Church Pushes for Border Justice

By Hand, Nancy | National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Church Pushes for Border Justice

Hand, Nancy, National Catholic Reporter

Pope's words inspire a conference on immigrant rights

A three-day border conference here, sponsored by the Catholic church and drawing on Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, focused on issues related to the 2,000-mile U.S./Mexico border.

The Sept. 17-19 conference, which attracted 125 participants from 20 dioceses in 12 states, as well as community organizations from the United States and Mexico, was the first of its kind for the church and came at a time when rising tensions and anti-immigrant vigilante activity on the U.S./Mexico border are the focus of national media attention.

Joanne Welter, conference organizer and director of the Tucson diocese's Catholic Social Mission, has been pushing for a border conference for years but found little support until recently.

"The Holy Father's exhortation on Ecclesia in America (The Church in America) has really called attention to relations between North and South," said Rich Fowler, Washington-based director of outreach for the Department of Social Development and World Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference and one of the organizers of the Tucson conference.

The papal document, signed Jan. 23 during the pope's visit to Mexico City, makes a special call for attention to immigrants' rights. "The church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction of the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another," the document states. "Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of nonlegal immigration"

Andrew Pasini, mission coordinator for the three Colorado dioceses, was one of a group of Catholics from around the country that met for three days in Washington recently to discuss Ecclesia, what it means for the church and how to implement it. "What stayed most with me was the whole idea of one America," said Pasini, who grew up in Mexico. "It's been really hard for me to consider Latin America, the U.S. and Canada as one America. I've always had this picture of Latin America united in solidarity, but very separate from the North. It's a real paradigm shift to talk about America -- one continent."

That paradigm shift also brings a different perspective to local issues. "The state of Arizona has a huge, important history [with immigrants] -- immigrant communities have built the state," said Frank Pierson, lead organizer of the Arizona Interfaith Network, a statewide organization of 100 congregations and public schools based in Phoenix.

"Just look at the farming industry, look at who's working in restaurants and services, putting shingles on roofs. There's a real concrete reality of work that I don't think has been recognized." This situation, said Pierson, "raises the political issue of inclusion." Immigrant workers' needs, such as English and citizenship classes, are not adequately addressed by state and local governments, he said.

The conference included presentations, roundtables, workshops and a day trip to Nogales, Ariz., to meet with representatives of the Border Patrol, and to Nogales, Mexico, where participants met with families living in the maquila sector of the border town.

Cuernavaca, Mexico, resident and University of Wisconsin doctoral student Nancy Plankey opened the conference with a social analysis of the border -- the topic of her dissertation -- including environmental, labor and immigration issues.

"The signers of NAFTA promised it would create 200,000 jobs per year in the U.S., raise wages and strengthen labor laws in Mexico and reduce illegal immigration," said Plankey, "but instead the problems have intensified." The real minimum wage in Mexico is the lowest it's been in 20 years, Plankey said. And according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 200,000 U.S. jobs have been lost as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. …

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