Catholic advocates seek to bridge immigration divide in Congress, communities

| February 24, 2015 | 0 Comments
Participants in the Trail for Humanity pro-immigrant rights caravan protest in front of the U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta, Calif., Aug. 15. There is a new initiative by leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities supporting humanitarian actions for minors coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. CNS photo/David Maung, EPA

Participants in the Trail for Humanity pro-immigrant rights caravan protest in front of the U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta, Calif., Aug. 15. There is a new initiative by leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities supporting humanitarian actions for minors coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. CNS photo/David Maung, EPA

Sister Simone Campbell calls it “grocery store missionary work,” and it’s one way she suggests Catholics support immigration reform and other justice issues. Engaging others in conversation, she said, is a good first step toward bringing about social change.

“Whenever you stand in line, talk to the person in front of you or behind you about something that matters,” Sister Simone told an audience Feb. 17. “Ask what they think about immigration reform. Everybody’s got an opinion.”

A member of the Sisters of Social Service and the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby known for its Nuns on the Bus campaigns, Sister Simone spoke at St. Catherine University in St. Paul at its annual Breaking The Impasse forum. The forum is the sixth hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s social justice ministry, and co-sponsored by Network and a dozen local advocacy groups.

With a focus on immigration policy reform, this year’s forum proved timely, following the action of a federal district judge in Texas Feb. 16 to block President Barack Obama’s executive order to ease some immigration policies for people who are living in the country illegally.

Judge Andrew Hanen granted the request of Texas and 25 other states to temporarily block a planned expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to certain people who were ineligible for the original 2012 program, according to a Catholic News Service report.

Political impact

Sister Simone outlined a history of U.S. immigration policy, and said a “tolerable” immigration reform bill that had been passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013 would have provided needed reform to the broken immigration system. It was first discussed at Breaking The Impasse in 2010. She blamed the influence of the Tea Party in Speaker of the House John Boehner’s decision not to bring it to his chamber’s floor for a vote.

Because in ensuing years Congress has yet to vote to reform immigration policies, the president took what Sister Simone characterized as small, judicious steps via executive order. Opponents of the order have called it an overreach of executive power, and maintain that immigration policy making rests solely with the Legislative Branch.

The executive order block by the Texas judge “wasn’t totally unexpected,” Sister Simone said, “but the White House and the Justice Department are quite confident the executive order will stand up once it gets past this judge” [upon appeal].

Sister Simone put names and stories to those impacted by U.S. immigration policies.

She told of Ida, a17-year-old born in the United States, who had to drive her parents to work because she, as a citizen, was able to obtain a driver’s license, something her parents, who are undocumented, could not.

There was Jackie, a 19-year-old community college student in Phoenix who worked part time, who struggled to raise her twin 12-year-old siblings because her parents had been deported.

Finally, there was a woman who had crossed the Mexican border, whose dead body was found under abush in the southwest American desert. When her body was turned over, she was found to be covering her child, who had also died.

“Isn’t that how we all got here — parents wanting to do better for their families?” Sister Simone asked.

Bipartisan push

In January, a group of Catholic leaders urged fellow Catholics in Congress to set aside “partisan bickering” and support the U.S. bishops’ efforts on behalf of a comprehensive immigration reform, calling it a sanctity of life issue and an important step in building a culture of life, according to a Catholic News Service report.

“Our nation’s inhumane and flawed immigration policies leave migrant women, children and families abandoned by the side of the road,” the group said in a letter released Jan. 20, two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Among the more than 100 signers of the letter were the presidents of at least 31 Catholic universities as well as bishops, men and women religious, former staff members at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the heads of various institutes and social action agencies.

On Jan. 14 the House voted 236 to 191 to block funding for President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which included deferring deportations for millions of people who are in the country illegally.

In her presentation, Sister Simone pointed to the U.S. war on drugs and trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA ), which she said have generated the large influx of undocumented people from Mexico and Central America.

Sister Simone estimates that only 30 percent of Mexican citizens have benefited from NAFTA. The other 70 percent are Mexicans primarily from rural areas who have suffered from the trade agreement, she said.

“U.S. economic policy is driving global migration,” Sister Simone said.

The United States faces the challenge of integrating immigration reform with trade agreements, she said.

“We the people need to stand up and do what’s right for our nation and our world,” she added.

“Immigration is the glory of our past and the hope for our future. We benefit greatly from our immigrant brothers and sisters,” Sister Simone said, “but we have to face up to our responsibility to justice.”

‘Immigrant capital’

Bruce Corrie, an economist who has spent 15 years documenting that immigrants are assets, provided data supporting Sister Simone’s assertion on immigration’s benefits.

Corrie, an associate vice president of Concordia University in St. Paul, told the forum audience that immigration reform could come about if the country’s leadership would stop ignoring the data that looks at immigrants in the bigger economic picture.

“The historical truth is that immigrants are a net asset,” Corrie said. His term “immigrant capital” is intended to help others understand that, rather than a drain on the economy, “immigrants are consumers and tax payers. Immigrants jump-start the economy.”

He cited several examples, including the successful acclimation of the Hmong, the Cambodian tribe people who came to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. They had no English language skills or common culture or religion with mainstream Americans, but — with resources offered by the Minnesota community — they now have a low poverty rate and 70 percent home ownership.

He also pointed to many Asian-Indian immigrants’ successes and contribution to U.S. economic growth, and the prominent role of African-born health care workers in the U.S. health care industry.

“What is the impact of low-wage workers who we employ to cook our food, clean our offices and homes, fix our roofs?” Corrie asked.

Immigrants have assets and energy that could benefit everyone, and the United States has the capacity to bear some of the challenges they face, he said.

“We have the opportunity to be a great nation, one that walks in self confidence,” he said. “How could we open our arms to the many in parts of the world in need?”

The Breaking The Impasse forum also heard the first-person testimony of an immigrant and the trials she endured as she sought asylum in the United States.

Opening eyes

During a scheduled period to discuss and process what they had heard from the forum’s speakers, a table of primarily 20-something women shared what struck them most.

“America is so wealthy and so set up to help people from other countries — and we think we are not,” mused Bridgette Kelly, program coordinator of the
St. Joseph Workers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s justice-related volunteer program.

St. Joseph Workers volunteer Jackie Salas said the presentations reminded her of the responsibility U.S. citizens have to be aware of the impact on others of the choices they make.

“There’s a disconnectedness,” Salas said. “We don’t see the cause and effect, how the local impacts the global. It’s not us versus them — we choose not to see that.”

Responding to a question from the audience about what people can do to support immigrants and immigration reform, Sister Simone offered her “grocery store missionary work” approach.

“Listen with compassion” to those who feel the easing of immigration policies hurt U.S. citizens, she said. “Once you ask their opinion, people relax more, and you can have a conversation,” she said.

She added: “Get you eyes open to how you are served by immigrants. Open your eyes to the people who are making our country work. God created all people with dignity.”

Reports from Catholic News Service are included in this story.

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