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Bishops back symbols with muscle

Remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this some have entertained angels unawares.

-- Hebrews 13:1

Although they are doing nothing more than their duty as Christians and Americans, U.S. Catholic bishops should take a bow for recent and upcoming immigration-related efforts on two fronts: advocacy and symbolism.

On the advocacy front, the bishops, as part of an initiative announced in mid-May, have joined forces with immigrant groups to call for opening U.S. borders to more immigrants and, perhaps even more important, for granting amnesty to the hundreds of thousands who have entered this country illegally.

During the 1990s, more immigrants came to the United States than during any other single decade in history, yet unemployment is at an all-time low. Labor leaders in this country and economists around the world, particularly in xenophobic Europe, are beginning to acknowledge the enormous contributions of recent immigrants to the booming economy of this nation. Indeed, many people more inclined to nativism than hospitality have been forced to eat crow as the job market absorbs millions of skilled and unskilled immigrants, legal and illegal, and begs for more.

As for symbolism, bishops are marking the new millennium in July with Encuentro 2000, a celebration of the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. church. Speakers at the event will represent U.S. Catholics from all parts of the globe: Latin America and Asia, as well as the Native Americans and African-Americans who, though too often overlooked, have long been a part of the mix. The program will feature music, dance and food, along with serious talk about how to enhance acceptance of the many strangers in our midst.

The event is scheduled for July [6-9], appropriately in Los Angeles, where Mass is celebrated in 30 languages each week.

The unusual and politically powerful new coalition of which the bishops are a part is composed of labor leaders, religious leaders, business and civil rights groups. The coalition hopes to expand the current limit on the number of highly skilled foreign workers (sorely needed in the technology arena), to address inconsistencies in U.S. immigration laws, and to provide an amnesty similar to that granted in 1986 when hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants were given legal status after the fact. The amnesty would affect about 1 million of the undocumented immigrants in the United States, a group conservatively estimated at 6 million. Some pro-immigrant groups believe the actual number is much higher.

Some who would qualify under the proposed amnesty claim that strict guidelines preventing them from sharing in the 1986 amnesty were later found to be illegal by the courts. Some of those immigrants have lived in this country, worked and paid taxes for up to 30 years.

In this context, it is important to note that, contrary to popular myth, most of the newcomers -- more than 85 percent according to some reports -- enter legally, though many stay beyond their authorized limits.

Recent immigrants include some 10 million Asians and more than 30 million Hispanics who constitute more than 11 percent of the U.S. population. The huge influx of newcomers, most at least nominally Catholic when they arrive, has seriously taxed the church’s ability to respond. According to a 1999 study, Hispanics are treated as second-class citizens in many parishes, twice as likely to worship in “separate but unequal” settings and often required to pay rent to churches for use of its worship and social space (NCR, Feb. 11).

The church has but one Hispanic priest for every 10,000 Hispanics it claims to serve, compared to one priest for every 1,200 Catholics in the general population. Dioceses have scrambled to create Hispanic ministry offices -- some 150 dioceses have them -- but many such offices lack solid pastoral plans. Black Catholics and Native Americans have their own valid complaints.

In planning for Encuentro 2000, the bishops’ director of Hispanic affairs, Ronaldo Cruz, has acknowledged that its aim is not only to celebrate diversity but to highlight racial and ethnic disparities across the church. If Encuentro 2000 is cause for celebration, it is such only as part of a process in which most of the work lies ahead. And the job is way too big for the bishops alone.

The responsibility for creating a church and a nation that foster the equality and openness enshrined in our beliefs falls not only on coalitions and church leaders. It certainly cannot be met by grand symbolic gestures, however worthwhile such gestures might be. It falls on all who are obliged to uphold a tradition of hospitality -- a tradition, however ill-served at times, as new as the American convention of welcoming newcomers to our shores, but as ancient as the story of Abraham, to whom God appeared as a weary traveler at the entrance of his tent.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000 [corrected 06/16/2000]