Brian R Corbin's Reflections on Religion and Life

Living Your Faith as Citizens and Leaders in Politics, Culture, Society and Business

Speech by Donald Kerwin, Director of CLINIC/USCCB

“Renewing Hope”
by Donald Kerwin, National Migration Conference, 2008

I learned long ago that people mostly come to these gatherings to be reminded of why they do what they do. Thus, my intention is to speak to the values that underlie our work. Building on the conference’s theme and Cardinal Mahony’s key-note address, I’d like to speak about one virtue in particular, the virtue of hope.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, most people want to do the right thing on immigration, but they need a way to conceptualize the issue and to see immigrants as they truly are. How do we view immigrants? How do we see ourselves?

Migration plays the starring role in our faith tradition. For us, migration has always been a mystery in plain view. Hebrew Scripture tells the story of the Exodus and Exile of the Jewish people, and how these seminal experiences taught the Jewish people empathy toward migrants, not hard-heartedness. The first five books of Hebrew Scripture admonish us no less than 36 times to treat the stranger with justice and compassion.

In the New Testament, we find the stories of Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, and the wise men’s journey to the Holy Family. We follow the itinerant ministry of Jesus, the apostles on the road to Emmaus, and Paul on the road to Damascus. We learn that Jesus identified with migrants and linked our salvation to our treatment of strangers and the dispossessed.

Members of the early Church, a missionary church, called themselves “parokoi” which means temporary residents, migrants, sojourners. Parokoi is the root of our modern word “parish.” In our tradition, therefore, a parish is where sojourners gather.

In all of our history, in all of our experiences, God has accompanied us on our journeys. As a people, we have long known of the fear and prejudice that leads to hostility toward immigrants. We read in the Book of Exodus that, following Joseph’s death, the new Pharoh feared that the exiled people of Israel would become “too many and too mighty” (Ex 1:8-22). As a result, he enslaved them and afflicted them with “heavy burdens.”

Immigrants have also played a decisive role in our national narrative, continuously enriching and renewing our nation. Earlier immigrants, the ancestors of many of us here this morning, came to this nation for the same reasons that today’s immigrants do. And they faced the same suspicions and criticisms. Nativists viewed them as lawless, disease-ridden, and not assimilable.

Their faith made them particularly suspect. Catholicism was attacked as incompatible with democracy. In a striking irony, nativists evoked religious liberty to justify their bigotry and discrimination.

We know that when we welcome immigrants and allow them to contribute fully to our country, it benefits all of us. Conversely:

• When we deny health care to an immigrant, we endanger public health.

• When we deny the possibility of a college education to immigrant children, we cruelly limit their ability to contribute.

• When we effectively deny immigrants access to the police, we undermine public safety.

• When we try to deny citizenship to children born in the United States, we take aim at the very ideals that make us a nation.

We do not want to create a permanent or hereditary underclass of residents — mere “denizens” without security, prospects, or rights.

To us, the question is not what we don’t “get” about the “‘illegal’ in ‘illegal alien’” The question is what those who oppose us don’t get about God-given human dignity? What don’t they get about people exercising their rights and duties to migrate in order to support their families? Why can’t they see that immigrants contribute to the good of our nation with their labor, their faith, their family values, and their commitment to their communities? Why don’t they understand that an illegal entry may be technically a crime, but that it’s a peculiar crime indeed that people feel compelled to commit in order to feed their children? Whey don’t they see that strategies aimed at deporting or forcing out 12 million people would be a civil rights, social and economic catastrophe? In fact, these policies are a catastrophe in many communities. Or that people cannot be illegal, any more than fathers, mothers, sisters, or brothers can be illegal?

We believe in a nation comprised of people from different countries who are united by a commitment to our nation and to its core values of freedom, equality, rights, democracy, and opportunity. We do not believe that membership in our nation should turn on traits like ethnicity, race, nationality, or other inherited characteristics. We reject a vision that would deny citizenship to children born here, effectively making them stateless. We reject a vision that would rationalize or ignore the reality of people perishing in the desert, of families torn apart, of people denied the ability to subsist.

Hope – like justice and hospitality — is one of the great biblical themes that guide our work. Hope for a better life for migrants and for all of us. Hope for the conversion of hearts and minds that are disfigured by confusion, suspicion, anger and ignorance. Hope that our nation will come to embrace people who share its ideals and embody its virtues. Hope that our elected officials will create a better system and will have the courage to enact positive immigration reform.

Hope does not mean we will always get what we want from our limited and imperfect perspective. Mother Theresa reminded us that “we’re not supposed to be successful, but faithful.” However, hope does mean that we will never be resigned to the current state of affairs.
And we have reason to hope. You would be hopeful if you were rooted in a tradition which lived and taught that:

• all persons have equal dignity and rights.

• a state has a right to control its borders, but not at the expense of those who are migrating to realize their God-given rights

• sovereignty is not about denying rights, but about locating responsibility for honoring them

• the rule of law is not about about putting people outside the law, but protecting them within the law

• rights turns on human dignity, not on membership in a particular state or immigration status

• honoring rights serves the good of everybody which is the very purpose of government

• the “common good” is not the greater good, but it embraces the rights and prosperity of everybody, including those without legal status

• cultural diversity should not be feared because culture is where people locate their deepest values

• migration presents an opportunity to unify people based on their values

This kind of vision would give you hope. And, friends, this is the Catholic vision. Here is what the U.S. bishops said when asked to extend the Justice for Immigrants campaign for another few years. They said that the campaign would not be extended for three or five years; it would be extended until our nation provides justice for immigrants. We should all take hope from that response.

Let me end by sharing a success story from Elena Segura and the Justice for Immigrants campaign in Chicago. As part of that campaign, a group of 2,500 women committed to pray for immigration reform. Some committed to pray for months, others for years. Their slogan is Oracion Y Accion Hasta Que Pase La Ley De Inmigracion. They use the image of those who carried the ark of the covenant around Jericho. Around and around Jericho the priests and people walked with the ark. Around and around seven times until the walls of Jericho fell down.
And around and around the prayers of the women in Chicago travel. Around and around the halls of Congress and of the Department of Homeland Security. Around and around the borders between our countries. Around and around the borders in our minds, borders that separate us from our brothers and sisters. The women pray that the wall in our nation’s collective heart will fall. Have hope. Be strong in your faith. It will.

Thank you.

Filed under: Migration, Social Doctrine

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