By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 5, 2019 | En Español
LILBURN—Transcending the vitriolic immigration debates, Our Lady of the Americas Mission took action with compassion to reunite Mexican immigrants with 44 of their aged parents from Hidalgo, Mexico, for 20 days in Georgia after decades of family separation.
The mission partnered with the state government of Hidalgo, Mexico, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Consulate General in Atlanta and the Atlanta-Hidalgo club Fuerza Hidalguense to carry out the “Reencuentro Familiar” family reunion project.
The parents, who traveled by airplane for the first time, tearfully embraced their children and savored a welcome luncheon upon arrival at the mission. Among them, Humberto Lopez received his 69-year-old widowed mother, with whom he talks by phone daily and sends money biweekly for her survival in Hidalgo.
He and his brother, also of Georgia, then presented their mother her grandchildren.
“I cried with happiness and joy that my dream had come true. A year after we started working on the program I felt that I still couldn’t believe it,” said Lopez, a construction worker specializing in roofing. “It was a very beautiful experience that we’re never going to forget. I have this day in my mind.”
The mission helped facilitate the visa paperwork, transportation and plane ticket purchases for the Mexican parents ranging in age from 65-84 and hailing from small towns across Hidalgo for their Atlanta visit Aug. 7-27.
The booming, Spanish mission in Lilburn has about 8,000 families, 75 percent of whom are Mexican, largely from Hidalgo.
The church’s director of religious education Leonardo Jaramillo helped facilitate the poignant reunions and hopes other dioceses will follow suit. Some of the adult children who received their parents this year are undocumented and have been in the United States ranging from 20 to 28 years, said Jaramillo. To participate, parents must be at least 60 and have never traveled before to the United States. The trip limit was 20 days.
“It was very emotional because I saw these people so elderly that some didn’t recognize the faces of their children. Beyond that, they didn’t even know their grandchildren,” recalled Colombia native Jaramillo. “The grandparents were crying because they only knew them through photos. It impressed me a lot how when they saw their parents they fell to their knees to receive them as a sign of respect, very beautiful.”
He recalled an 84-year-old man’s goodbye.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to never see his son again unless he returns to live in Mexico which isn’t his plan now,” said Jaramillo. “For many of them today as they said farewell, it’s the last time that they’ll see each other.”
Jaramillo said that it was a laborious effort to submit all the required documentation for the tourist visas and coordinate logistics. Volunteers in Mexico escorted the jittery travelers from Hidalgo to Mexico City and the Delta Air Lines staff assisted them—with the pilots even snapping a photo with them upon arrival. Overall, it’s an example of cooperation for humane immigration.
“The problem is that in many countries the immigration processes are almost impossible to access,” Jaramillo said. “But if the processes were easier, it would be easier to control the illegal immigration.”
The club Fuerza Hidalguense initiated the program with Hidalgo’s government, bringing over the first group of 38 parents in 2018. Georgia has one of the biggest populations from Hidalgo as many settle among neighbors and compatriots. Club president Eliseo Sanchez brought his own parents, 66 and 69, over last year and now wants to help others.
“It’s hard but at the same time it’s a very, very nice feeling. You see them older. You see them tired but also it’s happiness. It’s priceless,” he said.
Sanchez appreciates the support of Jaramillo, pastor Father Luis Guillermo Cordoba, 16 club volunteers, the American visa sponsor Wesley Smith and Alma Lidia de la Vega Sanchez, program director in Hidalgo.
“It’s teamwork. This is not possible without the Hidalgo government. They can’t do this without our help but we cannot do this without their help,” reflected Sanchez. “It’s a lot of nice people helping, people doing lots of volunteer work inside the club and Leonardo, he’s helping us a lot too … Since all this is volunteer we’re taking any help, it’s always very welcome.”
Sanchez originally immigrated to Louisiana through a teacher exchange program but when Hurricane Katrina hit moved to Atlanta and worked in education for five years. He decided to stay with his two American-born children and work in construction.
Lopez also came for work 20 years ago and stayed to support his family and give his children a better life. He now petitions to regularize his work authorization.
“In our country, unfortunately if you work it’s not enough to eat and you work one day and not the next because there isn’t sufficient work to fill a week. And this makes us leave our parents, our families. Many stop studying and what they do is come to this country,” he said in Spanish. “And we stayed in this country, formed families, and it’s difficult to go back.”
Lopez lives by faith. “Every day I put myself in God’s hands and ask him to help me take care of my family,” said Lopez.
Now he finds new strength to see his mother healthy and content at 69. “It’s a peace deep within,” he said.
Beaconing the weary, Our Lady of the Americas ministers in practical needs year-round, whether assisting with legal papers, providing temporary shelter with members or making referrals to Catholic Charities. And Jaramillo said that in the last three months they’ve been flooded with Venezuelans desperate for relief services and assistance with asylum claims.
Reuniting families was a joyful respite.
“We receive all the people every day who tell us of their reality and fear. They look for a refuge in the church where they come and feel calm and not pressured and persecuted. But there are so many that we don’t have enough to attend to everyone in the best way,” Jaramillo said.
Club president Sanchez said that about 25 Mexican parents have already signed up for the third reencuentro.
“We already did the application with Hidalgo government. We’re hoping we can make this happen next year around April or May, the third group,” said Sanchez.
The program “was a very beautiful moment for the families of the Mission Católica. Anytime the North American government grants the visas we are going to help,” said Jaramillo.