Last year, they took to the road to warn of the dangers of a “draconian” federal budget put forward by a Republican. This year, they have a new cause: the Nuns on the Bus are coming to a town near you to demand immigration reform.
Starting out Wednesday at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the background, the sisters hit the New Jersey Turnpike toward Washington, D.C. and the American South. Their bus, with a message on the side to “Text NUNS to 877 877 to support comprehensive immigration reform,” will end up in San Francisco for a rally near Angel Island June 18. Along the way, there will be rallies, prayer services, press conferences, and stops at historic sites, such as a former slave market in Charleston, S.C. Three nuns will be on board the whole way, including Sister Simone Campbell, who heads the Catholic social justice lobby “Network,” and 21 others who will take turns along the 3000-plus-mile road. They plan to visit district offices of federal legislators, including several members of the Senate’s “gang of eight,” which drafted a reform bill which passed out of committee May 21: Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fl.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. They also hope to visit Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex.; and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
The trip comes at a significant moment, as it looks like reform of America’s immigration system, long talked about, will finally be considered by Congress. The night before its official kickoff, Nuns on the Bus held a blessing ceremony at St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, Conn. Sister Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service congregation, welcomed local political figures, including U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who represents New Haven and the surrounding communities. DeLauro is a strong and consistent supporter of abortion rights with a 100% pro-abortion voting rating from the National Right to Life Committee, which cites her support for, among other things, continued taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.
Asked why DeLauro was invited, Sister Simone said her organization had issued a blanket invitation to clergy and congressional representatives from every area where the bus was scheduled to make stops.
But given the several strong ovations she received, DeLauro seemed to have a sympathetic audience, and besides, the life issues don’t seem to be a major concern of Network, the organizer of the bus trip. Rather, according to its website, it focuses on issues such as peacemaking, housing, poverty, federal budget priorities, trade, and hunger.
“Our mission is to be a Catholic leader in the global movement for justice and peace – that educates, organizes, and lobbies for economic and social transformation,” the website says.
“Our system is broken,” DeLauro told the gathering in the basement church hall. “Families have been separated; workers are living in the shadows of our society, using false identification documents, fearful of reporting crimes to the police. We have to do better. We have always been a nation of immigrants. … People come here for a better life, and they are willing to work hard to get it, as our forebears had been. New arrivals to these shores have always been the backbone of this nation, revitalizing its values and its ideals. American immigrants work hard for decades to join the middle class and to give their kids a better opportunity. That is the American way and that is what it’s about. Every generation hopes and prays and works so that their kids will have a better life. That’s what today’s immigrants want, a better life for their families.
“And we need to live up to this legacy and to the words of Matthew 25,” she continued, “‘For I was a stranger, and you took me in.’ We need to provide a broad path to citizenship that helps families reunite, allows people to live a normal life, to work with rights, that allows the children of the undocumented immigrants, the ‘Dreamers,’ to become fully American. The bipartisan Senate bill which passed out of committee last week is a good opportunity to start the dialogue. The House of Representatives is rumored to be working on its own fix to our immigration system, which I hope lives up to the values and allows the 11 million men, women and children a path to citizenship in this great country. Moving forward, we have to make sure that enforcement reflects priorities and a consensus that is emerging in this country.”
Asked afterwards what that path would look like, she said, “There are things we’re going to be looking at that have to do with enforcement and penalties. But there are a whole variety of efforts here. We can’t be doing what some people want to do, to say we’re never going to find a path to citizenship; that’s the wrong thing to do. We will come forward with the Senate bill and the House bill which will have some criteria. That’s what’s critically important. We can do that.”
Requirements, she said, “would have to do with people who are not felons or criminals, to pay a penalty, people who are working, who have already established themselves here. Also, what we are dealing with here is enforcement. … I’ve talked about employees hav[ing] to be responsible as well, it’s not just the individual. You have to look at a responsible society and look at this criteria, and we’ll move forward.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, before passing its markup, had considered some 300 amendments to the bill, including one, introduced by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, to include benefits for same-sex couple-immigrants. That amendment was later withdrawn.
DeLauro deflected a question about whether she would support such an amendment. “That was taken out of the equation,” she said. “That’s not the issue. What we want to do is move to comprehensive immigration reform. We are on that path. What we shouldn’t be doing now is looking for the things that create division. What we should do is build consensus. And that’s going to happen between the Senate and the House if we are going to move forward, but I do believe there is the will to move forward.”
DeLauro also voiced support for women religious, many of whom have been unhappy with a Vatican inquiry into a sisters leadership organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, begun under Pope Benedict XVI. “I’m here with heroines of mine,” DeLauro stated, “and Sister Simone Campbell, I just have to tell you, with a lot of deep emotion and for the Nuns on the Bus, what you have done … what the Nuns on the Bus did about the federal budget, a budget that put the burden on the poor and on those who are the least fortunate in our society, as the [Paul] Ryan budget did last year and the year before and now it is doing it again. You are so important in this debate, and you are inspirational.”
DeLauro told the audience that she spent 16 years in Catholic education and was part of the Congressional delegation to the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis this March. “The message of our new pope – and I hope there is a recognition of the role of religious women – but he has started by talking about the vital importance of helping the poor, the sick, and the marginalized,” DeLauro said. “This is the vision and the calling of our faith, and of our Catholic faith, that our Catholic sisters have always embraced and never deviated, never moved off of that central mission. They have dedicated their lives to God by serving God’s people, especially those who are most in need. They have pushed for compassionate public policies that reflect our morality and uphold our responsibilities to the poor, the infirm, and the most vulnerable and the least fortunate.”
The choice of New Haven to kick off the tour seemed to take into consideration recent events in the area’s history with the immigration question. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, who led the fight to issue a controversial “Elm City Resident Card” to immigrants who have no federal immigration papers, told the gathering that two days after the city’s Board of Alderman approved the move in June 2007, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) “visited this city. People were arrested and taken away for no discernible reason other than the color of their skin and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Several members of St. Rose parish spoke about how they come together to work on issues affecting the immigrant community there. One recounted an alleged “racial profiling” problem that has existed among policemen in nearby East Haven. He said the problem was pervasive, but “nobody could speak because nobody could hear us, so when Father [James] Manship [St. Rose’s pastor] was arrested, all the community was so angry. Father is white, and he was arrested. Imagine other people with other colors?” Father Manship was not in attendance for the Nuns on the Bus kickoff.
Working with legal counsel, the community was able to bring the issue to the U.S. Department of Justice, leading to the arrest last year of four East Haven policemen.
In New Haven, meanwhile, the Police Department issued a general order prohibiting officers from enquiring about an individual's immigration status in the course of a criminal investigation.
Another member of the parish spoke about how their lobbying led to the granting of in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, and another spoke of the need for a type of driver’s license that could be issued to immigrants without legal status.
DeStefano called DeLauro “the right person” in Congress, “and we don’t have to worry about” the way she might vote for immigration reform. “But all our votes count, and all our voices count.”
He argued that “immigration has grown this country, immigration has defined this country, and when we’ve welcomed and embraced one another, we’ve grown.” DeStefano added, “Those of us who are Catholic should be so proud of the tradition and practice in our Church of social justice ministry. It is alive and well, and you are the face of it.”
Sister Mary Ellen Burns, a member of the Hamden, Conn.-based Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is a Yale-trained lawyer who directs Apostle Immigrant Services in St. Rose of Lima’s old convent. She told the gathering that too often she must tell people seeking help with family reunification, regularization of immigrant status, or other services that “there is nothing for you in our law.”
“Every time I have to say this to someone who is trying to get papers so they can live out of the shadows and in the light in our community, every time I have to say this to someone who is desperately seeking help for a family member who’s been picked up by Immigration, I am reminded of the great injustice that exists right now in our country with our system of immigration. How broken is our law,” said Sister Burns. “We need reform now.”
She told the story of a man she calls Edwin, who came to the US when he was 15 and completed high school here as well as some college. “One of his uncles submitted a sibling petition that took 12 years to process, giving both of his parents legal status,” she said. “But by that time, Edwin had ‘aged out,’ and the law that was supposed to fix that problem does not fix it for him. (He also is one year too old to qualify for ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.’) He works free-lance, doing computer repair and teaching people how to use various programs. He is completely fluent in English, never had a problem with the law. … If his parents wanted to petition for him, he would have to spend 10 years back in his country before he would be eligible to return.”
Sister Pat Regan, a School Sister of Notre Dame who directs The Caroline House, an educational center for immigrant women and children in Bridgeport, Conn., noted, “From the earliest days of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we’ve been told to welcome the alien in our midst because they are God’s children too. God’s view of our planet does not include national boundaries.”
“I lived in Latin America for 19 years and have worked with Latinos in the United States for 30 years,” she said. “I am grateful for the welcome I’ve received from my Latino friends and colleagues over the decades. I wish that the newcomer to this country could always experience the same warmth and hospitality.”
She contended that many Latin Americans have fled their home country as a result of “decades of policies and actions by our U.S. government or multinational corporations.” She continued, “We have trained Latin American military in torture tactics and supplied weapons that have been used to kill local people. The U.S. government has dictated the terms of treaties that have been favorable to U.S. interests but not fair to the local people. American companies have moved factories to Latin American countries to increase their profits but pay barely subsistent wages. American corporations have bought land from corrupt officials who have seized property from the peasants, who have lived and farmed on their ancestral lands for centuries, long before Columbus ever set foot on these shores.”
Sister Regan recognized that most immigrants are “good, hardworking people. Immigrants have built this country and will continue to make it great if given a fair chance.”
Dominican Sister Arlene Flaherty, director of the Office of Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, introduced Sister Campbell, noting that the director of Network is a “leader in advocacy for systemic change.”
“In 2010, Sister Simone galvanized support among her constituency for healthcare reform, and was recognized for her work by President Obama when she was invited to attend the signing of the Affordable Care Act into law. … We knew that [the Ryan budget] would decimate the programs that people most in need would require.”
Sister Simone argued that the U.S. Constitution “does not say ‘We the citizen,’ ‘We the folks who got here first,’ ‘We the really rich people who put up a big gate,’ but it says ‘We the people’ – we, all of the people, staying together. We can create an immigration system where all who contributed to this country can be full members,” she said.
With the bus waiting in front of the church under rainy skies, the nuns led the prayer of blessing inside, asking those present to extend their hands over the sisters who would soon board the bus. Before leaving, Sister Simone had assistants pass out postcards for people to fill out, which would be delivered to members of Congress to show support for immigration reform. The card listed a number of aspects of reform that the Nuns on the Bus website also lists: immigration reform that “ensures family unity; protects the rights of immigrant workers; acknowledges that our borders are already secure, with only minor changes needed; speeds up processing of already-approved immigrants; enhances the present diversity visa program, and provides a clear and direct pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are undocumented in the U.S.”
In an interview before she hopped on the bus, Sister Simone said, “The way forward is that we’ve got to have a path to citizenship, as it is in the Senate [bill]. That’s got to continue. We can’t have second-class citizenship.”
She described that as “an earned path. What’s in the bill right now is that folks would go to the back of the line, they would pay a fine, they’d pay their back taxes, learn English and be a part of our society. That’s good enough for me. Let’s make it happen.
“The biggest thing, the most important piece is, we cannot let this moment slip away,” she said. “This is too urgent of a need for our society. We have got to settle it this time. And there’s stuff that I would do differently. But I want this done now.”
She addressed the concern that people who entered the country illegally would be “jumping the line”: “What the current bill says is that they have to wait until the whole backlog is processed before they can even register, before they can get in line for permanent residence. It also says they can’t even register in this temporary status until we get the border secured. Besides, they’ve been taking care of our nation for many years. Most of the undocumented have been here for over 10 years, so let’s be real.”
Asked to expound her vision of citizenship, she said, “It means you have a full right to participate fully in our society. You can vote. Catholic social teaching tells us we have an obligation to participate, to use our voices for this moment for clarity in the democratic process, and everybody needs the right to participate, too.”