If all politics is local – the precinct-tested adage of former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill – then the politics of immigration is the face in the mirror.
In May, Martin Gutierrez, a division director for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, will be seated with his family in the front pews of St. Louis Cathedral for a Mass during which his son Andrew, a graduate of Archbishop Rummel High School, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate, the final step before ordination to the priesthood in 2019.
Then, in June, Gutierrez, 52, himself will be ordained as a permanent deacon, continuing an amazing life’s journey in which he and his parents, Octavio and Pastora, and two siblings fled civil war in Nicaragua in 1979, abandoning their home, their possessions and their relatives and friends, and wound up creating the Nicaraguan-American dream in Chalmette.
Gutierrez was 13, with a couple of English classes under his belt from Colegio San José de Calasanz in Managua, when he left with his mom, brother and sister for what they thought would be a two-week vacation in New Orleans. Tensions between the Somoza government and the Sandinista rebels flashed into war, and the summer trip turned out to be a one-way ticket to a daunting new life, a thought not lost on Gutierrez as he sees hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. caught up in a political passion play called DACA, with a curtain call scheduled for March 5 unless Congress can find political common ground.
Gutierrez’s father, who ran several shipping companies in Nicaragua, worked with an immigrant’s passion to rebuild his family’s life in a foreign land. Last year, after many years working in the shipping business in New Orleans, Octavio, 85, retired from a security detail at Jesuit High School.
Pastora, also 85, is a great-grandmother now, but Martin remembers his mom working as a bagger at Schwegmann’s, eventually moving up to cashier and then to supervisor despite her limited English. She retired at 62 to help care for Martin’s children.
“She didn’t have time to take English classes because she was working, but she got by,” Gutierrez said. “I remember going into the store and listening to her on the speakers. I didn’t understand a thing she was saying in English, but people understood her.”
Among his many areas of responsibility, Gutierrez oversees Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services. His life could serve as a bridge of understanding to what politely might be called the country’s schizophrenia over a decades-long, vexing policy issue fundamentally affecting a nation and its citizens.
On the one hand, Democrats are accused of wanting open borders and amnesty for undocumented immigrants to expand their political base. On the other, Republicans are accused of xenophobia for pushing for a multi-billion-dollar wall on the Mexican border and an end to “chain” migration and the immigration lottery system, all while corporate executives who generally vote Republican need the immigrants’ less expensive labor to keep their profit-loss needles pointing north.
Gutierrez likes to shatter what he calls the “myths” surrounding immigration.
- Myth No. 1: The Catholic Church is promoting amnesty for illegal immigrants. “What we would propose is some kind of earned legalization process,” Gutierrez said. “If you’ve been here ‘X’ number of years – we understand you have to draw the line somewhere, say before 2016 or 2017 – and you can prove that you have good moral character and that you have some level of English proficiency and you’ve paid your taxes, that you’ve been a good, productive citizen, you should be a given the opportunity to earn legal status and eventual citizenship. Anything short of U.S. citizenship would create a second class of citizens in our country.”
- Myth No. 2: Illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. “Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes,” Gutierrez said. “You are not supposed to work here illegally – undocumented – but if you do work, you are supposed to pay taxes. And the IRS provides a tax ID number, and it is used by many immigrants to pay income tax. The only thing they can use that number for is to file their taxes. It’s not a Social Security number. It’s not something they can use to do anything else. It doesn’t give them authority or authorization to work.” In 2010 alone, undocumented immigrants paid $13 billion in payroll taxes into the Social Security trust funds, money they will never see.
- Myth No. 3: Immigrants come to the U.S. for welfare benefits such as food stamps. “I have 21 years in this ministry, and I have not met one undocumented person who has been on welfare or is receiving these things,” Gutierrez said. “If you’re an undocumented mother and the child was born in the United States, that child can receive Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps). The mom doesn’t. The mom does get prenatal care, but once that baby is born, the mom is done. She doesn’t get any more care.”
Politics of the deal
Gutierrez doesn’t know how the political horse-trading will work out in the end, although he does feel a deal will be struck to protect the status of the 800,000 DACA immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors.
“I am a man of faith, and I hope that soon, one day – whenever – we will have comprehensive immigration reform,” Gutierrez said. “But I’m also realistic. I sometimes think the people in power – the business leaders, the politicians – prefer the status quo and just keep fighting back and forth, because, otherwise, who are they going to blame? But they also benefit from it. Big business benefits from having this pool of laborers who are willing to work for less than the minimum wage.
“The word is something is going to get done with DACA. I think it’s going to depend on what the (Trump) administration is going to get in return. It’s a shame that it has happened that way – in order for 800,000 individuals who are already productive members of our community to be able to stay here legally without worries of being deported, something else has to happen. This bargaining thing is unfortunate, but it’s our system and it’s still the best system in the world.”
A return ‘home’
Gutierrez knows that. In December 2015, he finally returned to Nicaragua after 36 years. Gutierrez remembered the directions to the two houses where his family had lived. His first home had a fertile mango tree out front, which he and his brother and sister climbed every day to soak in the sweet citrus, but the tree had been cut down.
At the second home, an older woman was standing outside when Gutierrez asked if he could show his wife and daughter his bedroom. “What was yours is no longer yours,” the woman told him sharply. But a younger man stepped in and said they could come in. Gutierrez thought that would be an emotional moment, but that would come later.
As Gutierrez approached Colegio San José de Calasanz, the school he attended from kindergarten through sophomore year, it was as though the building had been locked inside a 40-year time capsule.
The building is square, with classrooms on the perimeter and an interior grass courtyard with a flagpole in the middle. Gutierrez’s wife Judith then spotted something he had overlooked – the small, unadorned chapel with a tile floor and a few statues.
“I remember walking around, not feeling anything, and then I went all the way to back of the chapel,” Gutierrez said. “I was just looking around and around, and out of nowhere, this wave of tears came up. I was crying, and somehow, a video of all the big moments in my life flashed before me.”
That trip coincided with the annual pilgrimage taken to Nicaragua by two dozen Notre Dame seminarians, one of whom was Gutierrez’s son Andrew. Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Father Joe Krafft asked Gutierrez to speak to the seminarians about the arc of his life, which was filled with mangos, good friends and incense.
“It just hit me – it was like the Church of New Orleans, in a way, welcoming me back in my home country,” Gutierrez said. “The Church of New Orleans was present over there. I remember the archbishop telling me after my talk, ‘Home is where your heart is.’
“And I realized, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m American enough, and I definitely don’t feel Nicaraguan enough. I’m more proud to be an American than most people, but the church is where I really belong. To have my home church in New Orleans welcoming me back home was amazing.”
Preparing for waterworks
As Gutierrez prepares for two ordinations in a few months – his son’s and his own – he is filling up again. He’s just as proud of his son Martin, who is a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy, and his youngest daughter Jazmin is completing her master’s in counseling at the University of Holy Cross.
“I’m grateful I have not been able to forget where I came from,” Gutierrez said. “I realize in my situation I could have very easily been a DACA child. I realize how lucky, how fortunate, how blessed we have been. My oldest son serves the community as a policeman. That is basically countercultural nowadays. And Andrew’s vocation is definitely countercultural, and Jazmin is following in the path of counseling.”
On June 23, when Gutierrez is ordained as a permanent deacon, his son Andrew Gutierrez will vest him in the sanctuary of the cathedral.
“Someone was telling me that might be a first – where a son is going to vest his dad,” Gutierrez said.
Just in case, Gutierrez’s wife will be there with a hug, his police officer son will be there with a stretcher and smelling salts, and his daughter will be there to ask him, “How does this make you feel, Dad?”
Only in America.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.