So here they were, some of the people Barack Obama was telling the country about Thursday night, seated, smiling, clearly happy, and outfitted splendidly in the first-grade classroom at Lawrence Catholic Academy, a new school located in an old building put up in 1905. The kids, about 20 of them, paid rapt attention to their teacher, Jeanne Zahn, widow of a firefighter, as she asked them what their favorite subject was.
“English,” said a little girl.
“Math,” a boy added.
“Religion,” another girl added.
“Gym,” a second boy said to laughter.
With one exception, the children were all Hispanic. The city, Lawrence, Massachusetts, is located about 30 miles north of Boston and is home to 76,000 people. It is 74 percent Hispanic. It is one of the poorest places in the United States with 27 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The average per capita income here is $16,557.
In the early morning before school begins, many children arrive holding the hand of a parent who is in America without documents. The parents are wild with pride because their kids attend a fine parochial school in an old, battered New England city where the public school system is in virtual collapse. The parents are also acutely aware that due to the fact they have no papers they are prime targets for the mentally ill wing of a Republican Party that is so obsessed with Barack Obama’s every action that it has seemingly forgotten or willfully ignored the foundation of the nation they claim to represent.
And Lawrence, even now, is a symbol of that story, one of history’s greatest tales: a magnet across time for people who came here from Ireland, Poland, Greece, Italy, and Russia to work in the near-empty mills that sit along the Merrimack River like hollow, brick catacombs.
“They came then for the same reasons people come here today,” Father Paul O’Brien, pastor of neighboring St Patrick’s Parish, was saying in the first floor hallway of the school. “They come, some of them, out of desperation. They come seeking a better life, a job, a hope for the future.
“Look,” he added, “Christ went into refugee status after he was born. And this whole debate about who is here and who belongs and who has to be deported has become so disconnected by TV news shows and our polarized politics that it has very little connection to our history or our day-to-day lives. So the idea that people in public life are not saying, ‘How can I help you?’ and are instead saying, ‘Get out of the country,’ is beyond me.”
“How many have parents who are undocumented?” the priest was asked.
“We don’t ask?” he said. “They’re here. They’re working. The politicians might say they have to go back but they won’t. I’d like to know when was the last time some of these politicians ever sat with or got to know an illegal immigrant or their families. If they ever have.”
The school, Lawrence Catholic Academy, has 500 students. It covers kindergarten through 8th grade and has $3,825 annual tuition, but fundraising allows many to get $1,500 in tuition aid. Only 25 percent pay full tuition.
“And we have a lot of parents who pay weekly with cash or money order because they don’t have a bank account due to the fact they are fearful they will be identified as being here illegally,” the principal, Jorge Hernandez, pointed out.
Hernandez is 37 years old. He went to Catholic schools as a child because his parents sought both education and accountability for him. He won a scholarship to Villanova and ended up here in Lawrence.
“It reminds me of where I grew up,” he pointed out.
“Everything about it reminds me of it. I see myself in each and every one of these kids here at school. I’m here to pay it forward.”
His parents left Guadalajara, Mexico, with no papers just before he was born in Los Angeles. His father, who had only a second-grade education, worked in an El Segundo sheet-metal factory, rising to foreman, all the time working and living in the same shadow of fear and uncertainty that hovers over those here without documentation now.
“His life, my mother’s life all changed with Reagan’s amnesty,” the principal pointed out. “Then, the threat of being deported was finally lifted.”
The old-fashioned yet eternal concept of Catholic social justice is thick in the hallways and classrooms of Lawrence Catholic Academy. And it is stronger and deeper than the momentary flood of hypocrisy and polarization that has left so many disgusted and disappointed in the arm-waving, vote-seeking, hysteria-driving members of Congress. The ones who suck up a public paycheck while trying to divide the country with language and behavior that offers visible daily proof that much of our politics has now gone right off the rails.
Obama’s action Thursday night will allow a few million residents of the United States to stop worrying about a traffic stop for a broken automobile tail light. That leaves perhaps as many as 7 million more here illegally, frightened that they could be discovered and shipped out at any moment.
Of course, the illogic surrounding the staggering task and cost of gathering millions and transporting them by plane, train, and automobile back to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and several other countries is never discussed. This is because the only location that debate could take place would be in an asylum.
Now, some of the kindergarten children were standing straight as soldiers in a line at the door of their first-floor classroom. They were bundled in heavy coats worn over their school uniforms as they got ready to go outdoors led by their teacher, Sister Ellen, a member of the Sisters of Charity.
“I’ve been teaching kindergarten here in this building for 44 years,” she proudly declared. “And before that I taught kindergarten in another school for 21 years.”
“What? How many years?” she was asked.
“Sixty-five years altogether,” she pointed out with a laugh. “I must be crazy, right?”
“How old are you?”
“Eighty-four, and by the way aren’t these kids great,” she wanted to know, helping a little girl with the zipper of her jacket.
“What about people who want them deported?” she was asked.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Sister Ellen declared, smiling. “They’re going out to recess.”
For more from Mike Barnicle, visit mikebarnicle.com.