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Church immigration view: 'countercultural:' commitment to refugees remains steadfast.

Commitment to refugees remains steadfast

WASHINGTON - The Bosnians are coming. Slowly, a few at a 6" as M" Possibly 11,000-12,000 this year and, depending on the U.S. State Department, anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 the next.

At first, the department said it did not want to admit any Bosnians But the U.S. refugee services community - with US. Catholic bishops taking a major role - pushed until the department yielded somewhat.

"At first," said Jesuit Fr. Richard Ryscavage, the bishops' migration meister, "the State Department was saying that Bosnians did not want to come to the United States, and we found some truth to it. But only to the point that the people were so traumatized they couldn't think clearly about the long-range choices in their lives."

Many Bosnians will have to go somewhere. Ryscavage, who visits many refugee trouble spots, was shaken by his Bosnia visit early this year. (See accompanying story.) He said that objectively many Bosnians cannot go back home. Yet they cannot remain in Croatia, living with Croatian families who are supporting them at their own expense in conditions of great overcrowding.

"So where are they going to go?" asked the priest, executive director of the Migrant and Refugee Services of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Europe, the U.S., Australia and Canada," he answered.

It's Ryscavage's assessment that, while the department does not publicly want to recognize the Bosnian resettlement need at this time, "privately they realize they're going to have to deal with it. Otherwise you have a Palestinian problem right in the heart of Central Europe - enormous numbers of alienated folks, kept in camps or, basically stateless, wandering around Europe."

Refugee experts

Dealing with European displaced and stateless persons in the 1940s aftermath of World War II is essentially where the modern MRS (and its sister agency, Catholic Relief Services) came in, although the bishops' original Bureau of Migration was created in 1919, in the aftermath of an earlier war. Since that 1919 beginning, the U.S. Catholic church has developed into "the institution in American life with the most experience in refugee resettlement. No other can compare to us," said Ryscavage.

Post,world War Il to 1968, MRS resettled more than 750,000 immigrants. And that was before the enormous 1970s and '80s Hispanic and Asian influx.

New climate

In the current anti-immigration climate, with polls showing a majority of Americans opposed to liberal immigration policies, the Catholic church is positively countercultural Ryscavage notes that there is always an anti-immigration upsurge after a major period of immigration. He refers to the 1780s letter from the founder of Georgetown University, musing on the threat to "British culture" from the inroads being made by German immigrants.

What makes Catholicism particularly countercultural on immigration is twofold: It is a church that predates sovereign states with their border fixations, and it doesn't distinguish between political and economic refugees.

"The church's point on immigration is that there are values that transcend the value of protecting your own border," said Ryscavage. "The human right of a person to save the family transcends the right of a country to put up a gate to prevent that family from entering.

"Now in many ways" continued Ryscavage, during an interview in his Washington office, "that approach violates the law of the U.S."

No wonder, he said, that when he talks to White House- and State Department-type people, they recoil a little: "You're not saying we can't control our own borders?"

The bishops are not saying that, but the Catholic church and Ryscavage are making a central point in the church's teaching, that of "treating well the stranger."

Religious view

This Judeo-Christian view not only predates the sovereign states, said Ryscavage, "but in a way the church has a view of the future that is transcultural and transnational, and in a lot of ways postdates the sovereign states."

The MRS executive director, a Maryland province Jesuit who served in India, Denmark and Guatemala before joining the U.S. Catholic Conference in January 1991, commented that the church-as-teacher has not been particularly adept at conveying to U.S. Catholics the social philosophy that undergirds Catholic teaching on immigration.

"People sometimes ask me," said Ryscavage, "why we have such conservative cardinals and archbishops (Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, Los Angeles! Cardinal Roger Mahony) on the committee, and why social issues related to refugees galvanize them, whereas other social issues don't seem to.

"First, I think refugees and immigrants are common ground for conservatives and liberals, so deep is this notion of treating well the stranger," Ryscavage said. "It is a deeply felt issue for the cardinals; they are almost fearless on it."

He continued, "Oddly enough, sometimes the liberal bishops are more reticent about engaging themselves on it." He attributes that to a certain extent to a breakdown in the older liberal alliances.

"Except for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, organized labor tends to cut the immigrant out," he said. "That was not true 40 years ago, when there was a very tight Catholic church-organized labor social reform agenda on immigration."

Ethnic shift

"These immigrants are a gift, especially to the Catholic church," he said. "They are going to keep us from going gray, keep us young, keep us energized. But they are still the shadow church - most bishops are still looking in the rearview mirror at their middle-class community mainstream and the earlier immigrants as the church of the future.

"And one interesting thing about the anti-immigration mood," Ryscavage said, is precisely the anti-Catholicism implicit in it. People talk about |the danger of a U.S. cultural and ethnic shift.' They're really saying that the U.S. is becoming more Latin and more Catholic."

On the political front, be said, Congress is looking at anti-immigration legislation, and the Clinton administration favors summary exclusion at airports.

From Ryscavage's perspective, it seems that many legitimate refugees will find it more difficult to read the words on the Statue of Liberty in person. However, the Bosnians, in limited numbers, might find a welcome.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Bosnia
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 10, 1993
Words:1017
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