have no food on their tables in order to have the money to pay for these services.
I could not allow this to continue in my area, so I studied the laws. I began to help people with the paperwork, for no charge, spending nights filling out forms and getting the physicals, the photos, and the fingerprints.
Whenever there was a significant number of people, we would take the four-hour trip to Memphis. We would gather the night before to pray. Many could not sleep that night: we were going to Memphis, to the office of immigration.
The ride up was always silent. The wait outside the office seemed unbearable. The joy that appeared on the face of each person when he or she heard the words, “Your application has been approved,” still makes my heart sing.
The realization that they no longer needed to live in the shadows was a blessed new experience. Over the years, I’ve had the honor of helping many more than 1,000 immigrants become legal in the United States. Those long trips transformed people’s lives.
During my years in Arkansas, I tried to be a voice between the workers and the farmers. As my Spanish improved, I would translate, trying to help each side understand the position of the other.
Sometimes I would not get a favorable response from the farmer. On a few occasions I heard, “If that priest comes on my property again, I will shoot him.” So I would meet the workers at a store.
My goal was to build bridges, but sometimes the waters were too wide. One time a worker had an infection in his foot. He worried whether he would be able to send money home. I offered to take his place in picking tomatoes for a day.
We were paid by the bucket, the heat was unbearable, the shade so inviting. I still hold what might be the recent record for the lowest daily wage picking tomatoes in Arkansas!
One man, let us call him Alfredo, came to Arkansas with the dream that his work in the tomatoes would allow his two sons to go to college. “They are going to get an education and make something of themselves,” he would say.
He was so proud of those boys. One day he fell off the top of a farm truck and hit his head. Blood soon appeared at the back of his head as he lay unconscious. The farmer said, “We can’t take him to the hospital; they will know I hire illegals.”
After a few hours his friends got a car, but it was too late. I called his wife in Mexico with the horrible news. Several months later she called me. “Life is hard here. My oldest, José, 15 years old, is coming north. Please look out after him.”
Years later, I ministered in South Georgia, in several small parishes in Swainsboro, Metter, and in Stillmore, a parish spread over a large area. There were many crops, as well as a large chicken plant, but those sweet Vidalia onions were king.
Harvesting onions is hard work, bending all day, cutting your hands on the onion stalk. To this day l still say a prayer for the person who picked that onion I am enjoying.
As with other crops, in other states, onion camps are located out of sight, with a culture of their own. In Georgia they are big. Often 100 men, women, and children would live in a camp with one bathroom and one telephone.
My visits would be in the evenings. I would load the van with food for the newly arrived, for there would be no money until there was work, and sometimes that was a long time. Medicine and Band-Aids were always a part of the trip.
I would always try to bring others from the parish with me, hoping to extend my efforts. Each visit I would listen to stories, tell jokes, and, most of all, be present.
Most of these workers would say that, other than their boss, they did not know any other American. One day I received a call that a man named Juan wanted me to visit. When I arrived at his old trailer, I was greeted by his friend Mario.
Mario brought me to Juan and he began his story.
By now, I could speak Spanish well enough to understand: “For two weeks, José, my best friend, and I walked in the desert to come to the United States,” he started, in his native tongue.
“Along the way we encountered 10 dead bodies in the desert. The sun was hot. I lay under a tree awhile, not sure if I would wake up. When I did get up, I could not find José. I called his name, I looked all over. He was weak, like me.”
Juan said his feet were so sore he didn’t even know how he continued. Now, he said, he couldn’t sleep at night. “I keep thinking of José. Why did I ever come?” Juan lamented.
Three times in Georgia I was in communication with people who had kidnapped members of my parish. They had gone back to Mexico for family emergencies and were kidnapped on the way back, which often means that you will not return to the United States.
If you do return there are difficulties. First, crossing the desert you must pay a large sum of money to a coyote (a person who will arrange your crossing).
When you arrive in Phoenix, where most people travel, if you have not been caught by US immigration agents, you are placed in a safe house, where you wait for a second coyote to take you to your final US destination.
The safe house isn’t safe. Here people often will be kidnapped, and the kidnappers will demand money from families, “if you wish to see your loved one again.” During the years I was in Georgia, the asking price generally was $1,000 per person, a sum that no one wishes to pay.
For the life of a loved one, families are forced to come up with the money. When I could, I helped them. One Christmas I was speaking to a couple in Phoenix who were holding hostage 10 people.
Nine of the hostages were returning to the United States after attending their father’s funeral in Oaxaca, Mexico. The $9,000 was collected, but the 10th person was a 12-year-old boy, Francisco, who was an orphan.
His parents had been murdered so, with no family, he came north. The kidnappers vowed to kill him that night, Christmas Eve, if the $1,000 ransom was not met.
Where to get $1,000 on Christmas Eve? We prayed, “Jesus, help us.” Out of nowhere our prayers were answered! One thousand dollars appeared at the church by the Nativity stable of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Francisco came to Georgia.
It was a great Christmas gift for all.
Many stories are painful to tell, perhaps unpleasant to read. Yet I’ve learned over these years that to be faithful means to listen to those who cry out in need. Let me offer a few final ones.
People arrive in the United States in many ways. A common way is in the back of an SUV. People are stacked on top of each other, sometimes three or four deep. They are not allowed out of the van to stretch, go to the bathroom, or eat until they reach their destination two or three days later.
One time, three men arrived to work in the onion fields after lying at the bottom of the stacked people. For three days they lay on top of a hot muffler. Their legs were badly burned.
The boss gave them some cream and told them to begin work in the fields. When I visited the men a week after their arrival, two of them, brothers, could no longer walk. We sought a way to send them back to Mexico by raising money.
The poor are always generous in helping the poor.
A year later, I visited the brothers in Puebla, Mexico. The grim news was that they would never walk again. This is part of the human price that migrants sometimes face. Many leave the fields and work in factories, hotels, or construction.
Though known to be good workers, these undocumented workers often are paid less than those with papers. They live in a world where they are always looking over their shoulder. Will I be found out? Will I be sent back home? they wonder.
Their children, born in this country, are often victims of cultural confusion. Am I Hispanic or not? What language should I speak? they ask themselves.
Nonetheless, so many families—good families with smart children—assimilate well into US culture. The Dream Act, a federal program, has allowed many intelligent young people to get ahead by pursuing higher education.
When one hears that federal immigration agents are in a town, the streets become empty of the undocumented. But the Church is a safe haven. During these times, I would come home to find 40 or 50 people seeking to hide.
People in town would question, “Where is that nice Martinez family? They seem to have disappeared. Do you think that they could be illegal? I used to like them so much.”
Today, from my small parish in Tennessee, I visit tobacco camps two evenings per week, when the workers return from the fields. I go because they are our brothers and sisters. I have experienced the joy of birth as well as the pain of death with those who work our fields.
So let us end here.
To help the stranger are words that spring from the Gospel. Our immigrant brothers and sisters walk the unknown paths. They, in turn, call me to leave my comfort zone, to walk with them, to know them beyond the shadows.
They are a challenge to all of us.
Father Victor Subb, a freelance writer and native of Philadelphia, is a Glenmary Home Missioner. He has served in parishes in various parts of Appalachia and the South, and has served in formation programs for new Glenmarians. This article first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger.