Catholic Day at the Capitol
February 29, 2012
We are here as people of faith, concerned for the well-being of this state and the common good of all its people. As we look at the issue of immigration, we could not do better than to recall the opening sentences of the letter of January 21st from the Catholic, Episcopal, and United Methodist bishops of Mississippi to Governor Phil Bryant and the Mississippi State Legislature. The bishops wrote:
As faith leaders, we express our deep concern about the growing climate of an anti-immigrant attitude developing in our communities and in the halls of State government. We are very distressed by efforts directed at passing legislation that threatens the dignity of the human person and the basic human rights that we accord to the dignity of the family unit.
As “people of the Book,” readers of Scripture, we come to the issue of immigration aware that God’s chosen people had been immigrants to Egypt in the time of the patriarch Joseph to avoid famine and refugees from Egypt in the time of Moses to avoid slavery. As such, they had experienced both severe hardship and God’s providential care on their journeys. They understood well that immigrants and refugees among them were a protected class, along with widows and orphans, as “God’s poor.” As God says to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah, “
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with your neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien [and] the orphan…only then will I let you continue to dwell in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors long ago and forever" (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
Even more so, we are aware that Joseph and Mary fled as refugees back to Egypt with the child Jesus to avoid Herod’s cruel reach and returned some time later to Israel.
As Catholics, we come to this discussion as we do to all public issues with two fundamental values: the intrinsic and transcendent dignity of every human person—made in God’s image—and the obligation of all of us to work for the common good. That common good, Pope Benedict writes, is:
…the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.
The bishops have called us here today because immigration proposals in this session of the legislature are a serious assault on human dignity and a serious threat to the common good of all Mississippians.
Before we look at those state proposals, we need to be clear about the position of our Church on immigration reform. Over several decades, our bishops have called repeatedly for comprehensive national immigration reform—reform that protects our borders, reform that meets our workforce needs, reform that reunites separated families, reform that protects the rights of all workers, and reform that recognizes the fundamental human right to immigrate to provide for or protect one’s family from war, discrimination, disaster, and poverty. Included here is the need for us as a nation to establish a path to earned citizenship for the ten-plus million people who are parts of our communities and our economies and our families, but who live in the shadows of illegality subject to exploitation and abuse.
This is a national problem, a national challenge, and a national responsibility. Our Church recognizes the frustration that many people feel locally at the failure of Congress to act to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. We recognize the desire of local and state officials to “do what they can” in the face of our national concerns, but it is neither their competence nor their right to do so. It requires federal action, and we must join our Church leaders in their national campaign of Justice for Immigrants, calling for comprehensive reform now. When state legislatures try to do Congress’s job, the result—as we have seen across the nation—is piecemeal laws that, while politically popular with some people, are all too often economically disastrous, constitutionally dubious, and destructive of human dignity and the common good. As the Mississippi bishops put it, “Particularized local legislation will not remedy immigration policies and procedures that need to be corrected on a national level.”
Pending Mississippi Bills
From a public policy standpoint the eight anti-immigrant bills being proposed in the legislature—seven in the Senate and one in the House—do not make good law or good sense. Three omnibus bills (HB 488, SB 2090, and SB 2284) will divert law enforcement authorities from their core responsibilities—to investigate and solve serious crimes. HB 488 and SB 2090 will also lead to violations of individuals’ liberty by requiring police to demand documents from anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” might be undocumented.
All eight anti-immigrant bills, if enacted, will have a devastating economic impact on the state as immigrants (who are also consumers and tax payers) leave and businesses and farms which depend on their labor become unviable.
When viewed through the lens of Catholic teaching, the impact of the proposed anti-immigrant laws on Mississippi families and communities comes most clearly into focus.
As Catholic scholar Donald Kerwin has noted, the Church does not have an immigration policy so much as it has a person policy—that all human beings have great worth and dignity because all humans are made in God’s image. That dignity does not change when we cross state or national borders. This insistence on the sanctity and immeasurable value of each human life requires the Church to oppose threats to human life and dignity such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, as well as laws that target vulnerable people and undermine their human dignity and human rights—rights derived from the God-given dignity and equality of each person.
This commitment to upholding the human dignity of all persons was crucial in the Mississippi bishops’ January letter. Certain provisions of immigration bills under consideration here at the Capitol have as their express purpose to “make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state agencies and local governments in Mississippi.” In other words, these bills are designed to make life so miserable for immigrants they will flee the state. As the Bishops rightly noted, “…if a law violates human rights and human dignity, it cannot be considered a just law.”
Fundamental to a dignified life is clean water to drink and to bathe and gas or electricity to warm one’s home, to light the darkness, and to cook the family meal. HB 488 would make it a felony for undocumented immigrants to enter into or attempt to enter into a “business transaction” with the state or a political subdivision of the state. In Alabama, this same provision has been used to deny water and utilities to undocumented immigrants. HB 488 is an affront to immigrants’ human dignity as well as a threat to public health.
Impact on Children
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of Alabama’s harsh anti-immigrant law, HB 56, was how it played politics with children’s lives by requiring schools to investigate the immigration status of enrolling students and their parents. As a direct result, in this school year, thousands of children—many of them U.S. citizens—were withdrawn from school by terrified parents. Yet HB 488 aims to replicate some of the same painful and divisive provisions here in Mississippi. Legislators should take to heart the words of Alabama’s bishops: “Children should not be used, intentionally or not, as a means to intimidate their parents or other relatives. Our schools must be safe havens for children, and not battlegrounds in the struggle over immigration.”
Impact on Families
The family holds a special place in Catholic thinking, which values the family as the most basic unit of society. The Second Vatican Council defended and promoted the role of the family in these words:
The well being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family. Hence Christians and all men who hold this community in high esteem sincerely rejoice in the various ways by which men today find help in fostering this community of love and perfecting its life, and by which spouses and parents are assisted in their lofty calling.
The family is where children first encounter God, form their consciences, and learn moral virtues. Nevertheless, the law enforcement provisions in the anti-immigrant legislation being proposed in Mississippi will lead to fathers and mothers being separated from their children, perhaps forever. Therefore, they pose grave harm to the sanctity of the family, the wellbeing of communities, and the dignity of individuals.
Impact on “Good Neighbors”
The Church teaches that the common good is realized through the virtue of solidarity—when we assume the plight of others as our own. Blessed Pope John Paul II taught:
This [solidarity] then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
One of the most basic ways in which we uphold the common good and live in solidarity with others is through charitable actions, as exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Shamefully, these basic Christian beliefs may soon be outlawed for citizens of Mississippi who come to the aid of their undocumented sisters and brothers. SB 2090 and SB 2284 prohibit a person from taking his undocumented neighbor to the emergency room, church, or school.
SB 2090 further outlaws actions that would “encourage or induce” an undocumented immigrant to live in Mississippi. Would inviting an undocumented family to come to our churches be outlawed? Would praying with a sick neighbor or someone who has lost his job? Would performance of the sacraments be considered encouraging undocumented immigrants to live in Mississippi? Laws like SB 2090 and SB 2284 hinder the religious freedom of Mississippians by criminalizing charity and kindness to undocumented immigrants and possibly even the performance of the sacraments at the heart of being church.
The immigration enforcement laws under consideration in Mississippi beg the following questions of people of faith:
How deep is our commitment to our faith?
Do we really believe that all persons are made in the image and likeness of God?
Do family values really matter?
Does our salvation truly depend on how we treat the stranger in our midst (Matthew 25)?
In the next weeks and months our actions, or lack thereof, will provide the answers to these important questions.
As we all well know, Mississippi has had deep problems that have marred the lives of so many people for so many years: wide and deep poverty, widespread hunger and malnutrition, poor education outcomes, school dropouts and teen pregnancy, and persistent unemployment and underemployment, just to name a few. Our legislators need to be focused on these problems, not trying to do the job that only Congress can do for the nation.
A few final thoughts. You will have some detailed recommendations later this morning about your actual meetings with your legislators. Without getting into those details, let me please close by emphasizing three points:
First, what you are about to do in meeting your local legislators is extremely important. Few people visit state capitols during the legislative sessions. Most who do are there to protect some personal interest or property interest or business interest. You are not coming for any of those purposes, but because you are concerned about the common good, the well-being of this state and your local community, and God’s poor. That is a precious gift which you offer to your elected officials.
Second, you come as people of faith. You are here because of the call of the Gospel and the call of the Church. You have a right to bring your faith concerns into the public square, a right protected by the First Amendment, but arising originally out of your own human dignity and the common good. That too is a gift and a responsibility which you carry today.
Third, people may tell you that you are working on a losing cause or causes, that the polls and majorities are against you, that no one really cares about what you care about, and that people are more interested in blaming immigrants in hard times. (How easily they forget who has harvested our crops, or done our dirty work, or helped us rebuild after Katrina!)
It is important in response to remember the Gospel—that building the Reign of God is about planting small seeds from which great harvests grow and trusting the power of God to turn crucifixion into Easter. It is about the Christian virtue of HOPE, a much unappreciated aspect of our faith. My favorite description of such HOPE came from the Czech poet Vaclav Havel, hero in the struggle against communism in his homeland and later Czech president. In 1986, while his country was still in the grip of communism, he had this to say about hope in a visit to liberty hall in Philadelphia:
Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart …
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out … It is this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
Vaclav Havel, 1986
 On January 21, 2012, Catholic, Episcopal, and United Methodist Bishops of Mississippi challenged the Governor Phil Bryant and Mississippi legislators not to follow the anti-immigrant lead of Arizona, Alabama, and other states in the upcoming legislative session. The letter was signed by Bishops Joseph N. Latino and Roger P. Morin of the Catholic Dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi, Bishop Duncan M. Gray, III, of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, and Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi territory of the United Methodist Church.
 On December 19, 2011, Alabama religious leaders called upon Governor Bentley to lead the repeal of Alabama’s 2011 anti-immigrant law. The letter was signed by Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Bishop Robert J. Baker of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop Henry N. Parsley, Jr., of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Bishop William H. Willimon of the Birmingham Area of the United Methodist Church, Benedictine Abbot Cletus D. Meagher, and Benedictine Prioress Janet Marie Flemming.
 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), 1965, no. 47.
 Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, no. 38.
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