Nebraska Catholic Conference Takes Moral View of Immigrants, Refugees

In a time when controversial immigration issues occupy front page headlines all over America, the Nebraska Catholic Conference looks at those issues from a moral, human rights standpoint, just as it has for centuries.

"The United States has failed both in efforts to control its borders and in addressing the needs of the people once they're here.

"There has to be a process to find ways to treat undocumented people in a socially just manner," said Jim Cunningham, Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) in Lincoln. Cunningham, an attorney, has been with the NCC for 31 years. The Catholic Church is one of the main organizations involved in immigrant and refugee issues worldwide, and its role in these issues in Nebraska is significant. The United States has failed both in efforts to control its borders and in addressing the needs of the people once they're here, he said.

The Catholic Church in Nebraska is divided into three areas, called the Omaha, Grand Island and Lincoln dioceses; each diocese has a bishop. The Nebraska Catholic Conference was formed to represent the concerns of the Nebraska dioceses in the realm of public policy. "We operate the largest system of non-governmental schools; we monitor legislation and rules and regulations related to the Catholic Church," he said.

The bishops of Nebraska's three dioceses are developing a joint pastoral statement on immigration in Nebraska based on today's issues as well as on global Catholic philosophies throughout history. Because of the timeliness of the issues, the bishops felt it was important to localize the issues and give them a human face, Cunningham said.

As they began to research the issues, Cunningham and a team of representatives from the dioceses traveled throughout Nebraska and met with parishioners of all ethnicities. The group made specific efforts to meet with Hispanic parishioners, he said.

Cunningham found a variety of attitudes and some very strong opinions. Among the Hispanic population, he found that "there is a great sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety." They came here primarily for economic reasons, but their fears won't go away. If they are undocumented, they fear being discovered and deported, possibly leaving a family behind without financial support or eligibility for benefits. They want their children to be educated so they have opportunities, but they are concerned that their children will discard the culture of the home country in favor of American culture.

"Immigrants prefer the term 'integration' to 'assimilation' so they can hang onto their own culture," Cunningham said. By definition, "assimilation" means a newcomer discards his or her own culture in favor of the culture of the adopted country, while "integration" means the newcomer can preserve cultural traits from the home country and still take on cultural traits of the adopted country.

From the perspective of the white or non-immigrant parishioners, there are language and cultural issues with the immigrant population, as well as concerns about whether undocumented people have driver's licenses and whether they are receiving benefits reserved for American citizens.

Cunningham recognizes the obstacles; he said the immigration system is "severely broken" and there are just not enough workers to process the paperwork for the backlog of people waiting for legal resident status. "There has to be some form of earned legalization for the people who are here," he said.

The Catholic Church has performed major collaborative research studies over many years regarding the rights of human beings, regardless of their ethnicity or legal status. One of these collaborative efforts is We are Strangers No Longer, which is a summary of migration recommendations of the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States, Cunningham said.

Another statement by the Church is the Catholic encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), originally written in 1891, which presented principles of the rights and responsibilities of people, and also commented on the situation of migrants, according to the publication Justice for Immigrants-A Journey of Hope. Based on Rerum Novarum and subsequent revisions and other documents, popes and bishops have developed five basic principles on migration that are currently accepted by the Church:

  1. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland (economic, political and social opportunities to live in dignity and earn a living wage)
  2. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families (the goods of the earth belong to all people and they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive)
  3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders (more powerful economic nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows)
  4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection (those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community)
  5. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected (regardless of their legal status, migrants possess inherent human dignity that should be respected; government policies are necessary that respect basic human rights).

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