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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 26, 2007 • VOL. 45 NO. 6 • Oakland, CA

Bishop Vigneron advocates for immigrants

Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron addresses civic and religious leaders on characteristics that mark a humane response to immigration reform during the annual public policy breakfast sponsored by Catholic Charities of the East Bay.
JOSE LUIS AGUIRRE PHOTO

The undocumented immigrants in our midst have become stakeholders in our community, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron said during an annual Catholic Charities forum, and it is wrong to destroy their family ties or to brand them as criminals.

Speaking at the Catholic Charities of the East Bay Public Policy Breakfast Forum, held at St. Columba Church in Oakland earlier this month, Bishop Vigneron called for a humane response to the issue of immigration reform. His speech was the keynote address at the event, which was titled “Welcoming the Stranger.”

The undocumented, Bishop Vigneron said, “have already contributed to building up our community, both materially and spiritually,” and their lives “are very deeply woven already into the fabric of the United States.”

Laws that do not respect this reality, he said, do damage to our nation and communities.

Bishop Vigneron, drawing on some 100 years of Catholic teaching on immigration, said that although states have the right to protect their borders, they should also protect the dignity of the individual and promote the common good.

This includes protecting the family. “There is no way to make our nation a better nation if we have laws that hurt the order of the family,” he said.

Moreover, he said, legality and morality are distinct concerns. “We cannot infer that anything that is simply illegal is really a terrible crime,” Bishop Vigneron said. Helping escaped slaves was once illegal, though it was a virtuous act, he noted, saying, “The moral order is always prior to the legal one.”

For this reason he, and other U.S. Catholic bishops, oppose any law that would make it a felony to be in the country without legal status.

“Lots of people refer to them as if being illegal means they are criminal,” he said. “They are not criminal, though they are illegal. There’s a great deal of difference.”

Bishop Vigneron summarized the U.S. bishops’ call for immigration policies that include addressing the root causes of immigration in the “sending nations;” a temporary workers program that allows for “earned legalization;” due process protection for the undocumented; and “no sanctions for those who give humane aid.”

His remarks came before a backdrop of recent immigration raids that have torn breadwinners and caretakers from families throughout the U.S. and a Congressional debate on how to reframe immigration laws.

After Bishop Vigneron’s speech, members of a panel gave testimony to the fear and disruption the current situation has caused in the immigrant community.

Dominican Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, principal of St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Oakland, told of families who applied for enrollment and paid their fees during the summer admissions process and were never seen again, leaving their homes with no word of where they have gone.

She spoke of a “culture of silence,” where parents are afraid to reveal their names and where children come crying: “Will my mother be there when I get home?” It is a “fear that permeates,” she said, a fear of deportation and family separation.

Father Tony Valdivia, pastor of St. Louis Bertrand Parish in Oakland, had similar tales – a parishioner facing deportation and high-achieving high school students with no prospects for college because they are undocumented.

The situation is worse today, he said, than it was in the past. “When immigration was under the justice department,” Father Valdivia said, “they were pretty good. At least there was a sense of compassion.”
But when it came under the Department of Homeland Security, “you could just feel it,” he said.

Immigrants told him the U.S. had turned hostile and people wanted them to leave. They finally took comfort, Father Valdivia said, when Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony spoke out last year in defiance of harsh immigration proposals in Congress.

In spite of the present situation, Father Valdivia said, “I am encouraged. I see the people suffering, but they don’t give up.”

Carla Cordova, CCEB legal counselor in the Concord office, said she has been working with other immigration advocates recently to calm fears in the community after 100 residents were arrested in an immigration raid.

With fellow immigration rights advocates, she has made presentations to schools and other organizations. “We tried to calm people’s anguish and fear,” she said.

They also advised them of their rights – to keep silent, to have a trial – and said they should be prepared in case the head of the household is taken out of the country. They should plan in advance what the children should do and how the spouse should react.

Her office is overwhelmed with requests for help, she said, and 200 people are on a waiting list for consultations. She appealed for financial help to meet their needs.

“My clients are great people,” she said, “hard-working people. They are not criminals.”

Pat Snyder of the Contra Costa Interfaith Council, a nurse and an advocate for health care reform, said many assumptions about immigrants and health care are unfounded. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are often accused of being a drain on health care resources, but this is not the case, she said.

Although immigrants are 13 percent of the population, they use only 8.5 percent of health services, and illegal immigrants – 3.2 percent of the population – use only 1.5 percent.

Immigrants are much less likely to be insured than native-born persons, Snyder said, even though 80 percent of them have a full-time worker in the family, and many do not use even the health care services that they are eligible for.

These facts should be taken into account during the immigration reform debate, she said, as well as in discussions of changes in the health care system.

During a question and answer session after the panel presentation, diocesan social justice resource specialist Mary Doyle said that Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. have joined in the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform

“Our focus now is getting good legislation passed,” she said.

Information on the campaign is available at justiceforimmigrants.org, she added.

 


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