PITTSFORD — The audience in the chapel of the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse sat rapt as Josefino Paz told the harrowing details of the dangers he faced — including crossing massive highways at night and being crowded into a truck with no ventilation — during several attempts to cross the Mexican border into the United States.
“I crossed the border just to get the opportunity to live,” said Paz, who is finally experiencing the American dream.
After starting out in the late 1980s at as a migrant worker in Brockport, he has completed a bachelor’s degree in education and teaches Spanish in Rochester and in Rochester city schools. He lives in Brockport with his wife and two children, and currently is working toward a master’s degree that will enable him to teach English as a Second Language.
Paz spoke at the motherhouse during a March 15 educational evening presented as part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ statewide Justice for Immigrants campaign, which focuses on U.S. immigration policy and its impact on the lives of individuals, families and communities. The event, which organizers said attracted about 175 people, was cosponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Mercy, the diocesan Public Policy Committee and diocesan Catholic Charities.
Presenter Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, urged audience members to sign letters to local congressional representatives, expressing opposition to an immigration bill sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Approximately 170 letters were delivered to local congressional representatives March 17 by representatives of the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph, according to Sister Jane Schur, vice president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Rochester region. The LCWR’s immigration campaign is scheduled to culminate April 25 with representatives from across the state demonstrating and marching in front of the Federal Building in Syracuse.
Specter’s bill — a revised version of a bill passed in December by the House of Representatives — would make it harder for immigrants to seek asylum and would make it a federal crime to assist undocumented workers.
“I’m looking around the room tonight, and I see a lot of potential felons,” Wally Ruehle, director of the Immigration Program for the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, said to loud applause. He noted that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his agency.
Other panelists included Bishop Matthew H. Clark; Sister Gaye Moorhead, a lawyer and president of the Sisters of Mercy; and Mercy Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities.
Ruehle said the entire immigration debate changed when Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony spoke out Ash Wednesday against Specter’s proposal and ordered his priests to disobey it if it became law. Rallies against the bill have been held throughout the country, including Chicago and San Jose, Calif.
As the son of a farmer, Cardinal Mahony had toiled alongside migrant workers when he was young, Ruehle noted.
“He knew that they are not criminals,” Ruehle said. “They are not terrorists. They deserve as much dignity as any other child of God. That act of courage … changed the entire immigration debate and added a moral, spiritual and human-rights dimension to that debate.”
In light of the cardinal’s statements, advocates hope Congress will instead adopt a comprehensive immigration-reform bill proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Ruehle said. The Kennedy-McCain bill would allow immigrants already in the United States to apply for temporary residency. Once they have lived in the country for six years and meet certain requirements — including paying a $1,000 fine, back taxes and learning English — they would be eligible for permanent residency.
Politics aside, Sister Moorhead noted, all observers seem to agree that the U.S. immigration system is broken.
“But watch your back if you try to say why,” she remarked. “There are reasonable perspectives on each side. It’s not good guys versus bad guys.”
Sister Moorhead said she understands the added strain that immigrants put on schools, hospitals and social services, especially in such states as California and Arizona, which she called “ground zero” in the immigration discussion. But she said those who oppose immigration should try to understand that increasing immigration is the product of economic inequities the United States needs to address.
“All nations have a right to control their borders,” she added. “But an orderly, realistic, just control of immigration is what’s needed.”
In addition to providing comprehensive reform and a pathway to citizenship, Bishop Clark said any new legislation also should provide workers with visas and labor protection, keep families intact, and effectively and justly enforce the law.
The bishop added that a bumper sticker he recently saw summed up the teachings of Christ on this issue: “There Are No Foreigners.”
Yet if Specter’s bill becomes law, the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless — not to question their legal status — would force many Catholics and other Christians to live lives of civil disobedience, Sister Moorhead noted. She added that she’s counting on Cardinal Mahony’s comments to awaken legislators to that reality.
“I hope it stalls the day when works of mercy become a federal crime,” she said.
Sister Schur said the New York state region of LCWR is focusing on justice for immigrants as part of the national organization’s 50th-anniversary celebration. She noted that this focus, which is supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is framed by Leviticus 25:10: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”
“It’s a fitting tribute to the immigrants welcomed and served by sisters from the earliest days of our nation,” Sister Schur said. “Together, we kindle the fire among us to insure justice for the immigrant population.”