Local leaders say letter to immigrants provided a ‘lift’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 12, 2012

When the 33 Latino bishops in the United States joined forces to write a letter to the nation’s immigrants in December, they did so to offer comfort in the face of “the inhuman situation many of them are experiencing,” said Auxiliary Bishop Alberto Rojas.

“We wanted to remind them that as human beings and as Catholics, there is room for them in the Catholic Church,” Bishop Rojas said in an email interview. Bishop Rojas oversees Vicariate III and is Cardinal George’s liaison to the archdiocese’s Hispanic Catholics.

The letter offers words of comfort and solidarity for immigrants, especially undocumented people who work in the shadow economy and live in fear of being torn from their homes and families and being deported.

While the bishops support comprehensive immigration reform for all, the letter was primarily addressed to Latino immigrants.

“As Catholic Christians we are compelled by Christ’s love to speak for those with no voice,” Rojas said. “We understand there are many undocumented immigrants in the United States and we speak for all of them.”

Many immigrants are feeling low after major pushes for a comprehensive reform of the immigration system in the mid-2000s went nowhere.

The letter provided a spiritual and emotional lift to those working to help immigrants, said Elena Segura, director of the Office for Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education. Her office made sure the letter was sent to people working in Pastoral Migratoria, or immigrant-to-immigrant ministry in dozens of parishes around the archdiocese, so that they could share it with other immigrants.

Because it was released on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, many parishes were unable to incorporate it into festivities that day. However, her office and several parishes that have volunteers working on immigration reform incorporated parts of the letter in the pre-Christmas posadas, or reenactments of Joseph and Mary seeking shelter.

“It was very important for people to see that the bishops were behind them,” Segura said.

‘Buoyed’ by support

Dominican Father Charles Dahm, a resident at St. Pius V Parish in Pilsen, agreed that many of the Latino parishioners in his area are buoyed by the bishops’ support. It means even more coming from the Hispanic bishops, many of whom are immigrants themselves, he said.

St. Pius ran excerpts of the letter in its bulletin, and plans to include the entire letter as a bulletin insert in the near future.

But Dahm said the letter will likely have little to no effect on Catholics who are against immigration reform. Most, he said, are probably not aware of it, and if they are, they can tune it out.

“They already know the U.S. bishops are in favor of immigration reform and that hasn’t changed their minds,” he said.

Bishop Rojas acknowledged that he and his brother bishops addressed the letter to immigrants, but hoped that it would be read by others, and perhaps prick the consciences of those who oppose immigration reform.

“The letter, of course, is not only a way of spiritual and moral support to immigrants, but it should also be a voice to question our systems and the consciences of those who should be doing something to promote justice and peace,” he said. “There is room for everyone, but we need to place ourselves in the undocumented immigrants’ shoes and imagine what it would be like if we or anyone in our families were in their place.”

Perhaps what stings immigrants and their advocates the most is when some people opposed to immigration reform paint undocumented immigrants as criminals and a danger to society.

“We understand that some have committed crimes and they should pay for that, but there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are here just to make a living for them and their families with no felonies, no crimes other than being undocumented,” Bishop Rojas said. “They are not criminals, they just want to survive and have a decent life like you and me.”

Parallels to Jesus

The letter draws parallels between the plight of immigrants in the United States and Jesus as a migrant, from heaven to earth, as a refugee into Egypt, from Galilee into Judea and from death into life, providing salvation for all.

It points out Jesus’ imperative to welcome the stranger and feed the hungry, and reacts with dismay at the failure of many Catholics to do so.

“Many Latinos have been in this country for over 15-20 years, working hard, paying taxes, with no felonies or crimes of any kind, and still have no right to become legal residents ... does this seem fair to you?” Bishop Rojas said. “Most of them do the most difficult jobs with terribly low salaries and no benefits and many of their children are not allowed to continue their education. Do you think this is justice?”