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Priest wants to show undocumented immigrants ‘a different way’

Father Gary Graf fomerly Pastor Holy Family Parish Waukegan  speaks rally Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

Father Gary Graf, fomerly Pastor of Holy Family Parish in Waukegan, speaks at a rally in Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 3, 2013 2:24PM

The former Waukegan priest who last month illegally crossed the U.S. border from Mexico, said he wanted to make a dramatic statement “that it’s not the way to begin a relationship with a new country.”

Rev. Gary Graf’s covert crossing on April 24 coincides with a Congressional debate over a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The priest said he also wanted to show undocumented immigrants, thousands who marched Wednesday, May 1, in the annual May Day protest in Chicago’s Loop, a “different way.”

“... that waving the Mexican flag and demanding of rights and year-after-year (May Day), very few other than Mexicans participating, does not promote the dialogue that needs to happen. No one is allowing immigrants to speak. Not the activists who are leading them around by the nose. Not the church.”

Graf, 54, who pastored Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan for 14 years, made headlines in 2007 when he extracted a signed pledge from then-mayor Richard Hyde that the city would not use deportation powers it was seeking under the federal 287(g) program to hunt down law-abiding undocumented immigrants. The charismatic Graf once offered donuts and a handshake to protesters, including members of the border militia Minutemen, who picketed his church. In 2002, he donated half of his liver for a transplant that saved the life of a dying parishioner.

Now pastor of St. Gall Parish on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Graf climbed a 20-foot iron fence separating Sonora, Mexico, from Nogales, Ariz.

When no border guards appeared after he dropped to American soil, he walked to a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s station where he turned himself in with the words he wants all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to repeat: “Sorry. Thank you. I need your help.”

“I felt I couldn’t ask the community I love to say that unless I said it first, unless I experienced what they experienced,” said Graf, a native of Chicago’s South Side, who was ordained in 1984 and spent his first years as a priest in poor villages in Mexico.

Graf said he was going to accompany a Jesuit ministry to the border but when the plan fell through, he used his plane ticket and $2,900 from a second collection for the trip for his true intention − to sneak across the border into the U.S. with the help of “coyotes” who work for the Mexican mafia.

After spending three days and two nights at a border house where 27 people slept on the floor and shared one bathroom, Graf tired of waiting and slipped out to walk through the desert and cross on his own.

“The point was to talk about how dangerous and how wrong this is,” said Graf, who said he returned half the $2,900 and said he will repay the rest. “We’re not going to win over the citizens of this country by continuing to come in through the window. No reform will be seriously considered if people continue to jump the fence like rabbits. Mexicans are coming from a lawless society and they don’t see what’s so wrong about coming in this way.”

But Jackie Hererra Giron, director of a Waukegan ministry that bears Graf’s name and that offers resources to immigrants, said the undocumented do regret crossing illegally.

“Every immigrant I speak to is sorry they came that way,” she said. “The majority are law-abiding individuals. They come because they are compelled by dire circumstances. Many tried to get visas and couldn’t.

“What they really need is a path to citizenship,” Giron said. “We need to let them come out of the shadows.”

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