Esperanza is Spanish for hope, and one person whose presence has brought hope to Hispanic immigrants in Delaware’s poultry processing plants is Rosa álvarez. A Carmelite Sister of Charity who is herself an immigrant—from Spain, years ago—she is one of the founders of a community center in Georgetown named, in fact, La Esperanza (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I first met Sister álvarez in Washington, D.C., where she and several other sisters ran Mount Carmel House, a shelter for homeless women not far from the nations’s capital. We lost touch after my move to join the America staff in 1994, but met again by accident at a Jesuit retreat house last summer. In a subsequent conversation, she told me about her present work. What, I asked, led her to undertake her present ministry in Delaware? She explained that a former volunteer at Mount Carmel House who moved to Delaware had told her of the struggles of the Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants in the poultry processing plants. Easily exploited and often in danger of deportation because of their undocumented status, they were in sore need of an advocate. Could Sister álvarez become that advocate, she was asked.
Sister álvarez contacted the Carmelite sister in charge of those working on the East Coast, who made an initial visit to Georgetown, Del., the seat of Sussex County, where the migrants tend to be concentrated. Convinced of the need, she then gave Sister álvarez the go-ahead. With one other Carmelite (there are now four), Sister álvarez arrived in Georgetown intending to stay for a trial period of one year. The trial year has stretched into eight; and La Esperanza, from its humble beginnings in borrowed space, now has its own new building that serves as the heart of an ever-expanding grass-roots operation. Its wide array of services ranges from legal help—an immigration attorney has recently been hired—housing assistance, language classes, parenting, transportation and a clinic called La Red (“the Net,” as in safety net). La Red is a health center that serves people who have no insurance.
The administrative aspects of La Esperanza are handled by members of its board of directors. This leaves Sister álvarez free to immerse herself totally in the day-to-day lives of the immigrants—even to the point of delivering their babies at home when medical help does not arrive in time. On both the material and the spiritual level, she “accompanies” the immigrants, spending her days in a variety of hands-on tasks. These may include visits to city and county offices to help them obtain important benefits like WIC, a government program that assists low-income pregnant and parenting women, and infants and children. Children born to these women here in the United States are automatically entitled to Medicaid as American citizens, as well as to food stamps. Noncitizen parents, though, lack eligibility and must therefore look for outside sources of food and medical assistance like La Esperanza. Since most of Sister álvarez’s immigrant friends speak little or no English, her bilingual abilities, as well as her presence at their side, sustain them in their dealings with bureaucratic structures.
The going has not been easy. In a state that is primarily rural, and one that is unaccustomed to non-English speaking outsiders, residents of the small towns that dot the area around Georgetown initially tended to view the newcomers with suspicion. The immigrants’ cultural habit of socializing on street corners in the evening, for instance, was difficult to accept for townspeople accustomed to gather in their own homes or yards. The very scale of the influx has proved disconcerting. Over half Georgetown’s inhabitants are now Hispanic. In 1990, by contrast, they accounted for only 2 percent. Currently, however, in large part because of the work of La Esperanza and local interfaith groups, resentment toward the immigrants has lessened. “The resistance in the community has been understandable,” Sister álvarez said, “because the local residents had never seen people different from themselves and so were afraid.” But she emphasized that if some of their customs seemed strange, other characteristics of the immigrants are positive. “Their sense of family values and their willingness to share are very strong,” she said. “If several families are renting a house together, and another family arrives without a place to stay, room will be made for the new family.”
And yet this same generosity in sharing overcrowded living space can indirectly reflect exploitation by landlords. Some landlords illegally subdivide houses into small spaces that they then rent to several families at inflated prices. Owners can act with considerable impunity, knowing that undocumented immigrants who complain can be reported to immigration authorities. Well aware of the precarious situation that their undocumented status imposes upon them, some prefer to abstain from making valid housing complaints that in other circumstances might gain them relief.
Ninety percent of the new arrivals are Guatemalans. A number of them had applied for and received asylum, but now that the civil war in Guatemala has ended, at least officially, asylum claims, Sister álvarez said, are being denied. “And yet if they are forced to return to Guatemala, there is nothing there for them in terms of employment,” she observed. The increasingly stringent laws and penalties affecting immigrants in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 have made life more precarious for both Guatemalans and Mexicans in the Delmarva Peninsula, as that region of southern Delaware is called. This increased stringency is reflected in the matter of driver’s licenses. Prior to the attacks, Sister álvarez said, undocumented immigrants had relatively little trouble in obtaining them. “But suddenly,” she said, “all that was cut off.” Because public transportation in the area is all but nonexistent, the resultant hardship has created new burdens both for the workers and their families. “The government tends to see all undocumented immigrants as terrorists,” she added, “and yet they pay taxes and contribute to Social Security, and they benefit the local economy.” Some of the immigrants, in fact, have used their earnings to start their own small businesses.
Making matters more difficult on yet another level, the local police are acting more and more in concert with immigration authorities. “If an undocumented immigrant is stopped for a minor traffic violation,” she said, “and found to be driving without a license, he will be taken to jail and the immigration authorities, once contacted, will begin deportation proceedings.” The negative impact of such government actions on the immigrant’s citizen children presents a serious threat to the stability of family life, an impact that has been repeatedly decried by the U.S. bishops. This kind of cooperation between police and immigration officials has been growing in other states too. Both Florida and Alabama have moved in this direction, even to the point of encouraging both local and state police agents to hold suspected undocumented immigrants behind bars until federal agents can reach the scene.
A side effect of this growing cooperation is that undocumented immigrants in need of police assistance have become reluctant to seek help. Domestic violence offers a case in point. Sister álvarez said that partly because of the strongly macho culture in Guatemala and Mexico, domestic violence has emerged as a significant problem for immigrant women. They are reluctant to call the police when violence erupts, though, for fear that their husbands or boyfriends will be incarcerated and then deported. There is the additional fear that if the abused woman is herself deported, she would suffer retaliation at home. Consequently, many prefer to endure the abuse in silence—although not entirely, because Esperanza House has a counselor on staff whose focus is domestic violence. The sisters themselves represent a trusted resource that can provide support in a spirit of confidentiality.
Work at the five poultry processing plants involves yet other tensions between immigrants and immigration authorities. Through much of the 1990’s, immigration agents conducted periodic raids, arresting those without documents and initiating immigration proceedings. That approach has diminished, Sister álvarez said, in part because of interfaith opposition to such tactics and also because the owners themselves need a supply of workers that remains constant in order to sustain their profit levels. But working conditions tend to be poor in most of the plants, especially in view of the kind of drudgery involved in the daily repetitive tasks of gutting, slicing and removing bones from the thousands upon thousands of chickens. Labor of this kind is generally shunned by local residents, who see it as too hard for the pay involved. But for the immigrants themselves, whose relatives back home depend on the money sent to them, the security of a regular paycheck outweighs the harshness of the conditions.
The formation of unions has meant a step toward improving these conditions. Over the past few years, and with pressure from advocacy groups, Sister álvarez said that four of the five plants have allowed union representation. Only one, the largest, Perdue, has resisted this move. Workers there, she said, still face unreasonable rules, such as not being allowed to use the bathroom except at specified times.
The basis of all Sister álvarez does is faith—a faith that comes to her, she said, through the immigrants. “I see their goodness, and they help me to grow closer to God by bringing a needed reality to my prayer,” she explained. The people she serves call her la abuelita, “the little grandmother.” In terms of age, the nickname fits: she turned 74 last July. But it is also the kind of term of endearment that reflects the trust she inspires in those to whom she continues to minister. She does so with seemingly undiminished energy—energy that, as she puts it, ultimately comes from the people themselves.