The Sins of the Father

Cantankerous, proud and devoted to helping immigrants, Father Justin Lucio's singleminded sense of duty led to overblown charges of "scandal"

On the day his name first appeared in the news, Father Justin Lucio had no reason to believe that it would be there at all. He was sitting at his desk, completing paperwork that would help an undocumented immigrant become legal. This was in 1984, when one afternoon a 30-year-old Mexican named Fermina Vasquez sat down in front of him and said, "Father, I came so that you could prepare me for my death."

Lucio has a habit of listening to someone while performing some unrelated task. "My head is one thing, and my hand is another," he likes to joke, but the request prompted him to put down his pen.

"What?" he asked.

Justin Lucio: "His whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences," says Lucio's lawyer Michael Thomas.
Justin Lucio: "His whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences," says Lucio's lawyer Michael Thomas.
Lucio in front of his DeSoto home, where immigrants still seek him out.
Tom Jenkins
Lucio in front of his DeSoto home, where immigrants still seek him out.

"I want you to prepare me for my death," the young widow and mother insisted. "I'm a dialysis patient. I'm here illegally, and I went to Parkland, and they told me that they weren't going to treat me anymore. I'm using up a machine that belongs to a U.S. citizen." At that time, only three cities in Mexico offered dialysis, and the closest was 250 miles from Vasquez's hometown. Parkland had found out that she was using a friend's Social Security card to get free treatment, and if she was deported, she was as good as dead.

"She's lying," Lucio thought. "That isn't possible."

So he called Parkland Memorial Hospital, thinking that whoever picked up the line would say, "Father, Fermina's pulling your leg! We never said that."

"That's basically correct what she told you," the person from Parkland said.

"How can you treat a person like that when we don't even treat animals like that?" Lucio demanded. "If you people hit a dog, you stop and you render aid and take him to the vet. How can you do this to a human being?" He hung up the phone.

"I told you so," Vasquez said. "Will you now prepare me for my death?"

"Let's see if the community of Dallas will send you to your death," he said, and then called his first news conference.

In those days, Lucio didn't brood when he prayed. God has always been more like a friend to him than an aloof, white-bearded supreme being. "I consider him at the same level with me," he says. "'You put me on this earth, you gave me an intelligence, I can do it by myself,'" Lucio still tells God. "That probably gets me in trouble." God occasionally must use harsh language to deal with him. "Shit!" he says God once yelled at him. "I'm here! Stop fucking around!"

Like Vasquez was, Lucio is damaged and dying. He is 61 and has had three heart attacks in the last three and a half years; he receives dialysis treatments three times a week. But 20 years ago, when his head didn't shake, he could stare Vasquez down before he called in the media and say, "Fermina, do you have anything else to tell me? Everything you're telling me, this is your life?"

It was a good question, because as Lucio would later find out, Vasquez had not told all of the truth. The news that night in Dallas was that an illegal immigrant had been denied medical treatment at Parkland; even the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service had told Lucio that they wouldn't lay a hand on an immigrant whom they knew would die if deported. "It was one of the few times I was able to get the Hispanic and Anglo communities fighting a common cause," Lucio says.

Unfortunately for Vasquez, authorities later learned that in 1983 she had agreed to store four pounds of marijuana at her apartment for a friend. She told Lucio that when the cops arrived, he flew out the back door, leaving her to foot the bill. Vasquez was sent back to Mexico, where she died from an infection in a Mexico City hospital two months after she was deported.

For the rest of that decade, when he was also the pastor at St. James Church in Oak Cliff, Lucio's name popped up whenever the subject of immigration became news in Dallas. "He was a Cesar Chavez-type priest," says Adelfa Callejo, an attorney who used to lead demonstrations with him. After he moved to Dallas in 1979, Lucio began conducting immigration seminars, where he would tell the undocumented how to become legal. Immigration attorney Margaret Donnelly, who would attend his seminars and advise his audiences on legal issues, recalls that he would tell the crowds, "'You have to do something about your immigration status because, as you know, we Mexicans are pisados, stepped on. You have to fight back, you have to fight back.'

"I know he would mean it by becoming informed, by fixing your immigration status," Donnelly says, "but it didn't come across that way sometimes." She warned him not to tell the immigrants that Dallas is full of racists. "Don't say this city is not kind to the Chicano!" she admonished him. But Lucio, Donnelly says, "doesn't listen to advice."

Lucio's strident self-assurance has often served him well: when he fought for Vasquez, for example, or in 1989, when he founded Casita Maria, a nonprofit center in Oak Cliff that became the largest charitable immigration agency in North Texas, counseling up to 22,000 immigrants a year about their legal status at little or no cost to them. Spurred on by a keen sense of social justice and what he regards as the spiritual honor of serving the poorest of the poor, Lucio could be found working "from dawn sometimes until midnight," says Juan Campos, the Oak Cliff artist who painted a mural of him at Casita Maria. "There's no question about the fact that his heart was in the right place," Callejo says. "There's no question that he served the community. It ruined his health, that's for sure."

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