I was going to write one of those columns about undocumented aliens (no person is illegal) working so hard and adopting American values, until I realized someone had already thought of that. So I decided to write instead about a stop on the underground railway that helps their lives move along.
They are the Franciscan Friars of the Eastern Province. Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach continental America. It was actually Ponce de Leon, who landed in Florida. He brought the Franciscan friars with him on one of his first voyages. Ponce de Leon went on to become the first governor of Puerto Rico, where he promptly wiped out all the Indians who lived there.
The friars are Roman Catholic priests in an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The order has always devoted itself to the care of the poor and vulnerable. Pope Francis picked the name Francis when he became pope to demonstrate his sense of duty to these principles. His concern for refugees and emigrants is an example of this dedication.
The Franciscan friars have been stalwart in their willingness to help the undocumented throughout the United States, and especially in the Northeast because there are so many in this area. There are about 20,000 Franciscans worldwide, about the same number as the Jesuits, who specialize in education and overseas missions.
There are a number of friars who take a particular interest in this work, and they have the complete support of the leader of the province, who is called the provincial.
I know one of these friars, Brian Jordan, quite well. Father Jordan, 61, graduated from Iona College and studied in the seminary for five years before becoming ordained. He is also the priest who hears my confession. Years ago, I had a local cable TV show called Court TV. He was once a guest on the show, and I mentioned that he was my confessor. He interrupted me and said that it took two hours and he was often too busy to listen. He also said it was boring, because it was the same sins over and over again.
Any time he calls me, he usually wants something—free legal work, money, or me making a phone call to help someone. However, since he has guaranteed me a place in heaven and I don’t want take any chances, I accommodate him.
He has a room in the rectory of a particularly beautiful church in the New York area built by a farming community of immigrants. It’s not much of a room, since the friars take a vow of poverty, but that doesn’t matter much because he’s always out working. The Franciscans still wear brown robes with a rope belt, but Friar Jordan usually wears street clothes.
The friars whose job it is to work with the undocumented mostly do very tedious work taking care of the day to day problems of immigrants. The Latinos and other ethnicities helped by the friars are usually poor when they leave their home countries, and they start at the bottom when they arrive in this country, working as laborers, dishwashers, or cleaners. A lot of them already have family here or know people who emigrated from the same areas in Poland or Mexico or wherever they happen to hail from.
These immigrants usually are not here legally. They don’t have green cards or drivers’ licenses or legitimate IDs, and they are often forced to work for less than the minimum wage. However, when one of the friars shows up at a job site and starts yelling about the flames of hell or—more to the point—the intercession of a friendly inspector, the situation usually gets straightened out in a hurry.
It is important to know that many people in positions of authority are very sympathetic to this cause. It’s ridiculous to think a nice Italian housing inspector whose grandparents came through Ellis Island from Calabria is not going to have room in his heart for an Ecuadoran roofer who does dangerous work 12 hours a day and sends every dollar he can to his family. I guarantee that when one of those immigrants has trouble with a leaking ceiling or a broken toilet and one of the friars calls a landlord to complain on behalf of an otherwise powerless tenant, the landlord—if he’s smart—is going to cooperate. Because failing to help is going to mean a visit from a housing inspector that the landlord is sure not to like.
There is a huge problem in handling crimes against the undocumented because they are afraid for their immigration status and don’t want to report crimes. When they are victimized, Father Jordan will get a call and then show up at the police station in the middle of the night to explain that New York is a sanctuary and they have nothing to fear unless President Trump decides to send in paratroopers. Father Jordan speaks fluent Spanish, but since Hispanics are the biggest single ethnic group now filling the ranks of the NYPD, that’s less of a problem than it once was.
The law is clear that immigrants convicted of crimes will be deported when they get out of prison. However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service avoids whole neighborhoods in New York because when they ask questions they can be sure that no one knows nothing and what they do know they don’t know.
One of the most serious scams worked on immigrants involves crooks who guarantee their victims, nearly all of whom can neither read nor write English, that they can get someone a green card. Ironically, this crime is almost always committed by someone from the same country as the victim. However, sometimes it blows up in the crook’s face: In one particular case, someone tried to scam an Albanian. He disappeared and was never seen again.
With the election of Donald Trump, Father Jordan says, a hard job has gotten just that much harder, and the people he helps are terrified: Many of them have children who were born in this country, and the parents are deeply fearful that the government will do all it can to separate the affected families.