Former undocumented immigrant helps migrants today in Los Angeles
“What are we going to do if one of us doesn’t come home one night?” This was the question Isaac Cuevas remembers his parents discussing at the dinner table when he was a child. “During those years, there were raids at factories, like these days. I remember I was so fearful that it stayed with me forever,” says Cuevas, now director of immigration and public affairs for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Born in Mexico, Cuevas arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 2, holding his mother’s hand. They entered the United States on a tourist visa and overstayed, living in the country as undocumented immigrants for several years. During the Ronald Reagan administration (1981–1989), Isaac and his mother were among the 3 million people who qualified and applied for the legalization program, giving them a path to citizenship.
When they applied for their permanent residency card, Cuevas recalls serving as a translator for his family in their interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Years later, he filled out his citizenship application and helped his family with their applications.
He says that his immigrant story is a large part of the reason he is currently working for the Office of Immigration Affairs. “For me the beauty of coming to work for the archdiocese is to be able to ground my faith and values into my work,” he says.
Cuevas’ role at the Office of Immigration Affairs is to develop a network of community leaders and to offer workshops, programs and resources for people seeking legal help in the complicated area of immigration law. In addition to community outreach, he advocates for just immigration reform.
For Archbishop José H. Gomez, who established the Office of Immigration Affairs two years ago, it was important to have someone like Cuevas in the office, who understands the sensitivity and importance of the topic of immigration and can effectively communicate the work that is being done.
“Immigrant families have built vibrant neighborhoods, churches and civic institutions in every part of America,” said Archbishop Gomez in one of his weekly columns in the archdiocesan magazine Angelus News. “Welcoming families has allowed our country to integrate successive immigrant generations into the fabric of American life, allowing them to contribute their faith, values and talents to make this country great.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles launched a bilingual website called “The Next America,” providing information on resources that the local church offers to people most in need. On this website, Archbishop Gomez urges Americans to remember that they are a nation made great by immigration. He reminds Catholics that all immigrants belong to God’s family.
The archdiocese is mindful that it is a church of many peoples, with different backgrounds, stories and family histories. While for many the focus is often on the immigrant communities from Mexico and Central America, concerns of this archdiocese are for immigrants from all over the world—and that impacts nearly every parish here.
Part of Cuevas’ job is to listen to immigrants’ stories, such as the case of a young student who was not able to apply for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. He lived for more than 20 years with his parents in the United States, where his family owned a house, and he had no criminal record. His mother became documented and petitioned for her son and his father to become residents, but the woman died before her petition was granted. According to law, this case will be thrown out. Cuevas referred the student to a lawyer with experience in family law. Cuevas says it is a difficult case, but with good legal advice, many immigration cases have had successful outcomes.
Another case in which Cuevas intervened involved an undocumented elderly man from Mexico, who received a deportation letter. The man, whose whole family lives in this country, has Parkinson’s disease, and he would have no one to care for him if he was deported. The diocese sent a letter to an immigration officer explaining the man’s desperate situation. At the officer’s recommendation, the judge stopped the deportation.
Cuevas sees his mission as accompanying all immigrants, including the recent migrant children separated from their parents and the migrants arriving in caravans. Cuevas urges all people of faith to respond with compassion.
“Let’s walk with the immigrants on this journey to make sure they don’t feel alone,” he says, adding how his office is responding. “We are always here listening to their stories and addressing the needs of people, regardless of how and where they are coming from, but understanding why.”
“As a father or son, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to make the decision of leaving your country not knowing what to expect on the road,” he continues. “There are so many people in need who are willing to walk the very dangerous journey of crossing borders, which says a lot of how the conditions are in their countries.”
He is referring to the estimated 6,000 migrants who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this fall after traveling in caravans more than 2,500 miles from Central America. The migrants, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are reportedly fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries and seek to cross into the United States to build a better future for themselves and their families.
In its efforts to assist the migrants, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been working with the Scalabrinian Congregation, whose mission is to help the most needy and vulnerable migrants, refugees and internally displaced people in 32 countries. The archdiocese is assisting the Scalabrinians’ shelter Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, which holds 140 migrants.
Cuevas has participated in meetings organized by the county of Los Angeles in order to determine migrants’ needs for medical services, housing, food and other basic necessities. Since Los Angeles is the biggest diocese in the United States, with almost 5 million people, and has a very large Latino community, Cuevas is confident that the communities will come together to respond to the needs of the migrants.
“We are trying to find ways to help migrants and the least we can do is pray for everyone who is suffering at the border,” says Cuevas. “Instead of changing minds, let’s change people’s hearts, telling them our stories.”
Cuevas, who is married with two children, previously worked as a marketing executive, developing multicultural campaigns for Hollywood films.
In his current position, he serves as the voice of the archdiocese among policy leaders pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. He hopes that people recognize that the issue of immigration involves the whole community. “There is a human element to this topic and people in our country have to understand the human dignity that all people deserve,” Cuevas says.
Featured Image: The road to U.S. citizenship is becoming more difficult for immigrants. (CNS/E. Garcia, EPA)