May 28, 2010


Welcoming strangers requires wisdom, courage and respect for human rights and dignity

“As a Catholic community, we vigorously support our nation’s right and responsibility to provide secure borders for the protection of our people and to guard against those who would do us harm. At the same time, we reject all positions or policies that are anti-immigrant, nativist, ethnocentric or racist. Such narrow and destructive views are profoundly anti-American. They oppose the principles of human dignity and freedom that are the foundation for our American way of life—a way of life that has historically been extended to all who have come to our shores seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a just and prosperous society. Such divisive and exclusionary attitudes are also profoundly anti-Catholic because they deny the dignity of human persons who are made in God’s image. They also contradict the essential unity and catholicity to which we are called as members of the one family of God.”

—The Catholic bishops of Indiana in their 2007 pastoral letter “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Meeting Christ in New Neighbors.”

Officials in the state of Arizona say they are fed up with violence and drug trafficking on the U.S.-Mexican border.

They also say that inaction on the part of the federal government has led to chaos, increased criminal activity and the loss of lives.

In response, the Arizona legislature passed Senate Bill 1070, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed, that gives law enforcement officials the power to detain and arrest individuals who are suspected of being illegal immigrants. The intent of the new law is to protect Arizona’s citizens from violence perpetrated by people who are in the United States illegally.

But many, including the Catholic bishops of Arizona, fear that this new law will do more harm than good.

As written, the new law in Arizona is based on a very low legal standard, possibly leading to the profiling of individuals based upon their appearance, manner of speaking or ethnicity.

Many people fear it will lead to the wrongful questioning and arrest of U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as the division of families—parents from children and husbands from wives. The bishops of Arizona believe this new law will lead to the rise in fear and distrust in immigrant communities, undermining the relationships between their members and law enforcement officials.

In a statement issued by Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, bishops have expressed their solidarity with the bishops of Arizona in opposing this new law.

“S.B. 1070 is symptomatic of the absence of federal leadership on the issue of immigration. For years now, the U.S. Catholic bishops have called upon Congress and two administrations to enact meaningful and just comprehensive immigration reform,” Bishop Wester said.

“While many of our federal elected officials have made good faith efforts to pass reform, too many still view the issue through a political lens, using it to gain political or partisan advantage. This gamesmanship must stop.

“Our national leaders must educate the American public on the need for reform, and show courage in making it happen. Until immigration reform is passed, other states will attempt to create and enforce immigration law, with harsh and ineffective consequences.

“We call upon the [Obama] administration to review its impact on civil rights and liberties. We renew our call for the administration and Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to enact comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible,” Bishop Wester said.

Our hearts go out to all people in Arizona and the other border states of our nation. They are living in an impossible situation. Rising crime rates as a result of gun running, drug trafficking and other kinds of unacceptable, illegal activity are causing great anxiety among ordinary people from diverse racial, cultural and economic circumstances. The new law, combined with the negative media hype surrounding it, has only increased people’s fear—making a bad situation worse.

At the same time, it is important not to demonize Arizona or to misinterpret the intent of the new law, however inadequate it may be.

As the U.S. and Mexican bishops have repeatedly said, immigration reform is sorely needed in both countries.

Our Church has complementary teachings on this controversial issue. These include the right of a sovereign nation to control its borders in furtherance of the common good, and the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights.

Therefore, nations may impose reasonable limits on immigration. But the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated. It is through this lens that we should assess the current migration reality—especially between the United States and Mexico.

Welcoming strangers in Arizona—and throughout the U.S. and Mexico—requires wisdom, courage and respect for human rights and dignity.

Let’s pray that government officials at the state and federal level will get their acts together soon so that our laws, and their enforcement, can both safeguard our communities and promote human rights and dignity for all.

—Daniel Conway

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