Unaccompanied minors: Immigrants or refugees

Elio Valladares arrived in the United States from Honduras a year ago under much different circumstance than the estimated 60,000 unaccompanied child immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol at the southern border since October.

While the children are poor, Valladares had financial resources he earned from a successful Honduras family business to resettle his wife, Marcella, and their four children in Denver. He speaks fluent English and the only time he spent out of Honduras was when he graduated from the University of Houston with a marketing degree.

Still, he can relate to the reasons why so many Honduran parents and other families in El Salvador and Guatemala have sent their children to the United States.

“Honduras has become a very dangerous place to live,” Valladares, 40, told the Denver Catholic Register. “Once the drug trafficking increased it became very unsafe. My brother was kidnapped; my friends have been kidnapped; and one (friend’s) family couldn’t pay the ransom and the person was killed. Living in Honduras is like living in a jail. You are always afraid.”

People hired armed guards, lived behind barbed wire fences and carried weapons to protect their families, he said.

His children, ages 6 to 13, went to a bilingual school and have adjusted well in Denver, and initially marveled at being able to go to soccer practice at a public park without fearing violence, Valladares said.

But it was a struggle for the family to meet and finalize the legal U.S. immigration standards, Valladares said. He understands how many poor Central American families feel they have no choice but to try and enter undocumented.

“I know why the parents have sent their children to the U.S.,” Valladares said. “It is sad to say but in Honduras it will be very hard to change; everything is so political and it seems no one cares.”

A study of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released last November sought to explain the sudden increase in child immigration, and found that a “series of interrelated factors” contributed to what they termed “a perfect storm.” One of the most prevalent factors is the general insecurity in the country and the rise of gang activity, particularly that of the Mara Salvatrucha in Honduras, and a rival gang, Barrio 18.

The numbers of unaccompanied children from Honduras that have been stopped at the border this year has grown to 13,000, compared with 968 just five years ago.

Alex Morales, who currently resides in Olanchito, Honduras, told El Pueblo Católico that he has two young sons, and that he is afraid for them: “Many young men are losing their lives because they don’t join the Maras. The path that avoids violence is very narrow; it seems as if the only solution is to get out of here.”

Morales noted that in his neighborhood, many children—some alone and others accompanied by their mothers—have immigrated to the United States with false hopes.

“Here we heard that the American government had approved a law that legalized kids,” he said, adding that the rumor is being actively spread by human traffickers. “This is what the Coyotes tell people—for $6,000 to $8,000 they can take a child and deliver it to the mother or father in the United States,” Morales stated.

Short-term aid

Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, director of the immigration program for Catholic Charities Denver, recently spent two weeks in McAllen, Texas, near the U.S. border with Mexico.  She helped local Sacred Heart Parish and other Catholic Charities workers provide clean clothes, food and start the immigration process for the large number of immigrants landing by bus in the community.

The unaccompanied children were not processed in the area where Martinez-Gloria was working in the Rio Grande Valley.  The children she helped had at least one parent with them but the message she heard of why they fled was similar to what her colleagues are hearing from the unaccompanied children, she said.

“People need to understand the gravity of the situation, of the poverty and violence in those countries,” Martinez-Gloria said. “It is not just a situation where adults want a better standard of life. This is life or death for their children.”

One family saw their father gunned down during a robbery and the mother fled with her ill son, 13, and daughter, 12, because there was no one to protect them from future violence. Another mother whose son was being recruited by gangs was so fearful she surprised him in the middle of his school day and they fled together to the border.

The United States has not seen this kind of influx of immigrants from Central America since the civil wars there in the 1980s, Martinez-Gloria said. But then it was adults being targeted and now it is children who face the gang and drug violence and rape, she said.

On Aug. 5, the city of Denver applied for a $12 million federal grant to house up to 60 children at its Denver Human Service’s Family Crisis Center in west Denver. Despite concerns from at least two of the 13 Denver City Council members Mayor Michael Hancock said applying for the grant was the “right thing to do” because of the humanitarian crisis.

The mayor’s office said the majority of the youths will stay between 30 to 35 days and the services will include education, family reunification and release, group and individual counseling, medical and recreational activities.

The grant money would come from the $3.7 billion in emergency funding President Barack Obama authorized to help address the issue. Critics note that this is only a short-term solution, and raise concerns that there is no long-term plan for what is most likely only the beginning of a larger wave of immigration from Central America.

Last month, Pope Francis urged welcoming and protecting the children “as a first urgent measure,” but added that a humanitarian response is not enough, and that it should be “accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and, above all, that promote development in their countries of origin.”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Ark., a member of the Committee on Migration of the USCCB, urged communities and elected officials to set politics aside. He points out that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala numbers four and five. He called these nations “failed states,” and those fleeing from those states “refugees.”

“The current humanitarian crisis is a test of the moral character of our nation,” Bishop Taylor said in a statement. “This crisis should not be exploited as an opportunity for political posturing, but rather serve as a chance for bipartisan cooperation to humanely address this issue.”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”