By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – With rare exceptions, people have not, historically, immigrated to other countries for adventure but to escape intolerable conditions in their homelands.

Not all who enter the United States come as terrorists, drug dealers or as those who would undermine the values of American culture.

If we do not open our hearts and doors to the practice of justice in the United States, we are not only failing what the Statue of Liberty stands for, but that of the cross of Jesus Christ who died for all.

Those were among the themes that came to the fore at an immigration education forum held Wednesday evening, May 5 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Center City. {{more}}

“If we’re sincere about being Catholic, we really don’t have a choice when it comes to social justice – we have a responsibility,” said Msgr. Hugh J. Shields, Vicar for Hispanic Catholics for the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

“If we do not accept that responsibility, we’re letting down our baptismal commitment.”

Msgr. Shields was one of four speakers on the forum’s all-Catholic panel.

The three other speakers were Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas R. Betz, coordinator of the Chinese Apostolate for the Philadelphia Archdiocese who is also an attorney specializing in immigration law and a former director of the archdiocesan Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees; St. Joseph Sister Mary Kay Flannery, a regional coordinator of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants Campaign whose jurisdiction includes Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Janine Gibbons, a representative of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, an interfaith coalition of immigrants, congregations and inspaniduals dedicated to taking a public stand for immigrant rights. She belongs to St. Bernadette Parish in Drexel Hill, Delaware County.

Regarding the Church’s view on social justice for immigrants, Father Betz said: “People who live in an intolerable situation have a human right to emigrate. A country has a right to regulate its borders, but the border regulation has to be humane.

“That means, under Catholic social teaching, that we have a duty to accept poor people into our country up to our capacity to do so. If we’re really exceeding our capacity, we have no duty morally to take these folks in, but I don’t believe we are (exceeding our capacity),” he said.

“I also think if we had a system where we gave enough legal visas so that people were in our system … with certain worker protections and insurances that typical workers have in our economy, we wouldn’t have that devastation of our social structure.”

The timing of the immigration education forum was key. On May 4, the day before the previously scheduled panel convened at St. John’s Church, Pa. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) introduced a bill HB 2479 – an “Arizona-style apprehension measure” according to Metcalfe’s web site – that, among other measures, would require law enforcement personnel to attempt to verify the immigration status of any suspected undocumented immigrant.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC), the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and dioceses, is reviewing the legislation.

“The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference considers immigration to be one of

the most important issues,” said Amy B. Hill, director of communications for the PCC. “We view it as a question of social justice facing our communities.

“The bills that were introduced in the state legislature recently address the issue from different perspectives. PCC will evaluate this legislation carefully and weigh it against Church teaching before taking a public position.”

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or cchicoin@adphila.org.