Valley of tears: Immigrants in California’s Coachella Valley

Some field workers in the Coachella Valley live in the Desert Mobile Home Park near Thermal, Calif., in April 2012. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension/Rich Kalonick

(RNS) The Coachella Valley is a sort of paradise in the California desert; a veritable land “flowing with milk and honey,” to borrow familiar biblical language. Vacationers flock to this region for the great golf courses, the beautiful mountains, the unending sunshine, and starting this Easter weekend they will come for the famed Coachella Music Festival, which annually attracts legendary musicians and thousands of concert revelers.

In spite of all this fun and recreation, however, Coachella has also become a “valley of tears” for many immigrants. With our country’s recent change in tone and policy toward immigrants, there is great fear and deep sorrow overshadowing many families who plant and harvest the grapes, lemons and dates that grow in abundance there.

Leo, an immigrant worker, father and leader in the community near Thermal, Calif. Photo courttesy of Catholic Extension/Rich Kalonick

The $626 million-a-year agriculture industry in the valley has been very profitable thanks to the hard work of thousands of manual laborers here.

So, instead of wondering what songs Lady Gaga is going to perform at the festival this week, these Coachella immigrant households are preoccupied with more serious questions. What will happen if the children go to school one day and return home to find out that Mom and Dad have been removed from this country? How will the family survive if one or both of the breadwinners are gone?

On Good Friday, Christians across the globe will prayerfully remember Christ’s Passion and death and relive that unsettling moment when Jesus on the cross cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Many families today are feeling that same sense of cold abandonment.

The valley is located in the 27,000-square-mile Diocese of San Bernardino, which claims one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in the country, a vast majority of whom are Catholic. Many have U.S.-born children.

Catholic Extension is a fundraising organization that has always had a major role in supporting Catholic immigrant communities. In a 1906 article in Extension magazine, our founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley, called readers’ attention to the needs of Italian immigrant laborers, who at the time were building railroads along the Eastern Seaboard. This article reveals that immigrant communities and their struggles were hidden to the rest of American Catholics 111 years ago, the same way they are hidden today in places like the Coachella Valley.

Youth congregate at the San Jose Learning Center and Chapel, which was constructed in 2012 with Catholic Extension support, in May 2014. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension/Rich Kalonick

I spoke with the pastor of one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino — Our Lady of Soledad — located in Coachella, which is a spiritual home to immigrant families. Each Sunday more than 5,000 people attend Mass at their overcrowded church, and on holy days as many as 10,000 make their way through the parish doors. When I asked Father Guy Wilson what the children of immigrant parents are telling him amid the current inundation with media chatter, political rhetoric and executive action on the topic of immigration, tears welled up in his eyes and one fell on his clerical shirt.

“It’s hard,” he said. “They are so scared.”

“Some of the teenagers have told me: ‘My parents are good people. They have never even had a traffic ticket. Why would anyone want to take them away from me?’”

Observers will correctly point out that deportations are not a new thing. So what exactly has changed? There has indeed been a palpable psychological shift in immigrant communities, which many pastors and bishops have noted across the country. Immigrants and those who love them are now living with a new uncertainty about their future. It is both agonizing and mentally exhausting, and it disrupts family life in very real ways.

Many immigrants that the leader of this massive diocese, Bishop Gerald Barnes, encounters on his pastoral visits say, “Bishop, what should we do?” He laments that no one truly knows the answer to this frequently asked question. Like many other clergy, Barnes is urging preparedness among immigrant families by mobilizing teams to offer “Know your Rights” trainings. These teams also help families set up alternative guardianship arrangements for children in case parents are suddenly deported.

The Coachella Valley boasts a $626 million-a-year agricultural industry, which is largely supported by immigrant workers. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension/Rich Kalonick

But he still doesn’t feel like he is able to do enough. At a recent Mass he celebrated with thousands of immigrants, he said, “The only thing I can offer you is my tears.” During a heartfelt song after his homily, he and hundreds more wept together as the family of God.

Laws are made by us to serve the common good, and that includes immigration laws. No church leaders dispute that a nation has a duty to protect its citizens from violent people. But the sad reality is that most people who have been deported are not violent criminals but peaceful people and heads of households.

Therefore we should ask ourselves: How does it ever benefit the common good to separate mothers and fathers from their children? Is there anyone who wins in that scenario?

A visiting Catholic priest visits an immigrant family that resides in the valley during a mission trip by Catholic Extension in May 2014. Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension/Rich Kalonick

Until the day comes when there is true reform of our laws that can serve the common good, the church will continue to spill her tears with those caught in the middle, especially the children, living in this hour of great abandonment.

This Holy Week when we hear our messiah’s words of anguish proclaimed in our churches, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” let us unite his words and our prayers to the cry of the poor, the immigrant and refugee, and the orphan, in whom we see the suffering face of Christ.

(Joe Boland is the vice president of mission of Catholic Extension, a national fundraising organization that supports poor mission dioceses across the United States)

About the author

Joe Boland


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  • I advocate for reasonable legal immigration within the resources our nation can actually support. I do not support illegal immigration or those who facilitate it.

  • That’s nice. But unhelpful. As long as there is a demand for cheap labor in this country, the resources of our nation supports illegal immigration.