Editor: Bishop, Immigration Reform was your topic of choice for this month’s interview.
Why is it important to discuss this now?
Bishop Vásquez: Immigration Reform has been a ‘hot topic’ in our country for years and the topic is not going to go away until a real solution and proper legislation is passed. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been urging our government and Congress to act on reforming the im- migration laws in our country because they are ineffective. Both the current administration and Congress have admitted that the current immigration laws no longer work.
Because our current immigration laws are no longer effective, they are hurting individuals. The rst ones to get hurt are families, who are being separated under the current laws. When someone comes to the U.S. from another country and has children here, those children have rights as American citizens, but their parents, if undocumented, may be deported. Thus children are being separated from their parents or are forced to go back to a country that they do not know. Maybe they have lived here 10 or 15 years. Maybe they don’t even speak the language or know the culture of their own particular country because they have been born here, raised here and have integrated into this society.
Another issue is these types of laws become detrimental to the type of work that immigrants do in the U.S. That is to say, they come here, they do work which sometimes nobody else wants to do, but because they have no protection under the law, they can be easily denounced and reported, they can be threatened, wages can be withheld from them, and they can be mistreated and abused. All of this can happen and often does happen because undocumented immigrants have little or no rights to protect themselves. Immigrants often live in shadows. They stay in the background because they don’t want to be known. They want to be hidden because they are so afraid of being deported and sent back to their countries.
Immigrants often struggle with many hardships just to come to the U.S. so that they can have a better life. Many of them die because of danger- ous conditions. In Texas and in the southern U.S., each year many people from Central America and South America travel across the desert and suffer tremendously to make new lives for themselves. Unfortunately, many lose their lives in the process of coming to the U.S. or to other countries. These are horrible and tragic situations.
We bishops are saying that it is time for us to change our immigration system, to reform the laws, and to create a system that is more just. At the same time, we must take into consideration that our country must be able to protect its borders and protect her citizens. The majority of the people coming to the U.S. do not wish us any harm. They are not coming as terrorists. They are com- ing here for one basic reason –– to make better lives for themselves and their families and loved ones.
Editor: Why is the church in- volved in this political discussion?
Bishop Vásquez: The church for many, many years has been advocating for changes in our immigration laws and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has promoted the Justice for Immigrants Campaign for years. The church has a responsibility to shine the message of God on this issue and help to build bridges between all parties so that an immigration system can be created that is just for all and serves the common good, including the legitimate security concerns of our nation.
Immigration reform experienced some tremendous setbacks after Sept. 11, 2001, which were very difcult for us to overcome. Since then the atmosphere in our own country has been very negative against the immigrant. Prior to Sept. 11, our country was ready to work to reform the law, but when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, everything stopped. So here we are years later, still suffering the consequence of that terrible event.
However, it does seem that we now have a Congress that recognizes the need for reform. Hispanics are a grow- ing population in our country and they are beginning to have a voice and many of them are expressing their right to vote. Congress and the current adminis- tration have become very conscious of their needs, and they realize that there is this population that has a potential to inuence the outcome of elections. Therefore, more and more of our law- makers are seeing immigration reform as necessary.
Based on Scripture and Catholic social teachings, as well as our own ex- perience as an immigrant church in the U.S., the Catholic Church is compelled to raise her voice on behalf of those who are marginalized and whose God-given rights are not respected. The church is involved because the church stands with the immigrant and speaks on behalf of those who have no voice. The immi- grant population has very little voice, as I said before many of them live in the shadows. Therefore, we need to speak on their behalf.
Editor: What can Catholics read or learn to become more informed about these positions?
Bishop Vásquez: I recommend Catholics go to the Justice for Immigrants website at www.justiceforimmi- grants.org. There is history of how the church has spoken about immigration. There are also many myths that are debunked on the site. That is to say, there are some things like immigrants are a burden to the society and they are not contributing their fair share, both of which are completely untrue. Un- documented immigrants are working and paying taxes, yet they don’t see the benets of that money at all. The Justice for Immigrants website includes a wealth of information about immigrants and about how we can advocate for immi- gration reform. I am very grateful that the church has stood with immigrants and continues to advocate for these people who only seek a better life for themselves and their families.
Also, in 2003 the U.S. bishops and the bishops of Mexico came together to write a Pastoral Letter on Migration called “Strangers No Longer To- gether on the Journey of Hope.” This document shows the solidarity of the Mexican bishops and the U.S. bishops standing up for migrants. It is available at www.usccb.org. Also, at the USCCB website, the bishops’ document from 2000 entitled “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” is available in English and Spanish. This document addresses the welcoming of immigrants to our parishes and com- munities.
Editor: Immigration is not just an issue for the U.S. Pope Francis often talks about the need to wel- come the stranger among us as well.
Bishop Vásquez: Yes, in fact, every year the pope speaks about the pas- toral needs of migrants and refugees on World Day of Migrants and Refu- gees, which is celebrated during the rst week of January and was instituted by Pope Pius X in 1914. In his 2014 message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis writes, “Fleeing from situations of extreme poverty or persecution in the hope of a better future, or simply to save their own lives, millions of persons choose to migrate. Despite their hopes and expectations, they often encounter mistrust, rejection and exclusion, to say nothing of tragedies and disasters which offend their human dignity.
The reality of migration, given its new dimensions in our age of globaliza- tion, needs to be approached and man- aged in a new, equitable and effective manner; more than anything, this calls for international cooperation and a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion. Cooperation at different levels is critical, including the broad adoption of poli- cies and rules aimed at protecting and promoting the human person.”
As we look around the world, it is amazing to see the shift in popula- tions that the world has experienced for reasons of war, economics and persecution. These shifts in population are making all of us more aware about immigration and the need to be more receptive to the stranger. That is a very biblical response to the immigrant be- cause for us Catholics and as Christians we believe that in our encounter with the stranger, we also meet and encoun- ter Jesus Christ. Many people suffer from what we call xenophobia, or the fear of some- thing or someone that is different. This includes the fear of others because they don’t speak our language or because they don’t understand our culture or because they eat a different type of food or be- cause they have a different religion. This fear often causes us to close the door to strangers and keep them away as far as possible. However, the Christian and the Catholic view has always been to open the door to the stranger and to welcome them. We are called to overcome our fears and to welcome the stranger, just as Christ would.
As Pope Francis writes in his 2014 message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is need- ed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginaliza- tion ... towards a attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”
Editor: So what would you like Catholics to do regarding immigration?
Bishop Vásquez: The rst thing we must do is pray for reform in the law. Secondly, I would like to see Catholics and people of good faith write their Congressmen urging them to seize the opportunity to change the immigration laws. We need to pressure the current administration and mem- bers of Congress to pass legislation that will x the currently broken immi- gration system. We need immigration laws that are just and at the same time, take into consideration the protection of our borders.
I also encourage Catholics to learn as much as possible about this issue and to read about the immigration bills as they are before Congress. Learn what is good about each bill and if the bills are not good, speak out to your Congressmen about the need
for change. As I said before, we must speak out on behalf of those who have no voice.
I also pray for all immigrants. As Pope Francis writes in his World Day of Migrants and Refugees message, Mary and Joseph knew what it meant to leave their own country and become migrants as they escaped the reign of Herod. “The maternal heart of Mary and the compassionate heart of Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family, never doubted that God would always be with them. Through their intercession, may that same rm certainty dwell in the heart of every migrant and refugee.”
The Catholic perspective on crime and criminal justice was explored and examined through the themes of “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration” at the Statewide Criminal Justice Ministry Conference, held at Oblate School of Theology Oct. 25-26. In his keynote presentation to open the gathering, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, addressed the responsibility of the church in criminal justice and evangelization as a foundation for change. He covered the role of the church in all facets of Catholic jail ministry, including pastoral care of the offender, the victim, the families and the community with a focus on evangelization to help all impacted by crime, as well as the need for conversion and restorative justice.
“The bedrock of Catholic social teaching is the inherent and inalienable dignity of every human person created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, a dignity we all have to defend and nurture,” said the archbishop. “But what about punishment for crimes?” he asked. “We are made in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, but we also have the capacity within ourselves to do evil, engage in violence, hurt others.” Archbishop Gustavo then listed three basic approaches to sin in the Old Testament. The oldest is a taboo. “We don’t do (something) in our community. But why?” he again asked. “The reason is lost in the ancient past, but we don’t do it now!” The second and most recent is a legalistic approach: We don’t do (something) because it is against the law. “The Pharisees at the time of Jesus were experts in casuistry or case law, examining the torah and applying it to new circumstances,” the archbishop explained. “That is very valuable to the community of faith, but it does not necessarily get at the underlying purpose of the law.” The third or classical approach is found especially in the prophetic books and is reflected in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Said Archbishop Gustavo, “This approach says we don’t (something) because it affects our relationships — with self, with others, with God.” “The underlying purpose of the Law or torah is to help the community of faith establish, maintain and restore, when necessary, right or just relationships that were broken by sin,” he continued. “This requires acknowledgement of the sin and its consequences, and attempts to reconcile with those hurt by the sin, to bring healing, restore a sense of community.”
Archbishop Gustavo lamented that the criminal justice system in the United States focuses on the offenders and often neglects the victims and their families, the families of the offenders and the communities impacted by the offense. However, he emphasized, “Restorative justice is consonant with the classical biblical view of sin as disrupting right or just relationships and the need for healing and eventual reconciliation of all involved.” The archbishop then explored many valuable approaches to ministry in jails and prisons. Some center on the celebration of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. Others focus on a Catholic apologetic approach. Still others involve distributing Bibles, books, pamphlets. Yet others focus on small group discussions or prayer sessions. “The work is never easy,” Archbishop Gustavo acknowledged. “Those incarcerated develop a hardness and cynicism that is related to their self-image, the dangers of incarceration itself, mental health disorders and many other causes. Some come into the criminal justice system already hardened, shaped by the environment in which they grew up.” According to the San Antonio prelate, chaplains sometimes say that offenders come to prayer or Bible sessions primarily because of the coffee being served. Others have said that the main reason why offenders want to see a chaplain is to try to get extra toilet paper. “On the other hand, such sessions do provide a time and space outside the cell while time within the cell often passes very, very slowly,” he said. “Setting an environment in which an offender feels safe — physically, emotionally and spiritually — can be very conducive to eventual helpful reflection and prayer.” Archbishop Gustavo stressed to the audience that it is clear that the entire church has much to do in educating its people — about sin and its consequences, and the dignity and value of every human person. “We also have much to do in order to help bring healing and reconciliation — to offenders, victims, their respective families and their communities,” he said. “We also have a long list of advocacy actions related to reforms in the criminal justice system.” The archbishop specifically mentioned the issues of capital punishment, solitary confinement, rehabilitation alongside punishment, mandatory sentencing laws and minors being treated as adult offenders. “It is also of great concern to me,” he said, “that while the overall U.S. prison population is decreasing, the number of detentions of undocumented persons is increasing.” Archbishop Gustavo shed light on a controversial quota driving the immigration detention boom. The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that this is caused by a little-known congressional directive known on Capitol Hill as the “bed mandate.” This policy requires ICE to keep an average of 34,000 detainees per day in its custody — even though they are not violent offenders. “This is closely related to the detention center industry,” he stated. “These for-profit centers raise serious questions regarding respect for the human rights of detainees, and vigorous lobbying from this industry is often cited as one of the reasons why comprehensive immigration reform has difficulty in gaining full Congressional support. As federal, state and local prison populations decline, the profits of this private industry depend on keeping a broken immigration system in place with added detentions!”
Conceding there is clearly a lot of work to do, Archbishop Gustavo followed up with, “But how shall we do it?” He then delved into Pope Francis’ unique style of pastoral leadership. “His humility, honesty and courage are remarkable. There is no doubt that he proclaims the Lord Jesus and his Gospel every day. He has stressed God’s mercy and compassion, the need for healing and forgiveness. He has called for a ‘climate of encounter’ to replace a ‘climate of clash,’” said the archbishop. “We have been used to thinking about a ‘culture of life’ to replace a ‘culture of death,’ and that is still very much a part of the church’s mission and ministry. But encounter and dialogue are also consistent with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.” The prelate brought up many, many instances of Pope Francis’ own “encounter” with people — with youth at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Mass and lunch with Vatican gardeners and other workers, correspondence and an interview with an atheist. “But to me,” he proclaimed, “the most powerful encounter — without words — was his washing and kissing the feet of prisoners in Rome on Holy Thursday. One was a woman — raising eyebrows, of course. One was a Muslim — raising other eyebrows. It was a direct, powerful proclamation of the Gospel of God’s love for all of his people. It reminds us of his namesake, St. Francis Assisi, who is credited with saying: ‘Proclaim the Gospel always, using words if needed.’”
There are many things that divide Americans, but thanksgiving is something we have always been able to share. Since I have arrived in El Paso I have come to know that the first Thanksgiving actually took place when the Spaniards of Oñate’s exploration finally arrived at the river we now call the Rio Grande on April the 30th, 1598 and the Native Americans there shared a meal with the exhausted travelers. Thanksgiving was given to God and Mass was celebrated. Whether we were Native Americans or Spaniards, Puritans, Baptists or Catholics we have all held the common conviction that we owe praise and thanksgiving to One alone. God is the source of every good thing. As one well-known hymn puts it “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above…” The fact is that we are a thankful people. We thank God for many blessings. For us in this nation, particularly in this community, our list ought to be very long. As we say in the Preface at Mass, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks…” But what about times when things don’t go our way? How ought we to respond when prayers seem to go unanswered. Can we in fact give thanks when we face these very challenging economic times; when many have seen paychecks shrink and jobs disappear? What are we to say to God when our health is not good and our children are not making the choices that we would encourage? Can we be thankful then or do we ration out our thanks to God according to the level of His cooperation? What does Jesus have to say about that which constitutes an appropriate occasion to give thanks? Most of us would agree that we certainly owe God thanks when he numbers us among the blest. In some translations of the Bible that word “blest” is translated, “happy”. For most of us that group would include those who are experiencing success and for whom all is going well. Then what about the Beatitudes?? Jesus says, “Blest are the poor in spirit, blest are those who mourn, blest are the pure in heart”, etc. (see Matt. 5) Could it be that those who are poor (in spirit or otherwise) have reason to be thankful? Is it possible that those who mourn might also turn to God in thanksgiving? At the Last Supper, on the night before he died, Jesus gave thanks to his Heavenly Father in the sacred meal that very early on came to be known as Eucharist, a Greek word that means, ‘Thanksgiving’. It is somewhat shocking when we consider and realize anew that Jesus is thanking and praising his Heavenly Father on the night that he knows will lead to his suffering and death. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians brings this whole line of thought to what may at first sight appear to be an unavoidable, but incomprehensible, extreme. He proclaims with gusto, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings…!” (Col. 1:24) Anyone, it seems to me, with just a hint of Faith can give thanks when things go their way. If we are to take these teachings of Christ and of Paul, his Apostle, seriously we must conclude that what distinguishes the person of deep and living Faith is that they can always see God’s hand at work, even in the midst of difficulty and hardshipeven in the face of death itself.
It is not a matter of welcoming the evil that comes our way. What the Christian recognizes is that God is not defeated by evil. God’s plan is not thwarted when hardship descends upon us. Jesus stares suffering and death in the face; he enters into them and transforms these ancient curses into the path of life! God does His best work in the midst of evil. So I would like to send you to your Thanksgiving Feasts as Jesus did the man he had healed from leprosy-the one who returned to give thanks. When you gather around the table and mention the things for which you give thanks, I invite you to expand your list. Thank God for your financial difficulties, which remind you to trust in God alone. Thank God for your family conflicts, which give you the opportunity to reach out in an unconditional love like Jesus who “loved us while we were yet sinners”. Thank God for your physical infirmities, which remind you that this life is not a stroll through paradise. Yes, you can even thank God for the death of the body, which for the one who seeks God’s mercy opens the door to eternal life. May our union with Christ come to be such that the words of St. Paul may take root in us. “In whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17).
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