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Church pushes for border justice

By NANCY HAND Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tucson, Ariz.

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.

The free trade agreement has weakened the labor movement instead of strengthening it, said Plankey, citing a Cornell study that found that three times more companies have followed through on threats to relocate. “Much of the economy of the Southwest is still based on the cheap labor of undocumented workers,” Plankey said.

Pierson is hopeful the conference will begin to address some of those issues. “There’s a countermythology that’s been created that immigrant communities cost more than they contribute, and I think it’s a very carefully constructed myth,” he says. “I think when people gather from diverse perspectives, you start to uncover the truth together, and that is in a sense a religious quest as well as an economic, social and moral one. I think a lot of what’s been put out there about immigrant populations is essentially false and needs to be challenged.”

Patrick O’Bryan, social action director for the Cleveland diocese, questioned Border Patrol agent Richard Bundschuh about the apparent contradiction between U.S. economic and immigration policies during a meeting that conference participants attended at the Border Patrol’s Nogales station. “U.S. economic policy is working against your policy,” said O’Bryan. “We don’t look very intelligent.”

“Until you can somehow achieve some parity [of wages], immigrants are going to continue to come, and we’re going to continue to do our best to enforce our laws,” said Bundschuh, who, nonetheless, sympathizes with immigrant workers. “I would probably do the same thing if I were in their situation,” said Bundschuh. “People would not come to the U.S. illegally without the lure of employment,” he said.

According to Bundschuh, the Border Patrol, which makes more arrests than any other law enforcement agency in the country, has nearly tripled in size since 1992, from 3,400 agents to over 9,000. The agency will continue to grow as it attempts to adhere to a 1996 congressional mandate to add 1,000 agents per year for five years.

According to Bundschuh, the Border Patrol “started getting more man power and more resources in 1993,” just before NAFTA went into effect in January of 1994, and in preparation for a projected increase in immigration of Mexican workers dislocated by the trade agreement, critics charge.

Msgr. Edward Ryle of the Arizona Catholic Conference asked Plankey her opinion of guest worker programs, citing Arizona Gov. Jane Hull’s recent move toward reviving such a program. “It didn’t work then. I don’t think it will work now,” said Plankey. “Part of the program was to ensure, regulate and protect the rights of the workers, but it failed to do so. There were gross violations. It was left to the employers, and it wasn’t in their interest to do so. It was a way to satisfy the interests of agricultural producers, but not protect the interests and rights of workers.”

Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center based in New York, led a reflection on Ecclesia in America with Ronaldo Cruz, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, who had occasion to bring border issues to the attention of Pope John Paul II during a 1997 lunch meeting.

“There is this idea that the more freedom companies have, the better off we’ll all be,” said Murnion. “The pope’s warning against that is very important because some people in the church hierarchy are buying into that.”

Here again, the pope’s document takes a strong position: “More and more in many countries of America a system known as neoliberalism prevails; based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity and the respect due to individuals and peoples. At times this system has become the ideological justification for certain attitudes and behavior in the social and political spheres, leading to the neglect of the weaker members of society. Indeed, the poor are becoming ever more numerous, victims of specific policies and structures which are often unjust.”

The Archbishop J. Ulises Macías of Hermosillo, Mexico, also attended the conference and briefly addressed the opening plenary session, calling for a parallel “free labor agreement” to the existing free trade agreement. Critics have pointed out that, in fact, NAFTA is the only free trade agreement in the world that does not include free movement of labor. In other free trade areas, such as the European Union, citizens of one member country have, in effect, an automatic work permit in any other member country. Critics also point out that NAFTA is the only agreement of its kind between countries of such disparate levels of development, which skews the competitive advantage in favor of the more developed nations.

“Not all maquiladoras are dishonest and unjust,” Macias told conference participants. “I’ve talked with some [factory managers] who want to pay higher wages, but the Mexican government has not allowed them to.” Macias called for “bridges instead of walls” between the two countries. “Our people are good workers,” he added.

“We came here as a conference,” said O’Bryan during an evaluation session on the last day, “but we’re leaving here as a movement — a movement on both sides of the border.”

Tucson Bishop Manuel Moreno and Archbishop Macias, who concelebrated Mass in Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral on Saturday, expressed interest in inviting bishops from both sides of the border for a larger joint conference next year.

When asked if she is hopeful about the border situation, Plankey told conference participants, “There is always hope. There is hope in the cross-border efforts of people working together and seeing each other as human beings.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999