Too Many Catholics Believe Immigration Myths, Bishops’ Official Says, Urging Church Assault To Debunk ‘Ignorance’

Catholic Online, April 20, 2007

Too many Catholics believe myths surrounding immigration and immigrants based on misinformation and misconceptions requiring the Catholic Church to respond with a comprehensive fight against ignorance, said a U.S. bishops’ official.

In an April 17 presentation kicking off a three-day Justice for Immigrants campaign conference here, Mark Franken, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, stressed that if the Catholic Church is ever going to “change hearts and minds” it must “relearn what it means to be an immigrant church” and to engage the faithful through education.

“Our biggest challenge is not the attacks from the immigration restrictionists, the racists, or the xenophobes,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is ignorance!”

“Too many of our fellow Catholics believe the myths: immigrants are criminals; immigrants don’t pay taxes; immigrants are a drain on public resources; immigrants don’t want to integrate within our society; immigrants are taking our jobs. None of these perceptions are real,” Franken said, adding that for “many, many people perception is fact.”

“We’ve got to debunk the myths. We’ve got to create empathy with our newest sisters and brothers. We’ve got to answer the question: “What would Jesus do?,” he said.

More than 100 Catholic social-justice leaders, diocesan directors and others active in the USCCB Justice for Immigrants campaign gathered for the April 1719 event, which included going to Capitol Hill and urging lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The theme of the convening, which drew participants from more than 65 U.S. dioceses and more than 35 states, was “Offering Hope, Promoting Justice.”

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Retracing some of the history of immigration in the United States, Franken said that 150 years ago, in the midst of the “first great wave of immigrants,” the earliest Catholics to the country’s shores faced “discrimination and hardship, much like today’s immigrants.”

He noted that then there was the Know Nothing Party, which were strongly against immigration and Catholics. But “today, look around,” he said, “we again have a presidential candidate running on an immigration restrictionist platform.”

Those earliest immigrants saw in the Catholic Church a “voice” to speak on their behalf and a “place one could find solace … to feel safe,” he said. “The church provided the welcome, helped educate the children and tended to the sick and elderly among the immigrants.”

Yet, despite this history and the fact that the vast majority of Catholics are descendents of those earlier immigrants, many can no longer relate to the migration experience, Franken said.

“I dare say that many Catholics in this country today are hostile toward immigrants, especially the so-called ‘illegals,’” he said. Most “represent the center of society. They hold positions of power and wealth. Thus they no longer have empathy with today’s immigrants.”

Catholics, like others in the general U.S. population, are split on the issue of immigration, especially as it concerns those in the country “without proper authorization.”

“Catholics’ negative attitudes about immigration,” Franken said, is “based on misinformation and misperceptions” and “considerable misunderstandings.”

He stated that the Justice for Immigrants campaign has been responsible for influencing the nation’s “debate and has created a climate in which the prospects of achieving the kinds of comprehensive reforms envisioned by the bishops are possible.”

The fact that bishops and other church leaders have faced hostile audiences and backlashes from those opposed to comprehensive immigration reforms has “demonstrated to the immigrant communities that the church is a voice for them,” the migration and refugee director said.

“I am convinced that were there not this campaign, we would be facing nothing but ‘get tougher’ enforcement policies and further erosion of hospitality toward immigrants,” he said.

Yet, unless the church reaches through education the average U.S. Catholic in the pew with a message about welcoming the stranger, he said, “we risk becoming a church divided: the growing immigrant population within the church and the others.”

An educational effort in the church must be a top priority, infusing “into the educational curricula of our school systems, our adult education programs, and religious formation studies the church’s teachings on migration.”

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He urged those involved in social action, peace and justice, legal, social and pastoral service providers and other leaders in the church to continue their efforts on behalf of immigrants that “can revitalize the church, whose heritage is rooted in the immigrant experience.”

“By committing ourselves to helping all Catholics understand our faith imperatives toward migrants, we are offering them an opportunity to live out their faith,” he said. “I can think of no greater gift.”

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