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Catholic Bishops Resist Anti-Immigrant Laws: Christ is Present in the Suffering Poor

Recent events surrounding immigration “enforcement” have drawn the attention, the concern, the ire, and the resistance of Catholic Bishops in the United States.

The anti-immigrant prejudice in the United States has been seized upon by legislators in some states in order to enact awful laws. These laws in states such as Oklahoma and Georgia are not only terrorizing hard-working immigrant families, but have made it a felony to assist immigrants in any way.

A new punitive law, H. B. 1804, took effect in Oklahoma on November 1. According to Catholic News Service, in anticipation of that date in late October Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran of Oklahoma City, priests and more than 1,000 lay people signed a one-page “pledge of resistance” to the new law, “standing together in opposition and defiance of this unjust and immoral law.” (See the web site of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City for the text of the pledge of resistance.)

Bishop Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has published a pastoral letter in response to the law called “The Suffering Faces of the Poor Are the Suffering Face of Christ.” The Bishop clarified at the beginning that he was writing the letter as one consecrated to proclaim the truth of the Gospel. He said, “I speak with the authority of Jesus Christ, Who in His life here on earth always showed his predilection for the poor and the oppressed. Encouraged, then, by the certainty that you will listen to me as you would listen to Christ Himself (Luke 10:16), I want to express myself in this letter with the wisdom and the prudence of a man of God, called by the lord ‘to serve and not be served’ (Mark 10:45) and “to give his life for his sheep” (cf. John 10:15) and I want to present to you who love the Lord, the certainty that in the suffering faces of the poor, we see the suffering face of Christ.

“This idea is not my own, nor is it new. The conviction that Christ is present in the poor and reveals in their suffering His wondrous passion can be traced in an unbroken line of charity from the Apostles down to our own day, and to my brother bishops who met last May with Pope Benedict XVI at the Marian Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil to reflect upon the various ways in which the Church must respond to this revelation.

“In this letter I wish to make my own the statements they expressed concerning the fundamental stance which the church must take in the world, a stance of hope in Christ’s victory over sin and death. This hope which we have in Christ expresses itself in solidarity with the poor and as advocacy for those who suffer injustice…

“The suffering faces of the poor are the suffering faces of Christ.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Aparecida, Brazil, August 2007). Whatever has to do with Christ has to do with the poor and whatever concerns the poor refers back to Jesus Christ: ‘Whatever you did to one of these, the least of my brothers, that you did unto me’ (Matthew 25:40).

Bishop Slattery reminded readers of the pastoral letter that for Christians, “the question of immigration is not simply a social, political or an economic issue, it is also a moral issue because it impacts on the well-being of millions of our neighbors. And because it is a moral issue, it must be examined in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ, Who clearly commands us to ‘welcome the stranger,’ for what ‘you do the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me'” (Matthew 25:40)…

“In the pain of the poor and the dispossessed, in the fear of the immigrant and those unjustly accused, we see reflected the suffering of our Crucified Lord, Who reminds us that ultimately we will be judged on the compassion and charity which we show them.” For I was hungry,” He will tell us, “but you gave Me no food; alone or a stranger or in prison, but you could not be bothered with me” (cf. Matthew 15:42-43).

“It is to Christ’s suffering Face, seen in the faces of Oklahoma’s immigrant population, that I would draw the gaze of all those who – in whatever manner – find themselves responsible for the passing, the enforcement, or in support of Oklahoma’s House Bill 1804.”

In that letter Bishop Slattery cited the arrival of law enforcement at a diocesan parish before a Mass on Saturday evening, November 17 th :
“The sanctity of Saint Francis Xavier Church in Sallisaw was violated by three policemen who knew that Hispanic Catholics trust the Church and come to Mass, even when they would not otherwise venture out of their homes for fear of deportation. That makes a Catholic church an easy place to ‘round up’ illegals, so arriving before the 5:30 Spanish Mass, they began to ask the members of the faithful for their papers as they came to offer Christ’s sacrifice.
“Such intolerable excesses may force the church to go underground,” he wrote, “but we somehow will find a way to continue offering the Mass and the Sacraments to our people – for their salvation as well as our own!”

Rather than proposing a balance between our nation’s need for honest laborers and our ability to receive and absorb new populations, [Oklahoma] HB 1804 creates an atmosphere of repression and terror designed to make it impossible for those illegal immigrants who have settled here to find a stable, secure life for themselves and their children, many of whom are native born citizens with civil rights equal to our own.

“Catholic Charities recently learned of the mother of a 2 month old baby who has no relatives here in the United States and will not leave the house, so terrified is she of being detained and then deported: “I have no one here in America,” she cries.” What would happen to my baby?

“I know of another woman in Tulsa whom we can call Maria H., although that is not her name. Maria has four American-born children, the youngest of whom suffers from cancer. Having finished his chemotherapy, this boy must now begin radiation treatments, but Maria can find no one to give her a ride to and from the clinic, since HB 1804 makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegals. Worse is the fear that if the police pull the driver over for a traffic citation, she would be arrested and jailed for being here illegally, while her children end up under the care of the State.”

In his “Action Plan for This Diocese” Bishop Slattery reiterated his commitment to resist the evil of the law, no matter the cost:

“I want to repeat that which I expressed in the first pastoral response I sent to the priests and deacons of the Diocese concerning the threat of being bound by this law:

“‘Our faith calls us to serve those in need with the same prompt response and the same generous love that we would show Christ Himself were he to come before us sick or tired or in need. To make charity a crime is to make those who love, criminals … and when it becomes a crime to love the poor and serve their needs, then I will be the first to go to jail for this crime and I pray that every priest and every deacon in this diocese will have the courage to walk with me into that prison.’

“As bishop I intend to continue to caring for the needs of my flock. I will draw even closer to them than before. I will pay them the respect of speaking to them and praying with them in their own language and I will foster with diligence and delight the popular expressions of their native Catholicism. I will be in the forefront of those who seek to defend the rights of the poor and I will help them to the best of my ability and in whatever way is appropriate to me as Bishop.

“This I will do every day that Christ gives me. I will proclaim his Gospel, I will live his preferential option for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, the undocumented and illegal immigrants, Catholic or non-Catholic.

“I wish to make it absolutely clear that no one will be denied access to our Catholic charitable, pastoral and/or educational programs because they are illegal immigrants. This is to be true for all our parishes, institutions, schools and the various operations of Catholic Charities.” (See the web site of the Diocese of Tulsa for the full text.)

When a punitive law went into effect Georgia last year, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah issued a pastoral letter that condemned immigration reform bills that restrict health care, education and basic social services for undocumented immigrants.

Atlanta’s Catholic newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin , published excerpts from Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s talk this November at a diocesan workshop on immigration law and how parishes can prepare if federal authorities sweep up parishioners in an immigration raid:

Archbishop Gregory said “prophetic courage” is needed to speak out against laws that attack the dignity of immigrants, undocumented or not. Churchgoers need to stand up for immigrants “not because they are Catholics, but because we are Catholics.” The Archbishop said too often people advocating tough immi-gration laws claim that resolving illegal immigration is simple. “The solution is not simple,” he said. “But the solution is grounded in the Gospel.”

At the beginning of November 2007 Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta also published, together with religious leaders from other faiths, a statement called “In the Light of Love.” The Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Episcopalian representatives expressed their concern about “the callous and hateful perspective of many of the loudest voices heard lately around immigration issues,” about the “constant reference to men, women and children in derogatory terms that seem to dismiss their, and our own, humanity and to justify any proposed mistreatment or punishment.”

Archbishop Gregory, Imam Plemon Tauheed El-Amin, Rabbi Scott Saulson, and Episcopalian Bishop J. Neil Alexander declared that while “Legal status is important, it is not a final measure of humanity… We accept the labor of the desperate, the suffering of separated families, the taxes and the purchasing power of millions of people. It is wrong to say those same people may not be accorded basic human rights and protections or to deny that they are essential to our economy and our future.” (See the web site for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.)

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, January-February 2008.