By Ali McCandless, Jesuit Volunteer
I have to admit, I’ve never been good with transitions… Although I was secure in the fact that I would be moving over 2000 miles from Southern California (where the weather doesn’t waver much) to Chicago (where the weather is unpredictable hourly), it didn’t become real until I started my first day of work at Taller de Jose. To my knowledge, there aren’t many agencies like Taller de José— by offering the simple ministry of accompaniment, we act as the “middle person.” Accompanying a client to court without the law degree, to the doctor without the medical degree, or listening to concerns and worries without the social work or psychology training. We are pastoral ministers— emotional and spiritual support, navigators of the various systems, and most importantly listeners. The beauty of working at this organization is the uniqueness and complexities of every client and case, the way God made all of us, with uniqueness and complexity.
I spent a semester abroad in El Salvador, where I was able to accompany communities; it was there that I learned it wasn’t about me and it wasn’t about them, it was about accompanying each other on our journeys of life. That experience continues to flow into my work here at Taller de José, and it was particularly evident a few weeks ago when I met my first Salvadoran client, well, clients. We usually don’t know the situation of the client until they come to our office, so I was a little surprised when I went down to our reception area and the whole family was in the waiting room. Immediately, I got a feeling of familiarity… We all sat down in my office and they handed me a document with a removal hearing date for their 14-year-old son at the Immigration Court with an address I wasn’t familiar with.
I decided to start from the beginning, de donde son ustedes? (Where are you all from?). When they said El Salvador, I felt my eyes light up and happily told them I spent time there and that they could trust me. Cuando entraron? (When did you all enter?) The parents have been here for over 10 years, and the children arrived this July. Como entraron? Porque entraron? (How did you enter? and why?), which I dreaded asking because I had a good guess as to the answer. The current situation in El Salvador is very unsafe for children of that age. A recent explosion of violence has erupted due to the extreme poverty and lack of opportunities, in a country which has been long been plagued by gang warfare. To escape the violence, these two teenagers started in El Salvador, traveled through Guatemala and Mexico and were detained at the border of Mexico and Texas. They were processed with immigration, put in a children’s shelter for 21 days and then made another long journey to Chicago. Over the past 2 years I have researched this issue through the lens of immigration policy, foreign policy, and human rights, but the issue became so much more personal now I had two teenagers who had lived this situation it in my office. Suddenly there were faces to go with the numbers I’d researched and read about.
I planned to meet the son and his father at Taller de José that September morning for his initial hearing. As I was trying to figure out the best route to take, I noticed the boy’s face, confused, scared and cold. Then I remembered: this was his first time in the US let alone the Midwest. We were also getting on a train that could transport us all over this huge city of skyscrapers. He was also a freshman at a Chicago high school without knowing a word of English. El Salvador has anything but a cold climate, there aren’t trains, and there sure wasn’t a reason to learn English. His parents left he and his sister when he was just 3 years old to create a better life in the US, and, because he was threatened by gang members, he had come to the Chicago, fleeing for his life. While we were on the pink line, his dad was pointing around and telling him all about the city and reminding to him every few minutes that he will learn soon enough. I just sat there in awe… here I am “processing” my transition to Chicago and he is trying to figure out everything. That is the mission of Taller de José, we accompany people in their transitions. For some it is the path to citizenship, fighting for legal justice, healing from an abusive relationship, treatment for a medical condition, or reconnecting utilities. But no matter the complexity and different needs intertwined throughout the case, ultimately, it is someone’s life. Over these first 4 months at Taller de José, I have come to grow in the sacredness of life, and each step we take with our clients is holy. Each holy step is a step towards hope, for the staff of Taller de Jose, and, most importantly, those we accompany.