When Jeff Hamilton, a devout lifelong Catholic, was looking for clarity on the polarizing and oft politicized topic of immigration, he found his way to the Catholic Social Teaching and its core doctrines centering around life and dignity of the human person, caring for God’s creations and welcoming strangers.
Hamilton, a member of St. Angela Merici Catholic Church in Brea, learned about the Immigration and Citizenship services offered by the Catholic Charities of Orange County, and was inspired. The semi-retired commercial banker began attending meetings of an immigration task force which included representatives from the Dioceses of Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
The task force focuses on how each diocese can meet the challenges of the immigrant community.
“I started to look at people from South America and Mexico and elsewhere in the world as people and human beings instead of two-dimensional objects on TV,” Hamilton said.
While attending task force meetings, Hamilton connected with Linda Dakin-Grimm, a Los Angeles attorney who does pro bono work on immigration matters, helping immigrant children and families obtain Permanent Residence status and providing other resources
Dakin-Grimm has represented close to 80 unaccompanied children and separated families in immigration proceedings and has organized a group of interpreters and mentors to assist in the process.
Wanting to get more involved, Hamilton joined Dakin-Grimm on an initial meeting at a Starbucks with two girls from El Salvador seeking asylum.
“I remember the kids being pretty scared and wondering what was going to happen to them,” Hamilton said. Hamilton took on a mentoring role to the two girls, taking them to meetings with attorneys and driving them to court. He hired a tutor and connected them with counseling sessions.
Hamilton taught them social skills and modeled Christian behavior.
Now 18 and having graduated high school with honors, one of those girls enlisted in the Navy and graduated from high school with honors. The other, now 16, is a high school honor student.
“What he has done with them is remarkable,” Dakin-Grimm said. “They had a turbulent home life and they’ve been able to trust Jeff and reach out to him when things weren’t good. He was able to, with his presence, convey a kind of a welcoming calm.”
Hamilton has since served as mentor, friend, father and big brother figure to dozens of asylees, helping them navigate legal proceedings and the daunting road towards being granted residence.
“He’s just a good man,” Dakin-Grimm said. “He is not doing the legal work. The legal work is absolutely necessary but totally insufficient to building a life and Jeff is just quietly there.”
Hamilton said it often takes several meetings for the children to feel comfortable.
“The kids are scared to death when they come here,” he said. “They don’t trust anybody. One of my jobs is to help them feel comfortable. Their story is often hard for them to tell. None of the kids I’ve met have ever wanted to talk about their experiences and how they arrived in the U.S.”
The scary part is the abuse they endured in their home countries, causing them to seek asylum in the first place.
But Hamilton has gleaned some details.
Asylee children often come to the U.S unaccompanied and get to the border any way they can. Many ride on a train dubbed “the beast” which travels through Mexico making multiple stops. The children often ride in rail cars with strangers. They walk. They ride in the back of trucks.
One female asylee Hamilton mentored had watched her sister being raped in the street in her country. When the girl’s father ran outside and tried to rescue his daughter, he was shot and killed in front of his children.
Hamilton recalls another asylee, a boy who had been attending a religious school in his home country and was required to wear a uniform. The boy was constantly beat up on his way to and from school and was seeking asylum to escape the beatings.
Hamilton was also a mentor to a family of asylees who had formed a neighborhood watch group in their country in an effort to keep gangs out of their community. In response, a group of gang members stormed the community on motorcycles and killed a boy with his three sisters looking on.
Asylee Eddie De Leon was a high school student being tutored by Hamilton who was forced to juggle school and work in order to earn enough money to support his family. When Hamilton found out, he counseled De Leon on the importance of staying in school and maintaining good grades. Hamilton agreed to provide financial support to the young man as long as he didn’t miss school.
“Sometimes I wasn’t at school,” said De Leon, who works as a framer in the construction industry. “I was working. I wasn’t doing my homework. I wasn’t paying attention at school. That is when Hamilton helped me. I was comfortable with him.”
Through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, once chaired by Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann, Hamilton earned a Department of Justice qualification to provide basic legal support to asylees in legal proceedings.
“He is not a lawyer and doesn’t speak Spanish, but Jeff just kind of finds a way with quiet faithful perseverance, said Dakin-Grimm. “He is just there for kids and their families and it’s kind of beautiful.”
“Over the years in my interactions with Jeff what always struck me was the way that he came to this work without any partisanship or agenda other than to love these kids
and help them in their uphill battle in a legal system stacked against them,” said Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace for the Diocese of Orange. Hamilton and other task force volunteers will be honored at a Mass in recognition of all immigrants which takes place on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 3:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
For information on volunteering with the Southern California Catholic Task Force on Immigration, contact Isaac Cuevas, director of immigration affairs at 213-637-7484 or [email protected]