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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

Migration conference surveys injustices, jobs, theology

South Bend, Ind.

The International Conference on Migration and Theology at Notre Dame University was more like a retreat for those on the front lines of immigration issues than an academic investigation.

Holy Cross Fr. Daniel Groody said he expected about 150 attendees, but more than 400 (not counting Notre Dame students) registered for the Sept. 19-22 event. Many were young laypersons, along with priests and sisters involved in ministry at the borders and in large cities where immigrants, legal or illegal, eventually find their way.

Groody was codirector of the gathering with Scalabrinian Fr. Joseph Fugolo, executive director of the Center for Migration studies in New York.

Groody, associate director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture, told NCR the work of these people is especially important now because of “severe injustices” inflicted on would-be immigrants in the name of Homeland Security. Since 9/11, he said, the U.S. Border Patrol has set up a virtual “Berlin Wall” at traditional points of entry like El Paso and San Diego, forcing migrants to trek hundreds of miles through deserts or mountains seeking a way into the United States. “And they are dying,” he said, “dying terrible deaths of thirst and heat stroke. Their journey is a way of the cross leading to crucifixion.”

Groody, who has spent 20 years in immigration work and is author of Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit, said it is ironic that the government sees everyone attempting illegal entry at the border with Mexico as a potential terrorist, while the perpetrators of the 9/11 tragedy all came in on legal visas. Because of the extent of the migrant crisis, he said, there is a great need to explore the links between migration and theology.

Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, considered the father of Liberation Theology, provided a lively exploration. He presented migration as a traditional response to extreme poverty and then held up the option for the poor as the heart of the Gospel message. For much of Christianity’s history, he said, poverty was seen as “a natural fact … an expression of the will of God, even a punishment for sin,” he said. “Such views were prevalent in church doctrine,” and as a result, the poor often became “convinced they were responsible for their own situation.” The very recent emphasis on the option for the poor, whose demands “are not even found in the documents of Vatican II,” he said, calls for complete solidarity with the poor, along with struggle to eliminate the causes of poverty.

“Oppressive poverty is never good; it’s always evil,” he said. “It’s an inhuman situation. It’s against the will of God. … How can we proclaim the Good News if not in solidarity with the poor and unless we fight for the marginalized and exploited?”

In this ministry, he said, preaching the Gospel must be seen always as a two-way street. “We who serve must learn to also receive the Gospel from the poor and read the signs of the times from their perspective. Our goal is not to be the voice of the voiceless but to see that the voiceless have their own voice.”

In a pithy presentation, Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, contended that migration is a central theme of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. He cited as examples Abraham and Sarah’s journey from their homeland, Jacob’s migration to Egypt, the Hebrew exodus from Egypt into the desert, the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities of Israel, and even the great Diaspora of the Jews after the destruction of the temple. Jesus’ life, he noted, involved constant movement -- from the journey of his parents to Bethlehem for a census, through the flight into Egypt, and to Jesus’ own restless trek across the Holy Land. Senior noted Jesus’ observation that the birds of the air have their nests, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Even the Incarnation can be seen as a kind of migration of the Word of God into the world of humanity, said Senior. All this biblical dislocation, he noted, challenges those who enjoy security and stability to see their situation as illusion. Jesus called the man who was satisfied with his full barns a “fool,” while it is the poor, he said, who will inherit the kingdom of God.

In one of the many workshop presentations, Lee Tavis, a Notre Dame finance professor and director of a program for international business managers, said the movement of multinational business operations into Mexico has caused “massive disruption,” driving farmers off the land they once tended, forcing them into unlivable slums in Mexico City. “I was stunned at the crisis in rural Mexico,” he said. There are not enough jobs in the new manufacturing plants, and there is no safety net for those who are left out, said Tavis, leaving the only alternative for many “the horrendous journey” of migration.

Juan Rivera, a Notre Dame accounting professor, said the North American Free Trade Agreement has not worked because “you are dealing with unequal partners.” The average hourly wage for a manufacturing job in Mexico is $2.17, he said, while in the United States it’s $18.24. Mexicans are lured to this country not only by this income differential but by the tempting 2,000-mile span of the border and by the illusion of unlimited opportunity as viewed on American television. In addition, said Rivera, many already have family or friends living in the United States. Both Tavis and Rivera are involved in efforts to bring multinational business managers into direct contact with Mexican government officials, representatives of workers and activists for intense, two-day discussions. They also work to organize farmers into independent business units and provide entrepreneurial training for potential leaders in rural Mexico.

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from Chicago.

Activist describes response to 9/11 in Mexico

Karla Martinez, who attended the International Conference on Migration and Theology at Notre Dame University, is a 32-year-old activist who first became interested in immigration when she attended a Jesuit college in her native Guatemala. “There was so much talk and interest in land reform and social justice,” she said, “so after graduation [with a degree in business administration], I volunteered in a program run by the Scalabrini religious order.”

For 18 months she worked in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, and it was during that time that the events of 9/11 occurred. Immediately, some 150 Iraqis who had been living in Mexico while seeking asylum were rounded up by the government and detained in her shelter as potentially dangerous aliens. “It was a difficult for them and for us,” said Martinez, “especially since they could not speak Spanish or English, and we didn’t know their language.” But a major breakthrough occurred on Christmas 2001, she said, when she and other workers decorated the shelter, hung up piñatas and played music. Gradually, the Iraqis caught the spirit, said Martinez, “and suddenly we were all laughing and hugging and doing these different dances from our cultures together. It was like we were a family and it was so good -- the best Christmas of my life.”

Martinez is now working on immigrant rights with a community organization on Chicago’s south side. Her clients are mostly Asian and Muslim families. “It is really challenging work,” she said, “and I love it.”

-- Robert McClory

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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