I recently boarded a full plane en route to San Salvador from Houston. I was heading back to El Salvador where I had been a missionary for 20 years. 

I found myself seated between two young Salvadoran American men, both Catholics. One was reading a Catholic Bible, the other was too emotional to be reading anything. Both were on their way to visit relatives in rural El Salvador; one had never seen his grandmother in person. He was the more talkative of the two.

“Jorge” had left El Salvador when he was only 1 year old. He was very excited about going to see the place where he was born, a home of which he had no memory. I told him of my years in his country, more years than he had lived. He was curious about where I had been and what I had seen. 

He worked at a Walmart. He wondered if I knew the story of the Waltons and their tremendous success. I was impressed with his admiration of them. Napoleon said that every corporal had a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack. I doubt if many of the thousands that work at Walmart had the almost Horatio Alger-like respect for what the Waltons accomplished that Jorge had. 

This young man, brought across the border illegally when he was only 1, was a believer in capitalism. I sensed in him a work ethic that’s hard to find in his Gen Z counterparts that I meet. 

I asked how his cousins had legal status but he did not. He shrugged, accepting the vagaries of providence. “I didn’t even know I was illegal for a long time,” he said.

I was surprised he used the term “illegal.” I knew that people with his status were called “dreamers,” but I never had talked with one in whom the dream was almost palpable. His sincere loyalty to the life he lived in our country moved me. I have worked with so many young men who suffer addictions and, despite birthright citizenship, never felt they really belonged anywhere.

Like his cousins, Jorge had attended public school and lived in the two worlds immigrants inhabit, speaking Spanish at home and English out of the house. In so many ways, he was a typical American boy, except he was not. 

He smiled as he talked about how he had got vacation time, how many days he would be in El Salvador, and what he hoped to see. He was thrilled to be going to a place he had only heard about. He was so grateful that he was able to visit the land of his birth, but he said he had to be careful, that there were many precautions he had to take. If he got in any trouble or was late getting back, he could lose his “temporary” status.

As we began our descent to the airport, his emotion was evident. He was seeing El Salvador but it was like he was entering into a dream. His eyes could not absorb enough, his face in the window. 

I could tell he was a little embarrassed by his emotion, so I said, “It is a beautiful land.” He grinned with appreciation. He began to take photos with his phone. His wonder was contagious. Even the young man on the other side of me, who had been back and forth several times, seemed to be moved by Jorge’s honest excitement.

I am only a second-generation American. My paternal grandparents were both born in Middle Europe before empires disappeared and so many different nations were established. I never doubted that America was my country. 

I remember, however, that my grandmother was afraid to admit to her ethnicity because she lived through two wars in which her adopted country fought against Germans. She would only speak her meager English to her children. She did not want them to be “foreigners.” I think she would have understood why I was so moved by Jorge’s situation. He was a man with and without a country.

Since my trip, I have sent Jorge an article I had written in a previous review of “Solito,” a book by a Salvadoran American poet who reconstructed his difficult and dangerous odyssey to California as a young boy. 

Although I have not heard back from him, I have thought of him in light of some recent articles I have read about the Catholic Church and immigration. One accused the bishops of self-interested actions on behalf of immigrants — “more people in the pews, more money in the collection basket!” 

The other was by a bishop well known for his work with diverse immigrants and their families. Retired Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn recently wrote to “dispel the doubts that have been placed in the public forum by some uniformed public officials.” He clarified that “the Church does not advocate for open borders. In fact, the teaching is clear that a sovereign nation has the right to admit those whom it chooses, but it must be based on the common good.”

In the polemical climate we live in, even something obvious, like what DiMarzio delineated, seems controversial. I have heard good Catholics get upset that Catholic Charities gives food and blankets to persons who have been detained. Charity and justice are not competing claims. They are complementary aspects of social doctrine. We have lost that in much of the name-calling and blame-game antics of the public forum.

The nation’s immigration system is broken. Fixing it is going to be a mammoth job of social engineering. It is an international problem; an economic one; an anthropological issue in terms of family unity; a human rights question; finally, a moral dilemma with many sides and conflicting interests. The solution will be an affair of experts, perhaps, but like all important social crises, it requires individual understanding and commitment.

When the rhetoric cools down, and reason takes the place of impulsive reactions, I will still be remembering a young man staring out the window of an airplane “going home.”