“Nobody chooses to leave their country on a whim.”
Luisa Orellana, an ESL instructor in Spokane, is talking about her past on a blustery spring afternoon.
“People leave because they’re dealing with hunger, or war, or they’ve been separated from their family for years,” she explains. “It’s not because they want to break laws. Coming here, crossing the border – it’s dangerous and scary, no one would do it without a really good reason.”
Luisa speaks from experience. In the 1970s and 80s, her home country of El Salvador was embroiled in a brutal civil war. Luisa’s family and others like them were victims of the conflict, which saw prominent church and community leaders hunted and executed by death squads.
In 1983, Luisa’s own father, a Catholic catechist, was hauled away by soldiers, never to be seen again.
Luisa’s family fled. Eventually, they found aid through the Sanctuary Movement, a consortium of nearly 500 U.S. churches that set up a sort of Underground Railroad, ushering families to safety while also confronting the U.S. government over their destructive policies in Central America.
In 1985, Luisa and her family arrived in Spokane, where they found shelter in the basement of St. Ann’s Catholic Church.
It was there that she met a young parishioner named Ben Stuckart.
Ben’s parents were very active in their church community, and played a major role in helping Luisa’s family settle in to their new community.
“I’ve known Ben for over 30 years,” Luisa says. “He speaks on behalf of immigrants and refugees, and that’s so close to my heart.”
For Luisa, the news that her friend was running for Congress was exciting not just for her, but for the dozens of immigrants and refugees she works with every day. Far too often, Luisa’s students are faced with prejudice and hostility.
“I hope that people support him, because we need people like Ben. I’ve put my hope in Ben, and I believe that when he wins, the situation for our immigrants and refugees will change for the better.”
“There are people who don’t have documents to live here, but no human being is alien or illegal.”
In 2015, Pope Francis recognized Luisa’s father by acknowledging his status as a martyr of the faith. Today, nearly all of Luisa’s family has attained full U.S. citizenship.
“Even my mother, who knows so little English,” Luisa says with a smile. “She studied hard and she passed that test.”
Luisa has watched the recent political developments with concern. She worries for her students and for her family.
“It’s a scary time,” she says. “I believe that as a community we need to work on becoming more aware of who and what we are. Those of us who are citizens should work together to support families who are vulnerable, who might become victims of the system.”
In Ben, Luisa sees a leader who isn’t afraid to be an ally for those who are at risk.
“There are so many people in our society who have no political voice,” Luisa says. “Ben has the opportunity to stand up for them, and he actually does it – that’s the reason I support him.”
“Ben is a voice for the voiceless.”