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Lecture Notes: why illegal immigrants should get legal protection

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This summer Father Brendan Curran, a young priest at Pilsen's Saint Pius V Church, was asked to write the reflection for Labor in the Pulpits, a nationwide celebration of workers held the Sunday before Labor Day. He thought of Pedro and Leticia, a Guatemalan couple new to his parish.

Last January Pedro and Leticia (not their real names) sneaked into the U.S. and made their way to Chicago, hoping to earn money for a community-development organization in Guatemala. They both found work as day laborers, rising every morning at three and taking the bus from their apartment in Logan Square to an agency in Pilsen. If they weren't in line for the 4 AM cattle call they couldn't work.

"We got some of the hardest work because we didn't have the legal status," says Pedro, who was often assigned to clean out sweltering ovens in a gum factory. Leticia frequently worked in a print shop, packaging cardboard cutouts promoting, among other things, Miller Lite beer. The printers paid the agency $15 an hour per employee, but she earned $5.15 and was charged $2 for the van ride to and from the job. "Sometimes you had to work harder than the machines worked," she says. "That's why they paid you and didn't just have the machine."

Last spring the day-labor agency burned down on payday. The managers told the workers that all the records had been destroyed, so there would be no checks. The workers demanded their money, but it was nearly a month before they got paid.

After the fire Pedro and Leticia gave up day labor. He's now a landscaper, and she's a baby-sitter. "We constantly run into people who still work for the agency," she says. "We're always saddened and frustrated, because it's a tough situation."

Immigrant workers are the focus of this year's Labor in the Pulpits, which is organized by the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "Obviously, since September 11 there's a lot of fear in the immigrant community," says Curran, whose 3,000-family parish includes many Latinos. "A lot of government decisions are falling hard on immigrants." He points to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a plastics company that fired an immigrant for trying to unionize its plant didn't have to pay him back wages because he was here illegally.

Every Sunday the pews of Saint Pius are filled with immigrant laborers--gardeners, factory workers, nannies, dishwashers. Their issues become the priests'. Last year workers at V&V Supremo, a neighborhood food-processing plant, went on strike to force the company to recognize their union. Pastor Chuck Dahm organized a march to the home of one of the owners and tried to persuade management to negotiate. Eventually the workers won a union contract.

Curran says that in his year and a half at Saint Pius he's seen not only how important churches can be to the labor movement, but how important faith can be to workers. "If we're not talking about how we see God present in 40 hours a week," he says, "we're missing a major part of it."

Leticia agrees. "We should be treated equally--men and women treated equally, children and older people," she says. "But sadly, in this world where we live it's difficult in the way in which people treat others. God has compassion, a sense of equality. Here in this world the treatment we see is different."

Saint Pius, 1919 S. Ashland, has invited labor leaders to speak at all six of its masses this Sunday. English masses are at 7:45 and 11 AM, Spanish masses at 9:15 AM and 1:15, 4:30, and 6:30 PM. For more details call 312-226-6161. There's more about Labor in the Pulpits at nicwj.org. To find other participating congregations call the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues at 773-728-8400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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