Bishop da Cunha elected to bishops’ committee that strives to assist immigrants, restore their dignity

By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor

FALL RIVER, Mass. — “No one wants to leave their home,” Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., told The Anchor during an interview following the recent U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, referring to the large immigrant population and resulting dilemmas they face in this country. “They are not people who are looking for an easy life. They are looking for survival for their families and themselves. They are human beings, our brothers and sisters, who are looking for the dignity they, and all of us, deserve.”

Bishop da Cunha, who has worked extensively with immigrant populations since he arrived in the United States from his homeland, Brazil, in 1978, was elected to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ CLINIC board, at the recent Baltimore meeting. He was the only bishop elected on the first ballot for that position.

CLINIC is the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., founded by the USCCB in 1986, whose mission states: “Embracing the Gospel value of welcoming the stranger, CLINIC promotes the dignity and protects the rights of immigrants in partnership with a dedicated network of Catholic and community legal immigration programs.”

CLINIC is governed by a board comprised mostly of bishops, and along with a lay staff, it has six main objectives:

— To operate as a legal support agency for diocesan immigration.

— The kinds of cases and advocacy positions taken by the Catholic network — involving family reunification, protection of the persecuted, empowerment through work, authorization, legal status and citizenship — have their roots in Catholic social teaching.

— CLINIC views newcomers in their full human dignity, not solely from a legal service perspective. This requires CLINIC and its affiliates to partner with programs and agencies that can meet the non-legal needs of newcomers.

— CLINIC takes the Catholic view that advocacy draws its legitimacy from service. Service allows advocates to give voice to newcomers, not to speak “for” them.

— CLINIC has adopted a principle of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity — to guide its programmatic commitments. Subsidiarity leads CLINIC to respect the different roles and capacities of its local partner agencies and to encourage them to assume as much responsibility for newcomers as they can. This allows CLINIC to focus its limited resources on needs that local programs cannot meet. In this way, CLINIC seeks to leverage maximum legal representation for low-income newcomers.

— And, the Catholic network safeguards the rights and promotes the dignity of all newcomers; it does not distinguish among prospective clients based on race, religion or ethnic background.

In June 2004, the USCCB Committee on Migration and CLINIC’s board of directors voted to make immigration reform, with special emphasis on comprehensive immigration reform, a major public policy priority within the Church. The result was the creation of Justice for Immigrants, the Catholic Church’s nationwide campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. The campaign is designed to mobilize Catholic institutions, individuals, and others in this work. The campaign’s primary objectives are:

To educate the public about Church teaching on migration and immigrants;

To create political will for positive immigration reform;

To enact legislative and administrative reforms based on the principles articulated by the bishops; 

To organize Catholic networks to assist qualified immigrants obtain the benefits of the reforms.

CLINIC’s largest contribution to Justice for Immigrants is to build the capacity of its network of over 250 affiliate organizations so that they can provide competent and effective legal services to the anticipated large influx of undocumented people seeking to apply for legalization. 

Having already served, or currently serving on immigration committees, Bishop da Cunha’s experience and expertise will be an asset to CLINIC during these fluid and sometimes volatile times regarding immigration reform. Only last Thursday did President Barack Obama invoke a presidential executive order granting “deferred action” to a pair of illegal immigrant groups — the parents of United States citizens or legal permanent residents who have been in the country for five years, and young people who were illegally brought into this country since 2010.

The term “deferred action” has yet to be defined and refined, but will remain in effect for three years.

Yet, the status of those involved remains tenuous because the 2016 elections could result in the order being rescinded.

“For decades the Church has always advocated for a comprehensive immigration reform, to fix our broken immigration laws,” Bishop da Cunha said of the president’s order. “The action by the president was a small, but important step toward resolution to this complex national issue. Even though it’s a small step, it is better than doing nothing.  We know that this is not solving the big issue of undocumented immigrants in this country. Many will benefit from this action, but millions more will remain in the shadows, without being able to legalize their situation here.

“This action is also just a temporary solution even for those who will benefit from it. For some, it will only help them buy some time. Our hope is that during this time, Congress will act to make immigration reform a permanent solution. Although we are excited about the president’s executive action, we recognize that this is a temporary fix; legislative action is necessary. 

“While some people are getting their hopes high, there are still many hurdles ahead of them. Congress could take steps to make the implementation of this executive action more difficult or even block it.

“Even with many challenges still ahead, this brings hope to so many families that they can remain united, that children and parents, brothers and sisters, husband and wives will remain together. And that is reason to celebrate.”

“The order affects about five million immigrants,” added Bishop da Cunha. “This is going to open the door to more involvement with CLINIC agencies. Whatever processes CLINIC develops, they will have to follow the president’s orders. We will be very involved in trying to get immigrants legalized, helped and having their dignity restored.”

The president’s rare executive order came right on the heels of Bishop da Cunha’s election to CLINIC. “We are in a period of historic changes,” added Bishop da Cunha. “There can be wide-range impacts on immigrants. This is a critical moment. While the U.S. bishops have been advocating immigration reform for a long time, nothing major has happened since Ronald Reagan’s administration. Yet the number of immigrants continues to increase.”

Bishop da Cunha said the lack of concrete and proper immigration legislation makes it difficult for families and those who want to be part of the community. “There is a lot of suffering going on,” he added.

The bishop also said, the U.S. bishops will continue to urge the president and the Congress for immigration reform. “We want families to remain united, and for others to come out of the shadows of illegality. For many, going back to their homelands would be life-destructing. Often there is nothing to go back to, and once there they face crime and violence.

“We must remember that these are human beings, our brothers and sisters, and they deserve dignity. It’s the mission of a Christian to help those who are in this country, but also to work to help those in other countries improve their quality of life so they have no need to leave their homelands.”

Bishop da Cunha was elected for a three-year term. The CLINIC board meets three times a year, with Bishop da Cunha’s first encounter coming in March. “The other two meetings are held in conjunction with the bishops’ meetings in April and November,” he said. 

In between meetings there is an open communication amongst the board members, keeping track of the seemingly ever-changing immigration landscape in the U.S. 

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