House of Bishops issues 'theological resource,' pastoral letter on immigration
Episcopalians should respect migrants' human dignity, differences of opinion on policies
The statement came in a 17-page document titled "The Nation and the Common Good: Reflections on Immigration Reform," which is meant to be used as a theological resource on migration and immigration.
In an accompanying pastoral letter, the bishops rooted their statements in the baptismal covenant's call to respect the dignity of every human being.
"Our gracious welcome of immigrants, documented or undocumented, is a reflection of God's grace poured out on us and on all," the bishops said in their letter.
The letter goes on to note that nations have a right to secure their borders even in a "migratory world in which many people move across borders to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence."
The bishops told the church in their letter that "inhumane policies directed against undocumented persons (raids, separation of families, denial of health services) are intolerable on religious and humanitarian grounds."
Noting that "racism and bigotry impact debates over migration and immigration," the bishops said they "confess our own complicit sinfulness as people who benefit from the labor of undocumented workers without recognizing our responsibility to them."
They acknowledged those people who are concerned about "the danger uncontrolled immigration poses to our safety and economic well-being" and suggested they must place their concerns in a broader context of the common good. The bishops called on all nations to create "fair and humane immigration policies that honor the dignity of people on all sides of this issue."
And, they said they would "take seriously our commitment to and responsibility for our fellow citizens, as we strive to face the spiritual, moral and economic challenges of life" in the 16 nations in which the Episcopal Church is present.
The bishops' theological resource reviews "the problem of nationalism," discusses the concept of the resident alien from biblical and political perspectives and considers the role of churches within nations, including a summary of Anglican theologian Richard Hooker's views on nationhood and the role of civil society.
The bishops then discuss what they call "the challenge before us," saying that "the challenge facing the church today is to assist the nation in its walk to neighborliness at a time when the nation is fearful."
In their concluding "Call to Action" section, the bishops say that the church ought to join with other faith communities in "actively protesting" racial stereotyping and demand a halt to "practices that treat undocumented workers as criminals."
"We should continue to offer material and spiritual support to undocumented workers and their families, wherever possible, and should expect that they will continue to receive medical attention and police protection as needed," the bishops say. "This is simply a matter of respecting basic human dignity, and we have every moral warrant for calling the nation to account, whether we appeal simply to human rights, divine law, natural law, the law of nations, our national covenant, or to the Bible that grounds them all."
The House of Bishops met in Arizona, in spite of calls to boycott the state to protest its tough immigration law designed to target, prosecute and deport undocumented persons. The state and its law have become a flashpoint in the U.S. immigration debate.
The controversial law was due to take effect in Arizona July 29, when a day earlier a federal judge partially blocked sections that would have required immigrants to carry citizenship papers at all times and police officers to check immigration status during traffic stops, detentions and arrests. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton also halted a section barring undocumented workers from applying for or soliciting employment.
Episcopalians in the Diocese of Arizona, including Bishop Kirk Smith, have been at the forefront of protesting the law. An appellate court judge in San Francisco is scheduled to hear arguments in the matter the first week of November.
Similar laws have been proposed in other states amid protests and calls for immigration reform.
In the resource they offered, the bishops said that they "understand that many of our fellow-citizens are opposed to any reform that appears to condone illegality by granting amnesty to undocumented workers;" that some are wary of the costs imposed on services such as schools, hospitals and police; and that some "are fearful of a glutted labor market."
"We do not discount the concerns of our fellow citizens regarding the threat uncontrolled immigration poses to our safety and economic well-being," the bishops say. "We insist, however, that these concerns be approached within the broader context of a national commitment and covenant to inclusion and fellowship across all lines for the sake of the common good."
Individual bishops have said they had wrestled with the complexities of immigration reform amid changing contexts, aided by theological reflection, Scripture, worship, and personal encounter. For instance, a group of 40 bishops and spouses visited the Mexico-United States border Sept. 13-15 before the House of Bishops meeting began.
In the pastoral letter to the church, the bishops said those who visited the border communities "saw first hand the many troubling and complex issues that face migrants, immigrants, the border patrol, local ranchers, and Christian communities seeking to minister to all of these groups." They noted that similar issues confront other nations in which the Episcopal Church has a presence, including at the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and between Colombia and Ecuador, as well as for nations in Europe.
During a post-meeting telephone press conference, Diocese of Colorado Bishop Rob O'Neill said he intended to distribute the pastoral letter and the theological resource document, which he called "the teaching," to the leadership of the diocese and "commend it to them for their reading and study."
"It's a very, very thoughtful, solid document," he said of the theological resource. "It's theologically sound, biblically based, well-written and a good piece for the church to take a look at."
Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe, House of Bishops vice president, told the news conference that "it will be a wonderful resource for many of my parishes."
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori predicted that the document will be "the subject of a great deal of conversation and, I hope learning over the coming months and years."
The Episcopal Church's stance on immigration reform is guided by the policies set out in General Convention resolutions, the most recent being Resolution B006 passed by the 76th General Convention in 2009. The resolution said that the convention recognizes that "all people living in the United States are entitled to protection provided by due process of law and that all immigrants and their families are entitled to receive protection granted by our laws and Constitution." The resolution repeated the church's call for comprehensive immigration reform.
The list of General Convention immigration-related resolutions up through 2006 forms Appendix B of the bishops' theological resource.
Diocese of Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith had told the bishops on Sept. 17 that the church has been slow to respond to today's "most pressing civil rights issue," according to an official account of the closed session. The bishops also heard a series of presentations about immigration that day. Summaries of those presentations are available here.
Among them was Joe Rubio, senior organizer of the Phoenix-based Valley Interfaith Project, who called for comprehensive immigration reform that would "bring 12 million people out of the shadows."
Through a translator, "La Senora," an undocumented worker whose name was withheld to protect her, called upon bishops to urge President Barack Obama to remember that "just because we are Hispanic, it does not mean we are criminals. We just want a better life for our children," according to the House of Bishops' daily account.
She received a standing ovation after describing to bishops how, after Arizona's law went into effect, her eight-year-old son grew fearful that she might be taken away, adding that he fears coming home from school and her not being there.
Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester, one of the bishops who went to the border, told Episcopal News Service that he discovered hope because of "spectacular witness" despite "systemic dehumanization because of bad policy."
"What struck me immensely is that people who are dealing with this kind of dehumanization are still finding their humanity by being compassionate to one another," said Singh.
The group that traveled to the border visited local migrant shelters, medical clinics, and other community agencies in Douglas, Arizona, and in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
Guy Hudson, a rancher, told the bishops during a panel discussion at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Douglas that he might see as many as several hundred undocumented persons daily crossing his 32,000-acre ranch near Castle Dome, Arizona.
"The biggest problem I have is the trash they leave behind," he said. Another problem is loss of water, as much as 10,000 gallons, when the undocumented, thirsty from being in the desert, try to tap into his water supply.
"If they're hungry and thirsty, I feed them, and when they're down the road a hundred yards I call the border patrol on them," he said. "Sometimes I think it's the best thing you can do for them."
Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network, said during the panel discussion at St. Stephen's that Arizona has "literally been torn apart. The tension, the divisiveness is so incredibly palpable right now. Members of our organization live in absolute fear and feel judged, regardless of one's immigration status."
"We are challenged to take this complex reality and translate it into meaningful policy," she added. "In our lives, border security would be more effective [and] we'd have greater security if we had secure communities, if we had protection of human rights, and recognize the value of cross border commerce to the entire nation on international and national levels."
As the bishops' group rode on the van back from Mexico, Smith told ENS that he hoped the bishops' experience would be conveyed to their congregations during visitations and sermons when they returned home. He hoped "they could be an advocate and encourage people to get involved" without scapegoating or dehumanizing anyone, not the undocumented, or the border patrol, local law enforcement, even coyotes who profit financially from bringing migrants across the desert.