Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois The crowd gathers at a downtown federal building.
Column by Archbishop John Vlazny — Jan. 7, 2010
The American bishops have chosen the theme “Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice,” for this week’s observance of National Migration Week. Our focus this year is migrant and refugee children. Pope Benedict XVI himself chose the theme, “Minor Migrants and Refugees” for the 2010 World Day of Migrants and Refugees. We know that children are an exceptionally vulnerable population who can easily be exploited and abused. As Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, has observed, “This is particularly true when they are undocumented and unaccompanied in a foreign country and all too often, with nobody to turn to for help.”
The observance of a National Migration Week began 25 years ago. It is an opportunity for Catholics to take stock of the wide diversity in our church and the various ministries serving us. We know that here in western Oregon the face of the church has changed considerably over the years. This has been a great blessing but at the same time presented all of us with significant challenges as we strive to be a more welcoming community and a more inclusive one as well. Some people wonder why the church bothers involving itself in discussions about migration. When the last serious discussion took place in Congress about migration reform, I received many letters that were critical of the church’s stance concerning our undocumented sisters and brothers. Why do we care? We do because we remember the words of Jesus shared with us through the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So many people seem to think our undocumented sisters and brothers have come unfairly. The truth is, they have arrived, for the most part, as poor and needy sisters and brothers seeking a way to survive.
The politics of migration is widespread and became a burning issue on our country’s political scene two years ago. This same matter is likely to emerge in 2010. Our Catholic Church has been quite involved in conversations about this matter with Congress and has consistently supported passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Back in 2005 we bishops launched the Justice for Immigrants Campaign. The primary mission of the campaign was to educate the public about Catholic teaching, migration and immigrants, and hopefully, although not successfully, to create political will for positive immigration reform. These efforts were based on nearly 80 years of experience in dealing with the plight of immigrants.
You may recall that this past year Pope Benedict XVI issued his third encyclical, entitled Caritas in Veritate, Charity in Truth. In that encyclical he addressed a variety of topics, including the environment, economic institutions, the nation state and the question of migration. There were three distinct places where he wrote about migration.
Pope Benedict placed mass migration as an issue very deserving of our attention in the midst of the dramatic political and cultural changes in today’s world. He said that we must step back and “confront a world in need of profound cultural renewal, a world that needs to rediscover fundamental values on which to build a better future.”
Secondly, the pope noted the ways mass migration presents obstacles to authentic human development. When so many people are moving across the globe simultaneously, this dramatically affects cultural, political, religious and economic conditions in every nation. This is a global phenomenon, not strictly an American concern. The pope calls for bold, forward-looking policies of international cooperation if this matter is to be handled effectively. He seeks international legal norms that would protect the rights and needs of migrants and their families. We seldom talk about rights and needs when it comes to migrants. The pope also highlights what many tend to ignore, namely, the “significant contribution” that these people make in the service of their host countries. He reminds us that we need to be cautious about treating migrants as a commodity and that it is important to remember that they are human beings, like ourselves, endowed with basic human rights.
Finally, Pope Benedict underscores the importance of the reform of international bodies like the United Nations and related economic institutions as crucial if the world will ever successfully address global problems like environmental degradation, food security, economies in crises, timely disarmament and unregulated migration. In other words, global problems require an international solution. Individual states simply aren’t able to deal effectively with these matters alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a world to accommodate the needs of migrants.
In recent years here in the Archdiocese of Portland we have established a pastoral goal of serving the cultural diversity in our midst more effectively. This is a priority in many dioceses across this land at the present time. Those opposed to immigration reform are quick to point out that approximately 43 percent of the immigrants legally admitted to our nation are members of our Catholic faith family. They suggest that many or even more of the illegal immigrants are Catholic. Supposedly our involvement is simply an effort “to grow our numbers.”
Whether the migrants arrive legally or not, one of the fundamental requirements of our faith, based on the teachings of Christ himself and Catholic social teaching, is care for aliens and newcomers. A related problem, which I hope to take up in a future column, is the ever increasing tragedy of human trafficking, including the trafficking of children.
Every year in early January Catholic preachers and teachers try to raise awareness about the reality of human mobility and the many challenges and blessings that come to church and society because of this phenomenon. In the Rule of St. Benedict, we are reminded that “when a guest comes, Christ comes.” Loving all our neighbors in a very inclusive way is yet another consequence of our discipleship. In the new year before us may we more effectively and generously open our hearts, our minds, our lives, our homes and our neighborhoods to the newcomers among us. In doing so, in a very concrete way, we welcome the Lord Jesus into our midst.
Wearing a crucifix and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, Oregon City farmer Don Widman stood in the front row of a July 21 rally supporting immigrants.
Aim of the protest and fast by religious groups in Portland's park blocks was to establish solidarity with immigrants who feel besieged by a new Arizona law. The legislation makes it a misdemeanor to be caught without immigration documents and requires Arizona police to inquire about immigration status during traffic stops and other detentions.
"This is a threat to all of us," said Widman. "It opens the door to all kinds of abuse of people's civil rights."
Widman affirmed the contention of the 100 rally-goers that Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 passed because people are misinformed about immigrants and fear foreigners unnecessarily.
"The overwhelming majority of people who cross the border do so for very legitimate reasons," he said.
The Obama administration is trying to thwart the Arizona law, saying it is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Oregon religious leaders want to make sure that Arizona-style immigration laws have no place in their state.
Holy Spirit Father Pedro Arteaga, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro and vicar of the Tualatin Valley Vicariate, told the group that singling out undocumented immigrants "cannot bring lasting peace." The notion of private property must be in balance with the common good, the priest explained.
Father Arteaga applied scripture and Catholic social teaching to immigration, quoting Leviticus 19:33 — "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once alien in the land of Egypt."
Nations do have a right to secure their borders from peril, Father Arteaga said. He then cited Pope Pius XII, who after World War II wrote: "People have a human and God-given right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families." He added that churches should do all they can to improve conditions in poorer nations so that people don't need to migrate.
"We oppose any legislation that resembles the bill in this state," said Ron Whitlatch, a Methodist missionary who works with Latinos in the Northwest. He also voiced church leaders' common desire for comprehensive immigration reform.
Women Religious were part of the crowd that marched to the federal building where Portland's immigration office is located. A mosque leader offered the opening prayer, Christian pastors described church teaching and a Jewish cantor sang a song about justice.
David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, says there is no sign that the Oregon Legislature will follow suit on Arizona's immigration law. But, Leslie says, SB 1070, could act as a "catalyst" for city and county officials that feel pressure to crack down on immigration.
"It will create a climate of fear and intolerance," Leslie says.
One town in Nebraska has already taken action, imposing hefty requirements on local employers and landlords when it comes to verifying immigration status of workers and housing applicants.
Leslie encouraged churches in Oregon to hold prayer and education on the issue. He also asked people of faith to notify their congressional representatives asking for a bipartisan summit to create comprehensive reform.
"Are we not people of faith who have the right and responsibility to dream big dreams?" Lesklie asked the crowd.
Theme of the rally came from the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah: "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?"
The U.S. Catholic bishops, and other faith leaders have said reform should included a way to keep families together when some members have legal status and others do not.
"Dividing families is not a family value," said Greg Nelson of the Oregon-Idaho United Methodist Conference.