By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published marzo 2, 2006 | Available In English
Many in the trenches of ministry to poor Hispanics across North Georgia feel that the people who risked their lives to come here with nothing are not “the illegals,” they are the undocumented.
Sister Margarita Martin, ACJ, and two other sisters, all Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, live in a largely Mexican trailer park where their doublewide is also their convent. Mexicans built the sisters’ screened porch.
In their chapel a local painting depicts the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt as migrants, but their faces are Mexican. The Blessed Sacrament is kept in a tabernacle shaped like a wooden boat, echoing Pope John Paul II’s call to “go out into the deep” to evangelize.
Like others serving in about 60 parish Hispanic ministries, they reach out to Hispanics regardless of their religion or legal status with “everything and anything” from translating to transportation to health screenings. They distribute diapers, appliances and food. Volunteers tutor children and teach adults English, and volunteers and newcomers, rich and poor, come together to support one another in this community center of peace and reconciliation, graced by a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
But Sister Margarita, who is from Spain, worries about this vulnerable population. Since December, when the state established new income verification requirements to receive Medicaid, some parents have been denied Medicaid even for their children, who are citizens, because they can’t show proof of their salaries since they are undocumented. She already sees parents, who don’t qualify for Medicaid, avoid doctors until they get “very, very sick.”
She sees that the desperately poor Hispanics come here not to sap resources and live the American dream but simply to survive and to eat. And she believes that these increasingly marginalized persons are among the ones Christ calls “the least of these.”
“They came from hopeless poverty to hopeful poverty. They came here risking their lives, not for tourism or to be rich, but to feed their families and pay medical bills for their parents having surgeries, for their families,” she said. “They do very hard work, and then what we do is persecute them.”
“Where is our charity, our welcoming to those who need us the most, what Jesus taught us? We need to come to grasp that they are a gift to us. They have deep faith to endure so much suffering with hope and tremendous endurance. What would happen if 11 million stopped doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do?”
For her a verse in the Book of Leviticus sums it up: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you not differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.”
“I like always to invite us all to live it,” she said.
Archdiocese Launches ‘Justice For Immigrants’ Campaign
The U.S. Catholic Church has a longstanding history of serving immigrants and refugees—regardless of religion or ethnicity.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services office is one of the primary organizations partnering with the government to resettle refugees.
Through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network of 156 immigration programs, low-cost Catholic-sponsored legal clinics around the country, including Atlanta’s award-winning Catholic Social Services clinic, help immigrants navigate complex laws.
Based in Washington, Catholic Relief Services provides relief and development work in 99 countries around the world to address root causes of poverty and factors that force people to migrate.
Out of that service tradition and Catholic social teaching, the Atlanta Archdiocese is now launching the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, part of a national campaign begun last May to educate the public on the need for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.
The USCCB has endorsed the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy bill in Congress as meeting most closely the Catholic principles outlined by the Mexican and U.S. bishops in the 2003 document “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” It addresses not only improved immigration law enforcement measures at the borders and in businesses, but also a guest worker program with a pathway to legalization, and broad-based “earned legalization” whereby an undocumented worker could, after working six years, learning English, paying a $2,000 fine and meeting other requirements, apply for legal residency—in line behind those who’ve already applied.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah issued a joint pastoral letter this week calling for “comprehensive immigration reform” at the federal level and expressing support for immigration policy that will protect “the human rights and dignity of newcomers” and also “provide a legal and secure means of entry for prospective immigrants and people seeking asylum.” They specifically endorsed the McCain-Kennedy bill.
They also expressed concern that a “growing public sentiment in our country and state … seeks to pass new immigration laws that are restrictive, punitive, and often extreme in nature.”
They concluded, “Any reformation of immigration should be comprehensive and thus should come from the federal government. Additional state regulations should only be considered after the U.S. Congress has acted on the legislation now pending.”
The archdiocese rejects as punitive and impractical several pieces of legislation currently being introduced and debated in the Georgia General Assembly addressing Georgia’s estimated 250,000 to 800,000 undocumented immigrants.
One of those pieces of state legislation is SB 529, sponsored by Woodstock Sen. Chip Rogers. After hearings, including testimony by Sister Margarita against the bill, the Senate Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on Feb. 28 offered the full Senate a substitute to the bill submitted by Rogers. His original bill was designed to do five things: discourage businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants by prohibiting employers from receiving state income tax benefits if they hire undocumented workers paid more than $600 a year; require that public contractors use only workers here legally; require proof of legal residence from anyone older than 18 who seeks public benefits, except for emergency medical care, prenatal care, and K-12 education; require verification of the immigration status of any person arrested; and establish penalties for human smuggling.
As snow flurries spit from the grey sky on a chilly February afternoon, Frank Mulcahy, attorney for the Georgia Catholic Conference, spoke at a rally at the state Capitol on behalf of Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Boland about Catholic belief in the basic human rights and dignity of all people, including the undocumented, who have broken civil, not criminal, law. He also cited Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, that when one serves the “least of these,” such as the prisoner or the stranger, one serves Christ himself.
“This is the standard by which you need to measure the legislation,” he said. “As a nation we do have a right to protect our borders but must recognize every person, whether born here or undocumented, is an individual and child of God who has human dignity that must be respected.”
He said immigration reform must come at the federal level, and some provisions proposed locally increase bureaucratic paperwork without benefiting the people. He believes undocumented immigrants are being penalized more harshly than they deserve and noted that any resulting unemployment would hurt the entire community.
“Federal immigration law is voluminous and complex and is now undergoing major revision in Congress. Whatever Georgia does this year will likely have to be changed next year,” said Mulcahy.
Currently about 70 dioceses are involved around the country in the Justice for Immigrants campaign, in partnership with CRS, the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Catholic Charities USA, U.S. Jesuit Conference, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and several other organizations.
Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities, believes action will be taken on immigration reform this year by both state and national legislatures, and he urges Catholics to learn the issues and get involved.
“It must be remembered that those pushing for strict immigration reform laws now are, for the most part, good people doing so because of the frustration of their constituents with our broken immigration system, and the renewed emphasis now on protecting national security,” he said. “It is imperative that we work closely with these legislators and make sure any future immigration laws passed reflect Catholic Church teaching and are fair, comprehensive and enforceable.”
Krygiel established an Atlanta steering committee, which includes Mulcahy; Hispanic Ministry Office director Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez; Msgr. Francis Pham Van Phuong, pastor of Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale; Sister Joyce Ann Hertzig, OP, coordinator of CSS Parish and Community Ministry; and Sue Colussy, director of the CSS legal clinic. They have developed a long-range strategic plan for the Atlanta Archdiocese to address this complex issue which will allow them to educate the public, create political will to enact needed legislative and administrative reforms, and better organize Catholic networks in Georgia to respond.
“I believe our biggest task right now is to educate the faithful on the complexities of this issue, so they can contact their legislative representatives at both the state and national levels. There appears to be a significant amount of apathy regarding the dignity and rights of people who live and work in our country but who happen to be undocumented citizens,” said Krygiel, whose office holds images of Jesus crowned with thorns and Our Lady of Guadalupe. “This to me is a pro-life issue, and as such, we should try to mobilize our efforts with the same sense of urgency that we do on other pro-life matters.”
The archdiocese is calling upon Georgia Catholics to write to their senators and those on the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of comprehensive immigration reform as embodied by the McCain-Kennedy Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (SB 1033), which can be done through the Justice for Immigrants Web site. An immigration bill is expected to reach the U.S. Senate floor for debate by the end of March.
Leo Anchondo, national campaign manager for the U.S. bishops’ effort, said, “We should be sending hundreds of thousands of letters, yet we continue to be in the very low thousands of letters.”
“We are working with different Catholic communities and networks so we can make sure our voices are heard as one church in favor of reform that will take under consideration the dignity of the people under a more comprehensive approach,” said Anchondo.
The bishops have rejected HB 4437, the Border Protection Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, an “enforcement-only bill” which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in December.
“What we consider as ‘report and deport’ will not work,” said policy analyst Kevin Appleby of the USCCB. “What we need is earned legalization for it to work. It’s an enforcement-only bill and will not solve the immigration crisis.”
Welcoming The Strangers Among Us
Sister Margarita sees Christ in the faces of those around her who are strangers no longer.
“For us Catholics they are the hope of the Catholic Church: so many Catholics, so much new blood coming in. We need to take care of those as children of God that bring new life, new enthusiasm and vitality.”
Among those neighbors is 31-year-old constructor worker Juan, who chooses not to give his real name. He is the handyman around the park, assisting the sisters and others as needed. He is married and has three children and was driven to come here because back in Mexico he worked as a policeman and mechanic, where he didn’t always make enough money to even feed his family. He reluctantly had to quit school at 17 to work, as the family was so poor.
“It’s so bad when you see your kids not having enough food or the right food. They might be healthy. My little kid, he was like one and a half years old and he was so weak. I couldn’t afford to pay for better food,” he recalled.
He most recently crossed the border in 12 days, and sends money home to his father, who is sick with diabetes. Fluent in English, he is grateful to be in Georgia and likes his job, where, although he doesn’t get any benefits, his bosses call him by name and never take advantage of him. He is proud of his 11-year-old, who is at the top of her class, and hopes she’ll go to the University of Georgia some day. But they must scrounge for money when she and other family members get sick, as they can only get Medicaid support—so far—for their one child born here. “He’s the only one I don’t have to worry about. If the other ones get sick, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
He dislikes having to drive without a license every day to work and even operating a truck on his job, and worries about any increase in immigration powers for police. “I heard about it. I thought if they approve that, it would be a very big obstacle for us because everybody is going to be afraid to go to work or to go anywhere.”
And he, like so many others, does feel guilty about breaking civil law to come here but would feel even worse if he couldn’t provide for his family back in Mexico.
“You don’t feel right about (being undocumented), but if you have hungry mouths to feed, that’s what you do.”