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Priest resists anti-immigrant push

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Douglas, Ariz.

This remote town on the U.S./Mexican border is the current No. 1 crossing point for migrant workers, ground zero in the increasingly heated national debate around immigration, border enforcement and the implications of each in a globalized world.

For most presidential candidates, the border this year is way off the list of debate issues. But not for the conservative Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who recently visited Douglas and seemed to feed off the discontent of ranchers, some of whom are up in arms about what they describe as “a slow motion invasion” of undocumented immigrants.

As an invited guest of the ranchers’ organization, Cochise County Concerned Citizens, Buchanan characterized the situation as a “wholesale invasion of America” and a “wholesale violation of the rights of American citizens.”

“If I’m elected president,” he pledged, “it will be stopped cold.”

Neither the migrants nor the local residents, it seems, want to be at the center of this debate, but their lives are caught up in a push/pull of global economic and political forces much larger than Douglas.

A lone figure

Amid the ranchers’ anger and Buchanan’s bravado, a lone figure took up the case of the Mexicans crossing the border. Fr. Robert Carney stood outside the auditorium where Buchanan and the ranchers were meeting. He understands the ranchers’ position, is sympathetic to many of their concerns, but he remains a reluctant advocate of justice for the immigrants who, he said, “are beaten down every step of the way.”

Tensions have been on the rise between migrants and some residents in Douglas -- a town of long-standing, mostly Anglo, ranching families and others of just as long-standing Mexican-American heritage.

Buchanan toured the border and addressed about 50 local residents at Douglas’ Cochise College. “These American ranchers are the ones who pay [for] the government’s failure to protect our borders,” Buchanan told journalists and supporters.

Ranchers and other local residents told Buchanan of property damage caused by migrants, trash left on their property and of being kept awake nights by the noise of migrants crossing their land.

Buchanan said he would build a double or triple fence, impose sanctions on those who employ undocumented workers and bring in the National Guard to beef up border enforcement, “if necessary.”

With ranchers warning that they “may be forced to use deadly force” to protect themselves and their family members, and the numbers of migrants attempting to cross in the Douglas area continuing to rise dramatically, the tensions appear likely to escalate.

Carney, the local Catholic pastor, is among those local residents caught up in the border war. He was the sole protester at Buchanan’s Jan. 19 appearance in Douglas. He stood alone outside the Cochise College auditorium while several of his parishioners filed inside with other Buchanan supporters.

“I was very apprehensive of going out there at all,” said Carney. “You’re facing some pretty intimidating groups out there. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought somebody needs to pay attention to the reasons the people are coming here. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ ”

Carney carried a hand-lettered sign bearing a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was observed just two days earlier: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“I can empathize with [the ranchers],” said Carney. “I’m in favor of them being relieved of some of [these problems].”

But Carney feels most of the media coverage has been unfair to the migrant workers, portraying them as freeloaders and criminals. “A small percentage might be criminals,” he said, “but for the vast majority, they have no other choice but to face these kinds of dangers. It’s not about making a living or putting something in the bank, it just boils down to pure survival.” And, he said, “people are beaten down every step of the way,” the victims of abuse by coyotes (those who claim to help refugees cross the border), thieves, officials on both sides of the border and armed ranchers. “And for them to be met with turning the head away,” said Carney, “that’s bothersome to me.”

Hard for everyone

Carney has also spoken about the issue within his parish, which includes ranchers and border patrol agents. “It’s difficult,” said Carney, “because I want to please everybody. I don’t want anybody mad at me. But then I have to get myself out of the way and read the gospel and the scriptures as the truth that they are. And they tell me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger. I don’t speak from my own agenda and I don’t attack anyone. There are a few who don’t agree with me. I listen. We dialogue. But it’s just hard for everyone.”

Carney opposes further militarization of the border, believing it would only increase tensions and the potential for violence. Instead, he said, the United States should address the larger structural causes, such as trade policies, that are forcing migrants northward.

Carney also objects to Buchanan’s position against all immigration -- whether legal or illegal. Buchanan pledged not only to put a halt to illegal immigration but also to drastically reduce legal immigration if elected, in order to prevent the “Balkanization” of America. In a campaign appearance in California the preceding day, Buchanan stated that immigration is damaging to the “cultural fabric” of the country.

“It certainly does seem to border on racism,” said Carney, “and it’s forgetting how all of this country came to be through immigration. I think [presidential candidate Bill] Bradley said it recently: Unless you’re a Native American or you were forced to come here through slavery, you’re an immigrant.” As part of his seminary training, Carney learned about his own family’s immigration history. “My Irish ancestors went through similar circumstances,” he said, “famine, no hope for a future. My grandmother worked as an indentured servant for four years to pay her boat passage here.”

Carney believes certain commonly shared beliefs in the United States, combined with Buchanan-type rhetoric, are to blame for the current high tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. “The tremendous competition that is part of our society,” he said, “the individualism, to be a success at any cost is seen as something for people to emulate. And there’s a feeling that, ‘I did it, so therefore it’s available to you and if you don’t, you’re less than me. I don’t value you.’ It’s blaming immigrants for their poverty.”

Ordained in 1991 and assigned to the Douglas parish four years ago, Carney said he is dismissed as “crazy” or as an outsider who doesn’t “really understand what’s going on” by his detractors in the parish. And he agrees, maybe he doesn’t fully understand the perspective of a generations-old ranching family. “But I do understand what stands before me on any given night,” he said, “a human being who is saying, ‘Can you help me?’ I think that is it.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000