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By Bishop Gabino Zavala
The Catholic tradition often speaks of the “dignity of the human person,” and we hear it so often that it’s easy to lose sight of the pressing urgency and implications of this mandate. But the present controversy surrounding SB 1070 in Arizona prompts us to reconsider the immediate relevance of this tenet. As a Catholic, my faith emphatically tells me that honoring human dignity is essential to a just society. This profound belief that God’s love and life are for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, compels me to action. Our tradition insists this commitment to the common good must inform our politics on a fundamental level. And it must inform our commitment both to advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and standing against SB 1070.
The Hebrew and Christian scriptures remind us time and again that God casts his tent among our most marginalized sisters and brothers. Throughout the Bible, God calls on us to stand with the outsider, the stranger, the excluded. Just last month, I stood with a young woman, Liliana, when she received a deportation order– an order that would separate her from her husband and her children, all of whom are US citizens. Liliana is a hardworking wife and mother who has contributed to our society and is beloved in her community, and now she’s being forced to leave her life and her family. Today in our country, the outsiders and the excluded, those whose dignity is threatened daily, are the millions of immigrants living and working in the Unites States like Liliana, people “whose wages we have underpaid, whose provisions for healthcare we have resented, despite their back-breaking work to provide for our dinner tables,” as Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles reminded us recently.
At the end of July, when parts of SB 1070 went into effect, Interfaith Worker Justice, on whose board I serve, organized a nationwide weekend of prayer and action. Hundreds of people of faith rallied against the law, both in Arizona and in cities across the county. Faith leaders preached about the need for a society that honors God’s commandment to love our neighbors, and made a plea for civility in our public dialogue. I was inspired to see the ways people continue to stand with the excluded and the marginalized, regardless of their immigration status.
While it was heartening that federal judge Susan Bolton temporarily barred the most egregious provisions in SB 1070 from going into effect, much remains to be done, particularly because the courts still need to decide which provisions will be permanently excluded. We celebrate that police cannot insist that anyone they deem suspicious provide documents proving citizenship, as the legislation called for, and that authorities are not permitted to indefinitely detain people until their immigration status is resolved. Other troubling aspects of the law still stand however, and we continue to oppose them. For instance, it remains a crime to provide refuge for immigrants without documentation, and here our moral obligation to provide companionship and hospitality to those in need directly contradicts the law.
From my work with all the Lilianas in our communities, I know that too many families have already been ravaged by our dysfunctional immigration laws. Too many congregations and communities are paralyzed by fear and marginalized by increasingly hostile rhetoric. We must remember that those who make the terrible and often life-threatening journey to the U.S. do so because they have insufficient opportunity in their native lands to provide for themselves and their families. Migration to another country is not something undertaken lightly. These people come to this country for a better life, and are met with inhumane and hostile laws like SB 1070. We cannot stand for this.
The challenge before us today requires that we discern and honor the dignity of each of our immigrant neighbors. As a community of faith, we are all people on a pilgrimage, a migrant people, hoping to arrive in the freedom of God’s love, a love that has nothing to do with terrestrial borders. If we neglect the dignity of our immigrant neighbors, a dignity that issues directly from God, then we neglect our own and remove ourselves from the loving freedom that is the sure inheritance of us all.
Bishop Gabino Zavala is Auxiliary Bishop for Los Angeles, Adjunct Professor of Canon Law at Loyola Marymount University, and President of the Board of Directors of Interfaith Worker Justice.