Love Thy Neighbor

April 20-26, 2006
Love Thy Neighbor
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
Sisters of St. Francis to Hold a Public Witness on Behalf of Immigrants

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
— Mt. 25:35

On April 25, the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse will be doing what they have done since the early 19th century — supporting the immigrant community.

Sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who are leaders of orders of Roman Catholic Sisters across New York State, almost 25 Sisters of St. Francis will join approximately 100 other leaders of Roman Catholic Sisters throughout New York State to take part in a public witness on behalf of immigrants, which will begin at 11:30 a.m. at the James M. Hanley U.S. Court House and Federal Building in Syracuse. Immigration lawyer Sister Gaye Moorhead, RSM, will address the sisters during the event. Other speakers will include those who work directly with immigrants as well as immigrants themselves who will share their personal experiences of living and working in the U.S.

The public witness will be followed by a Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas Costello at 1:15 p.m., at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. The Sisters of St. Francis have renewed their commitment to stand by immigrants, this time as advocates. The sisters have asked people of all faiths to join them in this event. As the leader of the Sisters of St. Francis, Sister Patricia Burkard, OSF, said she felt compelled to help the immigrants and bring attention to their plight. “I feel a strong call to participate and to be an advocate and a voice for those who have no one to speak for them because I believe that all God’s people are deserving of dignity in their lives,” said Sister Patricia. “Many immigrants do not have a voice to speak on their own behalf and they do not know how to navigate our political system to effect change. This public witness can deepen public awareness of the challenges facing immigrants, and a gathering such as this invites others who share this concern to unite and network for change in public policy.”

Another purpose of the event is to build support for the McCain-Kennedy “Secure America Act,” which includes elements of immigration reform supported by the sisters. In their quest for justice for immigrants, the sisters want government officials to know that opportunities for citizenship, protection of workers’ rights and reunification of families must be part of any effective reform.

In New York State’s long history as a port of entry, many people have journeyed to the state to begin a new life. As far back as the early 19th century, Catholic sisters have served the immigrant community in education, health care, social services and pastoral care. Today, the challenge of immigration remains a critical need. A million people arrive every year. Many are caught in a backlogged legal system, housed in detention centers or exploited through trafficking. In an effort to help immigrants, the Franciscan Sisters in Syracuse sponsored and financially assisted a family from Bosnia. The sisters assisted the family in finding housing and jobs and helped them learn the English language and American customs. The sisters continue to be in contact with them, even after the family members have become citizens.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the Franciscan Sisters are involved with VIVE, an international refugee organization that assists people from around the world who come to the center in the Western New York city en route to seeking citizenship in Canada. The sisters are pushing for legislators to pass reform legislation that will deal effectively with undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. and also provide for the future flow of workers and their families. The sisters also believe in devising tailored, targeted and effective enforcement of more realistic policies and in supporting the successful integration of newcomers into communities where they settle.

In June 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee [USCCB] on Migration and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. Board of Directors resolved to make comprehensive immigration reform, with special emphasis on legalization, a major public policy priority within the church. As part of the church’s response, a diverse group of Catholic organizations with national networks have decided to join the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s “Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope Campaign” designed to unite and mobilize a growing network of Catholic institutions and individuals in support of a broad legalization program and comprehensive immigration reform. Its goal will be to maximize the church’s influence on this issue.

The campaign’s primary issues are to educate the public, especially the Catholic community and Catholic public officials, about church teaching on migration and immigrants and also to create political will for positive immigration reform. Other objectives include enacting legislative and administrative reforms based on the principles articulated by the bishops and organizing Catholic networks to assist qualified immigrants to obtain the benefits of the reforms.

Current immigration policies keep an estimated 11 million undocumented persons in the shadows, separate families and disrupt family life and cause undue hardship to those who are working hard. Last December, humanitarian aid by religious groups to the undocumented became an issue when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at reducing illegal immigration by, among other things, building a high barrier along stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, increasing the number of border patrol agents and making it a crime — rather than a civil offense — to enter the U.S. without appropriate immigration documents.

A section of the controversial bill aimed at people who help smuggle immigrants into the country would make it a crime to assist any undocumented immigrant to stay in the country. On March 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a draft bill to the full Senate that eliminated this portion of the bill and added new points such as the creation of a guest-worker program. It also gave illegal immigrants a chance to work toward legal status.

The USCCB has asked that urgent attention be directed toward the creation of a realistic guest-worker program to allow people to enter the U.S. legally to work, a way to help reunite families that have been divided for years by U.S. immigration policies and a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants.

By holding the public witness, Sister Patricia hopes that the public will realize the importance of justice for immigrants. “I hope we raise people’s awareness of this important issue of the plight of immigrants, and that they would become more knowledgeable of the legislation that is now before our Congress in Washington,” she said. “Hopefully, the hearts of whoever hears our message would be moved to actively engage in advocacy for justice for immigrants and that our country will once again welcome the stranger and embrace those who come to this land in search of a better life.”

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