Faith guides Salvadoran family in Omaha through uncertainties of immigration status
October 4, 2018
Faith is at the center of the Vasquez-Gutierrez home. They gather each night for family prayer. Eleven-year-old Lupita sees God’s hand in that time together.
“I think God protects us to keep our hearts in good shape,” she says.
Lupita, a sixth-grader at Norris Middle School in Omaha, and her sister, Cindy, a 17-year-old senior at Omaha South High School, are seeking God’s protection as their family lives through the uncertainty of immigration in the United States. The girls are U.S. citizens by birth, and protected from deportation. But their parents and two brothers were born in El Salvador, and fled their homeland because of gang violence and inadequate economic opportunity.
The children and their parents, Mario Vasquez and Maria Gutierrez, are members of St. Joseph Parish in Omaha. The couple live under temporary protected status (TPS), which President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered to end by September next year for people from El Salvador and several other nations. Unless Congress takes action, they, about 1,500 other immigrants living in Nebraska and 300,000 around the country, could lose their protected status, which is granted to foreigners whose countries are considered too unstable for a safe return.
The girls’ brothers, Daniel, 24, and Jose, 26, have been enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which since 2012 has provided protection from deportation for young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Immigrants who qualify can apply every two years for reinstatement.
Trump has tried to end that program, calling on Congress to find a permanent solution for immigrants living under DACA. The future of DACA is now tied up in the courts.
The family gathered recently at Creighton University’s Schlegel Center for Service and Justice in Omaha to share their story. Through tears, they expressed pain and fear, as well as a strong dependence on God.
The reality of their situation weighs heavily on the two girls. They realize they will be free to stay – but it might be without their parents and brothers.
“My immigrant friends would tell me stories about deportation,” Cindy told the Catholic Voice in a recent interview. “My parents wouldn’t really talk about it, but I think they were trying to protect my innocence.
“It’s always been something at the back of my mind, if it does come to it, and they leave. I have to stay here. I don’t want to have to drop out of school to take care of my sister, but if it is something I have to do, then I would.”
Mario Vasquez and Maria Gutierrez came to the United States in 1999 in search of a better life for their children. A farmer in El Salvador, Mario found that the land frequently failed to provide an adequate harvest. Their children at times went without proper food and clothing.
“We didn’t have enough to buy clothes,” he said. “And that would hurt me and make me feel pain.”
Gutierrez cannot imagine taking her daughters to El Salvador, where she fears gang violence and other crime. “My daughters are 17 and 11,” she said. “They do not know El Salvador, they don’t know the culture. This is the only country they know.”
Kelly Tadeo Orbik, associate director of the Schlegel Center, knows the Vasquez-Gutierrez family. As a member of Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), she also has advocated alongside them for continued TPS status for people whose home countries continue to be unsafe.
She also taught in El Salvador for six months.
“My students would work in the sugar cane fields all day, shower at home, come to school to learn English as that was necessary for their dreams to move to the U.S., and then go into the forest to sleep so the gangs could not find them,” Tadeo Orbik said. “After the boys turn 12, the gangs would come to the homes at night and force them to join the gangs. The fear of violence is real.”
A LIFE OF FAITH, HARD WORK
The couple has spent the last 19 years, frequently working double shifts, to provide a better life and opportunity for their children. They both work at Omaha Steaks’ meat packing plant.
Throughout their journey, their faith has remained firm.
“I pray to God and have faith that God will touch the President’s heart,” Gutierrez said. “I had to leave my children when they were little, it was so hard but I wanted a better life for them. I finally feel like I have a family. … Now I have my two girls and my boys together. And it is scary to think that might be taken away from me.”
They also work with OTOC to advocate solutions for their family and other families affected by immigration issues. Recent OTOC events calling attention to TPS status were held early last month at several Omaha locations, including an interfaith prayer service at St. Frances Cabrini Church.
“Catholics can help us tell the story of what is happening and they can call Congress to let Congress know what is happening,” Vasquez said.
Both parents believe that Our Lady protected their sons on their journey in 2004 to join them in the United States. Daniel’s legs at one point were so tired, he could not walk, but people traveling with him prayed and he made it.
“Our confidence is in God,” Vazquez said. “He protected my son as he traveled here. We go to St. Joseph’s Church every Sunday. Our children have been baptized there, received all their sacraments there.”
Daniel, who traveled with Jose to meet his parents in the United States when he was 10 years old, now teaches Spanish at Omaha Central High School. After working hard to get an education and find a job, he fears for his future.
“For example, I submitted my (DACA) renewal in August and I still haven’t gotten it. I have received notice from the OPS (Omaha Public School) district that I have to update it by a certain date, otherwise I cannot work. So to have my career start and then end because of something I cannot control …. It’s scary, it’s hard.”
He also is concerned for his brother, Jose, who cuts trees in Florida.
Notre Dame Sister Mary Kay Meagher, a member of OTOC and the social justice coordinator for the Notre Dame sisters, said she thinks Catholics can learn more about the church’s social teaching, which includes care for immigrants.
“The right to life is the right to work, the right to have a family, the right to have dignity in their work,” Sister Mary Kay said. “So I think that is one thing, a much greater emphasis on teaching people that in order to be Catholic we have to do something. And the second thing is, besides helping them here with little things, is calling Congress, and calling them every day. Call at night if you are nervous to speak to them. They have to count the messages left at night as well.”
WANT TO HELP?
Call representatives in Congress, urging continued temporary protected status (TPS) for immigrants from countries considered too unstable for safe return of their citizens.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse:
402-550-8040 or 202-224-4224
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer:
402-391-3411 or 202-224-6551
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon:
402-938-0300 or 202-225-4155
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry:
402-438-1598 or 202-225-4806