When Elvis Garcia Callejas prepared to leave Honduras at the age of 15, he didn’t know much about the U.S. except that men who went there found jobs and sent money home to their families, exactly what he hoped to do. He had no idea of the struggles he would face reaching the border and then trying to survive in the U.S.
Today he is a speaker for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and works for Catholic Charities, helping unaccompanied refugee children navigate the immigration system and establish lives in New York. He spoke at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Woodstock on September 17 as part of the church’s “Welcome Your Neighbor” Month, which features programming to foster understanding of the immigrants in our community, especially given the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the rights of refugees.
When Garcia Callejas arrived in the U.S., he was surprised to discover that children here go to school instead of working. “Kids grow up fast in Central America,” he told the audience. In his native city of San Pedro Sula — known for years as the murder capital of the world due to the high rate of gang violence — he started working on a bus at the age of eight. His job was to open the doors for passengers, often from 5 a.m. to 7 or 10 p.m., as his income of $5 a day was critical to help feed his mother and four brothers. (Garcia Callejas said San Salvador has taken over as the most violent city, and many children fleeing gang violence cross the border from El Salvador into Honduras.)
His first effort to emigrate, at the age of 12, failed when he and a friend were detained at the Guatemalan border and sent home. At 15, he joined two friends in a day of putting up posters for a political candidate. When their employer refused to pay them, the boys were upset. They ate a meal on the money a relative living in the U.S. had sent one of them for Christmas. This boon set them to dreaming, and the next day, they said good-bye to their families.
The boys managed to get rides through Guatemala and into Mexico, where they had to travel on the top of a train. After 20 days on the train, the last three in the heat of the desert, Garcia Callejas arrived at the border, starving, dehydrated, and sick. Immigration forces tried to capture the boys, so they split up. A taxi driver gave Garcia Callejas food and clothing and took him to a shelter. In El Paso, he realized he was lucky to be alive.
He bounced around from one facility to another, always in danger of deportation, until a volunteer offered him sponsorship. She took him home to her family in Chicago, and he lived with them while attending high school. They went to family court to become his legal guardians, so he could be removed from the deportation program. He graduated from high school, receiving a scholarship to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There he majored in international development and Spanish, since his insufficient early schooling had not provided solid writing skills in his native language.
He wanted his mother to come to his college graduation, but the U.S. government denied her a visa. When he married a French woman, they had a second wedding in France, so his mother would be able to attend. “It’s so difficult to get a visa,” he said. “That’s why there are so many undocumented immigrants here. It costs hundreds of dollars to get an interview at the U.S. embassy in Honduras, and they don’t return the money if they turn you down.”
At Catholic Charities in New York City, where Garcia Callejas works as a Migration Counselor, children are not charged for legal representation, with donations fueling the organization. He is also on the LIRS Speakers Bureau, set up to train and empower immigrants to describe their experience to communities. Sometimes he encounters skepticism from audiences, but most people are sympathetic by the end of his talk.
“People think, ‘They’re coming to take our jobs,’” he commented. “But we’re coming to have the rights that humans should have everywhere.”
“It’s such a part of the Christian message to be welcoming to strangers, to be hospitable, to include them and not look at them as ‘the other,’” said Susan Dresdale, a Lutheran congregant who attended the talk, as well as other events during “Welcome Your Neighbor” Month. “With these political things going on right now, we are trying to make a statement from the town about welcoming people.”
Among the events of the month were beginning Spanish classes and a series of sermons addressing the issue of reaching out to your neighbor by Pastor Sonja Maclary. “It’s not just about welcoming the immigrant,” said Maclary. “It’s about everybody. Everybody’s your neighbor. Each year as kids start back to school, we do a ‘Blessing of the Backpacks’ and talk about bullying and welcoming students back to school, what it means to be caring of one another as we enter into community. That’s how God works. God loves us, we love others. God forgives us, we forgive others. That’s how God enters into the world. Elvis’s talk was part of that.”
The catalyst for inviting him to speak was the congregation’s Mission Endowment Fund, which gives donations to churches, church-related organizations and non-church-related organizations. This year, the congregation voted to donate to LIRS, which was founded in the 1930s and went on to help refugees displaced by World War II. A $500 donation was presented to Garcia Callejas for the work still being done by LIRS.
At his presentation, Linda Kaplan of the immigration committee of Indivisible Catskills brought up the issue of encouraging the town board to pass an ordinance specifying which directives of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must be obeyed and which can and should be resisted. Members of the immigrant community fear such a step would draw the attention of ICE. However, Kaplan said similar ordinances have been passed in nearby towns, including New Paltz and Newburgh. She asked how fear could be addressed in the local community.
Garcia Callejas said the example of other successful ordinances could ultimately be reassuring. “The more towns that do it, they will inspire other progressive towns to do it,” he said. “It’s great that you are working together and united. I don’t see that in every community.”
Dresdale said she was stirred by hearing about the ordinance controversy. “Nobody should be living in fear. We all have some, but we should do as much as we can to make peace right here in our little burg.”