For more than 50 years, Father Frank O’Laughlin has helped protect and promote the most vulnerable immigrants and refugees in South Florida. The Roman Catholic priest will be honored Friday night for his human rights legacy.
When we think of immigrants in South Florida, we tend to focus on Cubans and South Americans. But migrants from Central America and other poor and often violent regions abound here as well – usually under the radar as farm hands or domestic workers.
Immigrant advocates say few have stood up for those migrants more strongly than Father Frank O’Laughlin – who founded the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth in 1992.
“Just about every vulnerable group of immigrants who tend to be demonized far too often these days, Frank was in the front row trying to do everything he could to help them," says Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), the Miami-based national NGO that's giving O'Laughlin its Human Rights Award.
"He used to give mass in English, and then in Spanish, and right after that in Creole," Little recalls, "all with an Irish accent, mind you.”
O’Laughlin’s Guatemalan-Maya Center offers services from asylum assistance to English education to Maya cultural preservation, and it's widely lauded for its work with indigenous refugees escaping violence in Guatemala and Central America. O’Laughlin, himself an immigrant from Ireland, says the work is doubly important now when so many Americans consider immigration un-American.
“It’s all about the sacredness of each other, caring for one another," says O'Laughlin.
"And the truth is, all I’ve ever done is work with Americans who were being American – that spark inside all of us. We can be John Wayne Americans: we can say, ‘Hey, welcome, pilgrim.’”
The AIJ awards dinner begins at 6 pm on Friday, Feb. at the Hotel InterContinental in downtown Miami.