All the hoopla surrounding the caravan of Central Americans who are heading north to the United States to seek refugee status has brought back fond memories of one of the best experiences of my life — a Christmas show that I organized at the illegal-immigrant detention center in my hometown of Laredo, Texas.
At that time, which was the latter part of the 1970s, I was a young lawyer in Laredo. I had asked our local federal judge to appoint me to represent immigrants who were charged with illegal entry into the United States and who were too indigent to retain a lawyer.
Here is an excerpt from a much longer article entitled “I Celebrated Christmas in a Detention Center” that I wrote 12 years ago:
One day, I was visiting one of my clients (one of the illegal aliens that the federal judge had appointed me to represent) at the detention center a couple of miles outside Laredo. I got a brainstorm. When I returned to my office, I telephoned the local sheriff, who was in charge of managing the detention center, and said, “Mario, how about letting my cousin Mike Jackson and me put on a Christmas show for the illegal aliens at the detention center?” His response: “Sure, that would be nice. Give me the date and I’ll make sure they’re ready for you when you arrive.”
I telephoned my cousin Mike, who had grown up in Laredo and who was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. He had been playing the guitar and singing since he was a small kid, and today he leads one of the best rock-and-roll bands in Texas. (See “Hotcakes: America’s Band.” My cousin is the guy on the right, Michael “T-Bird” Jackson.) Mike’s mother and my mother were sisters, his father having succumbed to the same sort of wiles that my mother employed on my father. Like many people in border towns, Mike and I were bilingual.
I telephoned him and said, “Hey, Mike. When you come home for Christmas, would you be willing to do a Christmas show for the illegal aliens at the detention center?” His response: “Absolutely! Just let me know what day.”
On the appointed day, Mike and I arrived at the detention center, which reminded me of a World War II prisoner-of-war facility, with guard towers, high cyclone fences with barbed wire at the top, and barracks for the inmates. It was a warm December day, and the guards were expecting us. They had even constructed a makeshift stage and had set up dozens of chairs. About 125–150 illegal aliens, most of them dressed in their customary khaki pants and white T-shirts, slowly made their way into the chairs, somewhat mystified over what was happening.
I welcomed the crowd and introduced my cousin. Mike began singing traditional Christmas songs in Spanish, such as “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” and, of course, “Feliz Navidad” and also old, traditional songs from Mexico, such as “Cielito Lindo” and “Guadalajara.” You could easily see the tears welling up in those guys’ eyes, as their minds obviously strayed to their families back in Mexico who were celebrating Christmas without them.
After about 45 minutes, Mike, by prearrangement, turned to me and said, “My throat feels a little bit scratchy. Would you mind taking over for a bit?”
I readily agreed. Of course, I couldn’t sing a song if I had to, but I sure knew how to give a speech. So, I looked straight at those guys, brought the microphone up to my mouth, and said to them, in Spanish,
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the reason you are spending time here in a jail at Christmastime is that you have done something wrong, something criminal. But you haven’t. All that you have done is respond to a natural urge that God has implanted within you — the urge to sustain your life through labor, or the life of your wife or your children, or your mother or father.
All you have done is come to this country to work, and your plan was to send most of your money back home to help your family. That’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s nothing to feel guilty about. In fact, it’s something that you should be proud of. You have risked your life and your freedom in the hope of sustaining or improving your life through labor.
That’s no crime. That’s something virtuous. What is criminal are the laws that put you here. And the people who should feel shame and guilt are the federal officials who have enacted such laws and who enforce them against you.
So, my cousin and I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and I want each of you to know that it is a great pleasure and honor for us to be here to celebrate Christmas with you today in this detention center.
As you can imagine, those tear-filled eyes had become wide as saucers. Those men obviously had never, ever heard such a message and certainly had never expected to.
I turned the microphone back to my cousin, who sang a few more songs. Since either my cousin’s songs or my speech was motivating more guards to move in the direction of the performance, we thought it best to wrap things up. We thanked the inmates for coming and began to leave. I think we gave them a good Christmas celebration because they all had smiles on their faces as they waved goodbye to us.
For some reason, we were never invited back to celebrate Christmas with the illegal aliens at the detention center. But every time I hear “Feliz Navidad” on the radio at Christmastime, I automatically think back to the time I celebrated Christmas with the illegal aliens in the Laredo, Texas, detention center, and I get a great big smile on my face.