From ............ National Catholic Reporter

October 6, 1995

page 3




The cause of immigrants and refugees struggles against the wind these days, almost anywhere in the Western world. This week, Americans on the front lines Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are hoping for a push from Pope John Paul II's visit to the Northeast.

In an era of backlash against immigrants and refugees, ironic in this nation of immigrants, the pope is expected to exhort Americans to welcome and assist the stranger.

Weary and wary advocates engaged in a tough legislative battle over immigration law say such a biblically correct message could have a triple positive effect. It would bolster strong efforts by [Roman] Catholic Relief Services and others to aid immigrants and refugees around the world; boost opposition to a proposed new ceiling on U.S. immigrants; and counter a nativist mood that crosses religious, ethnic and even national lines.

The pope's Oct. 4-8 visit promises to be, in part, a celebration of [Roman] Catholic diversity in this country. He will celebrate two mega-Masses within minutes of Ellis Island. Inevitably, worshipers in Manhattan's Central Park and the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens will reflect both historic and recent immigration.

Even more, the causes of immigrants and refugees is compelling for many whom the pope will meet. Those include Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, head of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration and host for John Paul's arrival in Newark, N.J., on Wednesday; representatives to the United Nations, whom he will address on Thursday; and officials of CRS, who will gather in the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore on Sunday.

Such groups reflect concern for a growing worldwide problem: a dramatic rise in numbers of dispossessed people and its roots in political, economic and ecological turmoil. The increase has helped produce an anti-immigration mood in many countries, including the United States, where periodic nativism, even among new immigrants, is part of the historic picture.

If enacted, new federal laws would be the most restrictive in 71 years, sharply reducing the number of immigrants and refugees allowed to make America their home.

Sharry's forum, a broad coalition of pro-immigrant groups, sponsored "lobby days" in Washington. The mid-September event drew some 300 advocates to Capitol Hill. Sharry said [Roman] Catholic organizations had been major players in the effort.

Provisions of bills before either the House and Senate lower the legal-immigrant ceiling to 535,000 annually from about 800,000. The new limit on refugees seeking political asylum is 50,000, about half the annual rate of the past fne years. Financial requirements for Americans sponsoring new immigrants are substantially greater; and family reunification policies, long the cornerstone of .U.S. immigration law, are subject to severe new restraints.

Last year, pro-immigrant groups, including [Roman] Catholic bishops, fought hard, though unsuccessfully, to defeat California's Proposition 187. The initiative, its implementation held up by constitutional challenges, denies education and nonemergency medical care to illegal immigrants. It also requires hospitals, schools and other agencies to turn in undocumented immigrants to authorities.

John Swenson, executive director of U.S. bishop.s' Migration and Refugee Services in Washington, said the measure had been characterized by Cardinal Roger Mahony as "a social sin."

"I don't think any major institution in that particular battle over immigration was more pro-immigrant than the [Roman Catholic] church," Swenson said. "The [Roman Catholic] church teaches that states have the right to regulate their borders but disapproves of harsh punitive measures that diminish human dignity."

The proposition makes scapegoats of undocumented immigrants, blaming them for California's sluggish economy, when, in fact, immigrants are "a powerful stimulant to the economy," Swenson said.

"Immigrants tend to fill jobs at the high and low ends of the economy, where we aren't able to find other people to fill them," he said. He noted, too, that the foreign-born population of the United States is 8 percent far lower than the 15 percent that prompted Congress to impose ceilings early in this century.

"The bishops are very conscious of the fact that the [Roman Catholic] church in America is an immigrant church," he added. "I don't know how many bishops are second - and third - generation immigrants, but a fair number are. The church has been very active in welcoming immigrants, and it is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the United States."

In an interview for America magazine's Jan. 28 issue, Mahony said he had been pleased by results of exit polls of California voters last year. Polls showed 51 percent of Catholics against Proposition 187 second only to Jewish voters in opposition and 49 percent in favor. Initially, the measure had had a 78 percent approval rate among all voters; it passed with 59 percent.

Michael Ramos, director of Hispanic ministry in the Oakland, Calif., diocese said support had eroded during an intense yearlong effort by an interfaith coalition. Activities included lobbying days, public prayer vigils and statements by religious leaders.

But Ramos said he is unimpressed by the degree of [Roman] Catholic opposition.

"It shows a lack of education about the Catholic social tradition," he said. "It also reflects ignorance of the ethnic diversity in the Catholic church, including California, right now."

The Oakland diocese operates pastoral centers for 13 ethnic groups as small as Khmoo of Laos; as numerous as the Hispanics. Others include Chinese, Koreans, Tongans, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Poles, Ramos said.

Departments at the United States Catholic Conference are also striving to change attitudes.

In July, McCarrick's migration committee issued "One Family Under God," a statement addressing current immigration issues in the context of church teaching.

A similar focus pervades new curriculum materials for Catholic parishes and schools produced by the USCC's Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

Who Are My Sisters and Brothers: A Catholic Guide for Understanding and Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees is scheduled for field tests this fall and distribution next spring.

Sr. Suzanne Hall, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and director of the office, said the project conceived at a time of "horrific restrictionist legislation," aims to "form an attitude out of our wonderful body of church teaching one of the most radical bodies of teaching the church has to offer."

"My sense is that if we can reach the young people today, we'll be at a different point 10 to 15 years from now," she said.

Other materials will soon go out to parishes from Hall's office encouraging participation in National Migration Week next January. "Many Gifts, One People of God" is the theme.

Another leader carrying the banner is Sr. Marilyn Lacey, who oversees the Refugee and Immigration Task Force for Catholic Charities USA.

"Catholic attitudes are a mirror of what we see in the country as a whole," said Lacey, who also serves as director of Immigration and Refugee Services for the San Jose, Calif., diocese.

"We see everything from tremendous antipathy toward newcomers to concerted efforts on their behalf. We are in the midst of a very negative, anti-immigrant era ... (but) the life of Jesus shows us that one of the ways we know we are Christians is that we extend our love not just to our family and friends, but to the strangers in our midst. The stranger is a threat, but is also how God appears to us."

"I am committed to the long haul," she said. "It's a lifelong process to get our lives more in harmony with the gospel."

Rejection of immigrants is "nothing new," and is unrelated to skin color or country of origin, she added. " Immigrants have always been looked upon with antipathy ..... described as 'filthy dirty ..... people who are never going to learn to speak English or assimilate.' "

"On the positive side, the Catholic church has always.had a very active commitment to working with refugees and immigrants," she said. "It is unparalleled worldwide."

Prominent among organizations doing that work are the Vatican-chartered Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission and the USCC's Catholic Relief Services.

Mitzi Schroeder, Washington director of the International Catholic Migration Commission, noted two opposing trends: "a tremendous increase in displacement of people around the world" and a corresponding unwillingness of developed countries to let foreigners in. Pressures for restrictions are as evident in Europe as in the United States, she said.

Roots of the new homelessness are far-reaching: the breakup of the Soviet empire, civil and regional wars, economics, natural disasters, and the like. When the pope speaks at the United Nations, he will undoubtedly condemn injustice and urge a moral response.

Tom Argent, associate policy analyst for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, said the most dramatic increase by far is in people who are forced to flee their homes but aren't able or willing to emigrate; 26 million last year compared to 5 million in 1985. These "internally displaced" include such groups as Bosnian Muslims or West African's in Sierra Leone.

"The number of refugees strictly defined as people who have fled a country to escape persecution has actually remained relatively stable the last five years," Argent said. "The notion that peoyle in the developed world are being overwhelmed by refugees from less-developed countries" is simply wrong.

Rather, he said, "It's developing countries that are shouldering more of the burden." Malawi, a nation of 9 million that over a recent 10-year period had an influx of 1 million refugees from wartorn Mozambique, is a case in point, he said.

Schroeder's organization, with an annual budget of $15 million to $20 million, coordinates the Catholic church's worldwide response to needs of refugees, working with 80 member organizations in 80 countries. Much of its work is refugee resettlement under contract with governments, including the United States.

"We are coming up to a real crisis in the next few years and we have to examine our duty as Christians," Schroeder said.

CRS has projects in 78 countries and a budget of $300 million, much of it provided by Catholics in the United States. In 1994, U.S. Catholics contributed more than $10 million in a special appeal for people of Rwanda.

Nanci Martin, director of communication for the service, hopes the pope will praise virtue as well as condemn wrongs.

When it comes to monetary generosity, the pope "has every right to be proud of what the Catholic church in the United States is doing," she said. "We hope he acknowledges that Catholics in the United States are certainly aware of their responsibilities."