Daughter of immigrants now ministers to today’s immigrants

Q&A with Sister Rosalia Vadala, O.S.F., founder of Proyecto Santo Nino de Atocha
What are your roots and how did they lead you to your ministry?
My parents were born in Sicily. In the 1920s, my father made the heartbreaking decision to leave the island out of necessity and to journey across the ocean to the Promised Land, the U.S.A.
My mother was born on the opposite side of the island of Sicily. One day the two met in Brooklyn, New York, and eventually married. My brother, my sister, and I were born in Brooklyn. The years passed. Then, one day, my father proudly announced to us children that he had become a U.S. citizen. We lived surrounded by other recently arrived immigrants from Sicily. I was conscious of the fact that someone reached out to my father, mother, and others during those first difficult years in a new country. Is it any wonder that I have felt a special calling, an anointing, to work with immigrants?
For a period of five years, our family moved to the lower east side of Manhattan, an immigrant area. One day, when I was nine years old, I was out walking with my sister. All around us were young people speaking a language I did not recognize. I asked my sister what language was being spoken. She told me “Spanish.” These young people were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. At that moment I heard God’s voice within me saying, “One day you will speak this language and work with this people.”
I wasn’t sure what it meant but from that moment on I was determined to study Spanish in high school and college. In later years, after becoming a Franciscan Sister of Baltimore, I had the opportunity to take pastoral language courses for use in my Hispanic pastoral ministry which began in the early 1970s. Though my emphasis in the earlier years was on the spiritual, leadership development, and community organizing I clearly saw, as I met with individual people from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries, that there was a great unmet need for the people to know how to go about the immigration process. So beginning in the 1970s, whenever I went to meetings, I advocated that some way be found to bring immigration information to the people. 
How did you discern your religious call?
As a child, Jesus cultivated in me a missionary heart. However, I wanted to be a police woman. One day, around 1960, I was on my way to work in New York City. I used to attend morning mass at St. Francis Xavier Church (a Jesuit parish) and then walk to my place of work. One morning as I ascended the steps of the church, the priest who was to celebrate Mass stood outside on the steps. He greeted me and then asked what I wanted to do with my life. I responded that I wanted to be a police woman. At that moment as I looked at the priest, it was no longer him but Jesus. In an instant, I was totally changed. During Mass, I asked God to guide me through my dreams. That is how I got to the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore. I entered in February of 1962. On October 4, 2001, my congregation merged with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
How did your life’s journey bring you to the Rio Grande Valley, a four-county detention zone on the border of Mexico?
I always had a missionary heart. Prior to coming to the Rio Grande Valley I had asked for and received permission to look for a place to minister among the poor in another country. I asked a Sister of Mercy who was living with us Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore if she had a suggestion for me. She put me in touch with one of their sisters who was working in Nicaragua, Central America. I serviced with her in Nicaragua from 1984-86. This was during the Sandinista Revolution of the country so I saw up close the influences of communism.
Leaving Nicaragua I attended Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio from 1986-87. I entered the M.A. program for Christian Ministry and Renewal. On my first day at the University I went to the chapel to pray. There, I was captivated by a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her gaze was upon me. Transfixed by her beauty, I told her that each day I would come and pray so that she would help me to find my next place of ministry. Then school ended. I returned to our Sisters in Baltimore, Maryland. Once again, I appealed to the Sister of Mercy who was living with us. She gave me a contact in the Rio Grande Valley. One day, I received a phone call from the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Mission, Texas, inviting me to come. The miracle happened. That is how my journey to the Rio Grande Valley began in 1987.
What is the story behind the name Proyecto Santo Niño de Atocha?
I was inspired by God to give this name to my missionary outreach for unmet immigration needs. I will explain. From 1992-93 I lived in La Joya, Texas, assisting a Dominican Sister part time with the religious education program at Our Lady of the Angels Parish. In the meantime, I continued my informal immigration assistance which began in 1987.
During my time in La Joya, I was introduced to “El Santo Niño de Atocha” by Janda, a story written for children. El Santo Niño de Atocha is the Pilgrim Christ child who leaves the arms of his Mother to help those who are in great distress. This is the true story of the Christ child in Spain at the time of the invasion by the Moors. During Medieval times, there were frequent battles between Christians and Moors. When the Moors invaded the town of Atocha in Spain, they took many Christian men as prisoners. They did not feed them. This is when the Pilgrim Christ child goes to their assistance with food and drink. He continues to appear to people to this day.
The devotion spread throughout Latin America, Central America, and parts of the U.S.A. Reading this story of the Christ child, I was so deeply touched that I told Jesus should I ever have the opportunity to begin my own project I would name it for the Santo Niño de Atocha. Immediately upon formalizing my work based on home visitations in the rural slums (Colonias) of the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, God confirmed this chosen name. In people’s homes, I was greeted by large images of the Santo Niño hanging on walls or small statues of the holy child that had been part of the heritage of these families who migrated from various parts of Mexico.
What kind of ministry do you do at Proyecto Santo Niño de Atocha?
The ministry of Proyecto Santo Niño de Atocha is twofold. In Reynosa, Mexico, which is in the Diocese of Matamoros, Mexico, the original and ongoing work involves meeting with young maquiladora (factory) workers, uprooted from other parts of Mexico. Meetings take place in their homes, the purpose of which is to help the workers know their rights under their own Mexican federal labor law so that they can defend themselves in the workplace and obtain justice. Over the years, my longtime partner for this work who lives in Reynosa, Mexico, set up a small dining place for hungry children who are targeted to work with the drug cartel people. He named the dining place “Comedor Humanitario Santo Niño.” As you can imagine, the immigration picture is very grave on both sides of our U.S./Mexico border. When children or adults are deported, they are often very far from their original homes whether that be in Central America, or other parts of Mexico. A plot of land was recently purchased and it will be able to accommodate a small number of returnees. Shelters throughout Mexico are overflowing.
Now let us look at the unfolding of the immigration work in the rural slums of the Rio Grande Valley. This is the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. I started this as a pastoral approach to unmet immigration needs. Why? Because, starting in 1987, people working in the fields all around us, picking and packing the year-round crops and citrus that would be sold in other parts of the U.S.A. and locally, began coming to me for help. These were migrant worker families for the most part. The living conditions were appalling. I found families living in broken down busses, abandoned cars, rotted wooden shacks and more. The stench of raw sewerage filled the air for many years. There were mud-gutted, unpaved roads to navigate. People used outdoor bathrooms and showers shared by multiple families. Some showed me immigration forms that had been filled a long time ago in another state other than Texas. Some had immigration forms that were completed here in the Valley. What I found and what I continue to look for are “deceptions” and “dishonesty” by those who were going to help. The list of complaints would be varied but included completing the forms when the person didn’t qualify. Big money was taken from the people. Often times the paperwork was never sent to immigration offices but thrown in the trash.
One of the foundations of the immigration work is that of pointing out to anyone who has immigration forms completed if there are errors in the manner of filling in the information. I show people what to look for and to always compare their personal documents with what is stated on the forms. “Know your rights” information is always duplicated in quantity and distributed in homes. This is part of what I call removing the obstacles to fixing up one’s legal status. Other obstacles that we help remove are:
Lack of transportation. My assistant and I take people to many different offices. This is a necessity and cannot be ignored. These are the places:
  1. Mexican, Guatemalan, or Honduran consulates in McAllen, Texas.
  2. Main courthouse for Hidalgo County in Edinburg, Texas.
  3. Main office of USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) in Harlingen, Texas, Cameron County.
  4. Immigration Court in Harlingen.
  5. Local town offices for birth certificates of any children born in the U.S.A.
  6. Fingerprints now in McAllen. Years ago this required extensive travel to different sites in neighboring Cameron County.
  7. Office of our U.S. Representative to Congress in McAllen.
  8. Non-profit offices for immigration. This includes our Diocesan office for immigration needs in San Juan and Brownsville, Texas. Proyecto Santo Niño De Atocha was initiated before the opening of our Diocesan offices.
  9. International bridges connecting us to Mexico across the Rio Grande River – at least 12 bridges are here. When someone has a voluntary departure order or needs other information.
Shuffling between offices, fighting for what we know is right regarding someone’s personal documents, can very often lead to 200 miles of driving in one day within the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
What else are you doing?
  • Prepare people with vital information and guidelines when it is necessary for them to leave the Rio Grande Valley and to travel to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in order to complete the next step in the immigration process.
  • Always share the current, correct immigration fees required for a particular immigration application as a way of preventing fraud by another person.
  • Search for the disappeared who left their home country either in Central America or Mexico. Did the person drown in the Rio Grande River? Was the person caught by border patrol agents and detained? Did the person die in the torrid heat across brush or ranch land in an attempt to get north, out of our four-county detention zone? Calls from Central America or within the U.S.A. put us on alert. Then contact is made with foreign consulates, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, detention facilities, jails and the like.
  • Help those seeking political asylum are helped as well as refugees. I have one of my helpers working directly with refugees who arrive at our shelter located at Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas.
  • In past years, completed many immigration forms to initiate a process for a family member or members known as the I-130 petition. Also, completed forms for the Green Card, as well as renewal of Green Cards, naturalization applications.
  • Guide persons through the difficult process of attempting to get a U Visa, for victims of crimes.
Personally, I assisted my invaluable full-time immigration assistant and my refugee helper in becoming U.S. citizens.
All our work is documented with photos and other media as well as personal written testimonies. It is important to state that, out of necessity, all work is done in the language of the people, which is Spanish.
When did you establish this project?
I initiated it in 1994 as a missionary outreach for unmet immigration needs. In addition, on November 3, my feast day in religious life (the feast day of San Martín De Porres), I was invited to work in Mexico with a focus on promoting personal knowledge of labor rights for young maquiladora (factory workers). I saw this as a clear call from God and that is how the work developed in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Can you describe what a typical day might be like for you?
There is no typical day. A lot would depend on the particular family being assisted or meetings that I might have.
  • One day might find me traveling to a home on the outskirts of our many small-size cities or towns in order to bring an individual to immigration court. During the long car ride we would prepare and pray.
  • Another day might find me gathered with a few families in one of their homes going over important information to know before going to our main immigration office for this geographic region.
  • Another day might find me in a home helping a family understand a response received from the United States citizenship and immigration service (USCIS) and reviewing the next steps that need to be taken.
  • Another day would be spent meeting with my immigration assistant in my home. The purpose would be to go over the work that she has done, exchange information, etc.
  • Another day would be spent in someone’s home preparing a person who is thinking about becoming a U.S. citizen. I provide study materials in Spanish or English depending on whether the person qualifies to take the naturalization exam in their native language or not.
  • Another day I would meet with my refugee helper in her home in rural Alamo, Texas. We would go over the refugee situation, share information, deliver multiple copies of “Know Your Rights” information” and related themes.
  • Another day would be spent out with families showing them what documents are needed especially to begin the immigration process.
  • Another day, I may meet with families who have their own family members living in another state or in Mexico. I guide them and provide the nonprofit immigration contacts for the particular state in question.
  • Finally one day a week or its equivalent is spent at the office in my home. It is essential to maintain accurate files of each person assisted. I do research online related to the Mexico work and the immigration work. I document work on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. And I participate in online webinars and seminars for immigration needs.
What are the particular needs of the families, men and women you serve?
They need work. The mothers and fathers want to work legally. They need to support their families. This is the greatest struggle, being able to legalize, to obtain their “Green Card” with work authorization. Lack of income prevents many from fixing up their papers. Hunger is a particular problem as well as deteriorating homes/trailers with unsanitary conditions. Also, they need help obtaining specialized medical care for sick children, which requires trips outside of the Rio Grande Valley (a detention zone). In the past, a family without papers could usually – although not always – travel “north.” Reaching the checkpoint they would need to show a letter from a doctor stating that such medical treatment was necessary. This was still risky because, even with the letter, families suddenly found themselves detained, with other consequences to follow. Gradually it was made more and more difficult to leave the Rio Grande Valley. Now, one cannot “North” anymore to seek medical help for one’s children if one does not have legal documents to be in the country.
Why do you think this kind of ministry is important?
  • We have a gospel mandate: “Welcome the stranger.”
  • Our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”
  • Our Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
  • Our Founding Father, George Washington, ignited a “sacred fire” to light the lamp for American’s future. I say that, with this kind of ministry, we can carry that lit torch with honor and dignity for all.
What parts of this ministry pose the greatest challenges to you personally?
  • Searching for the disappeared
  • Helping someone prove a minimum of 10 years presence in the U.S.A. for the immigration court.
What have you learned about the issue of Immigration that you wish everyone knew?
  • How costly it is for our low-income families.
  • The painfully, long years of waiting for a case to be processed or a reply to be received. This causes enormous family suffering. It should not be this way. Also, if a particular petition is denied you do not get your money back. The money remains with USCIS.
As a Franciscan Sister, how does this work and ministry affirm the values of your order?
The faith vision expressed by my Order reminds us that we are called to witness in contemporary society. It calls us to share with others a search for the values of freedom, human dignity and relationship in Christ. Proyecto Santo Niño De Atocha, when I founded it in 1994, was and is “dedicated to promote and enhance the dignity of the poor in their struggle for justice which leads to freedom.” The mission statement of Proyecto Santo Niño De Atocha is made flesh through embracing the call “Repair my church” by witnessing to the love of the Pilgrim Christ child among the poor on both sides of the United States/Mexico border. Its purpose is to inspire hope and self-confidence and to enhance the dignity of those served.