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"

"No, I don't believe that shit," Lucio admitted.

"OK, that's good," the student said, and they continued the tour.

The awakening that the teenager provoked in Lucio never quite died. It caused problems for him in 1972, after he was ordained and sent to San Jose Mission, a Franciscan ministry in Carlsbad, New Mexico. He didn't last long there. This time, the friary was in a poor part of town; the problem for Lucio was that the friary was sumptuous while all around it were the simple adobe homes of the people the brothers were there to serve. The pastor of the mission had a pool installed in the back yard of the friary, saying that it was there for the use of the entire community. But a 7-foot wall surrounded the pool, and there were no gates for neighbors to enter. So Lucio confronted the pastor. "Why do we have a pool when no one else has one?" 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.

"It's for the community," the pastor said.

"OK, I can accept that," Lucio said. "Now why is the only door to the back yard accessible through the friary? Are you going to allow all the community to go through the friary and through the back yard?"

The pastor looked at him for a moment and said, "Whatever you may think, it is for the community," but Lucio says he never saw a non-brother use it. He asked the pastor if he could live a life of radical poverty, out among the poor, but the pastor said that it would be against the rules of the order for him to live alone.

So he returned to San Antonio, where he worked as a counselor for eight years before becoming an assistant pastor at St. Mary Parish in Fort Worth. By 1979, he was in Dallas, where he worked for the Dallas Housing Authority for less than a year, for Catholic Charities' immigration office and then at St. James.

By 1986, Lucio had established himself as the area's most outspoken advocate for immigrants. The Reagan administration had just ushered in an immigration reform so overhauling that it has become known by its shorthand, "the amnesty." It allowed illegal immigrants who could prove that they had lived for five years in the United States to stay here.

When amnesty was first announced, Lucio was ecstatic because Catholic bishops had made a joint announcement that the church was going to be "at the forefront" of the daunting work of legalizing all the immigrants who would be applying. He thought, "Shit, you can't beat that," and soon assembled a group of immigration attorneys and nonprofit agencies called the North Texas Immigration Watch Committee to pressure the INS to clarify the jumble of contradictory messages it had been dispensing to immigrants and their employers.

Lucio roamed North Texas in the mid-'80s, conducting seminars for huge crowds of the undocumented. Wherever he spoke, he took immigration attorneys with him. At Immaculate Conception in Grand Prairie, "we paraded with an effigy of the Virgin of Guadalupe and all those roses," attorney Alicia Guevara-Burkman remembers. "It was so emotional to walk in and see probably 500 people there to listen to Father Lucio. They loved him. Of course, he was not going to preach about God; he was going to talk about amnesty. He spoke in Spanish, and he was very good and charismatic--very straightforward and direct."

But he is also what Guevara-Burkman calls "non-conformist." After three meetings of the North Texas Immigration Coalition (its new, less alarmist name), Lucio declared that the area's immigration attorneys should stop charging excessive fees and devise one basic cost for what he optimistically referred to as "a simple amnesty case." Lucio estimated that there were going to be 200,000 cases to process in North Texas during amnesty, and for lawyers "to be quibbling over 'I want this' or 'I want that' is utter nonsense," he told the Morning News in March 1987.

When Lucio laid down the gauntlet to the lawyers, the rift caused the cancellation of two seminars that had been planned for immigrants. Two months after he first announced that lawyers were charging excessive fees, he quit the group for good, saying, "I was not going to be sitting at a table with an attorney who is charging [immigrants] $1,000."

The rift was another sign of Lucio's mercurial, obsessive side. "See, he had no business dictating to attorneys what our fees should be," says Adelfa Callejo, who was a member of the coalition. "If a person wants to come to a private immigration attorney and not go to [a nonprofit], that is not his affair, and he ought to be happy because that's one more poor person who gets served. But that wasn't his attitude."

One way to get around lawyers' fees was simply to do the work himself. In 1989, he and Joe Granados, a longtime friend who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico City, founded Casita Maria, a nonprofit center where Latino immigrants apply for green cards or citizenship at reduced cost or often for free.

Casita Maria, located in a sprawling old house in Oak Cliff, is a bustling place crowded with expectant and anxious immigrants who often wait hours to get a consultation. Televisions tuned to Spanish news or Mexican soap operas are set up in the expansive waiting room. On both sides of Casita Maria's wide staircase are evocative murals that, on one side, depict the mechanisms of Latino immigration: trucks blazing down highways, the unrelenting Rio Grande, and above them, an immigration judge banging his gavel as he orders someone to leave the country.
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